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Coffee maker smackdown: The Western Regional Barista Competition begins

January 23, 2009 |  9:06 pm


Today was Day 1 of the 2009 Western Regional Barista Competition. It's being held in the Spring Arts Tower at 453 Spring St. and is 100% free and open to the public. The best baristas in the Western states will be competing tomorrow and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you find obsessive coffee making fascinating, I definitely recommend you check it out.

So what happens at a regional barista competition? The rules are pretty straightforward: Each competitor has 15 minutes to make an espresso, a cappuccino and a specialty drink of their own invention. They are judged not just on the taste of the drink and it's "mouth feel," but presentation, technical espresso-making ability and whether they left enough time to clean up. They also have to clearly explain what they are doing during each step of the competition (each wears a Madonna-style headset), and they get to select their own master mix to make coffee by.

The judging however, is not straightforward: They use a 1,200-point system.

Earlier this afternoon I popped in to the competition just as Intelligentsia's Ryan Willbur was about to start his round. Willbur, 23, has been a competitive barista for three years and was a finalist in last year's Western regional competition. Before serving the four judges his first drink, he directed their attention to the Meyer lemon, sherry and coffee flower notes in his espresso. His hands shook just a little while pouring the steamed milk for the cappuccinos, and his specialty drink consisted of a sauce of sliced ginger, water, butter and three kinds of sugar cooked together for five minutes as a base for an espresso. The crowd applauded after each beverage was served, and he finished with about 45 seconds left on the clock. Plenty of time to clean up = extra points.

A coffee insider said Willbur has the potential to win the championship, but Nick Griffith — also of Intelligentsia — is generally agreed to be this year's front-runner. But he's not a sure thing by any stretch. The West is known for having some of the best baristas in the country — even the world, according to 2008 world champion Stephen Morrissey of Ireland, who is emceeing this weekend's event. (Click on his name to see video of his winning performance.)

I'm hoping to spend some more time there over the weekend, so if you can't make it, check back at Daily Dish for updates.

— Deborah Netburn

Photo by Deborah Netburn with an iPhone. Expect better quality next time.