Pouring a foam heart into someone's latte can only get you so far: A great coffee artist must consider everything from bean type and proper grind to humidity and atmospheric pressure. And this weekend at the Oregon Convention Center, this subtle blend of knowledge, speed, style, and skill will separate champion from dilettante at the Specialty Coffee Association of America's 2009 United States Barista Championship.
Alex Pond of the Fresh Pot has already acquired a taste for barista fame—he captured the big trophy at the Northwest Regional Barista Championships in Tacoma this January. The feat earned him a few weeks off, a bottle of bourbon, and a spot in the US Championships.
"I'm really stoked for it," the soft-spoken Pond told the Mercury. Over the past weeks he's been spending time at the American Barista and Coffee School in Southeast Portland, developing a relationship with his espresso.
"I did a lot of tasting with the Carmen Estate, which is the coffee I'm using," Pond explains. "I've been learning more about it, researching it, talking to people at Stumptown, and really trying to find out everything I can."
This is one of the more important aspects of the barista competition. Machines and grinders are provided, but baristas must bring the rest of their materials and ingredients, including beans. In order to showcase their skills for a panel of judges, they must make four single espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks in 15 minutes, all while discussing the finer points of their chosen coffee.
"You're explaining about the coffee that's in the drink and about the flavors," says Pond. Baristas need to be able to express the character of the espresso, including "where the coffee comes from, how it's processed, as well as all the things that happened to the coffee to get the flavors that are found in the finished product."
Pond's signature drink is a macchiato compiled from ingredients from coffee havens of the world: Spanish saffron, Tanzanian salt, Indonesian chocolate, and homemade caramel.
Building a signature drink quickly in competition can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially for the over-caffeinated. Pond recalls his first round in Tacoma: "While making my practice shots, the espresso tasted so amazing, I ended up drinking them." He downed around five shots of espresso before competition.
"Not a good idea," says Pond. "I wasn't too nervous going into it, but when I served my first round of drinks I was shaking far worse than I've ever shook in my life." Luckily the shaking didn't affect the end result: victory.
His Tacoma win has made Pond one of the main targets of the competition. For his part, Pond is watching out for the LA baristas from Intelligentsia Coffee, and Great Lakes Regional Champ Scott Lucey.
Pond remains confident, though, because he's got good coffee on his side. "You just have to have a good espresso if you want to win," he says. Hopefully his skill, paired with Carmen Estate beans, will advance Pond, and Portland, to the international stage.
Pond will be at Fresh Pot on N Mississippi this weekend where locals and visitors can see him on his home turf. The competition at the Oregon Convention Center is free and open to the public. Go to usbc2009.com for a full schedule.