As I walk into the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at 38th & Lamar I’m a little unsure of who I’m on the lookout for. The barista behind the counter however knows exactly why I’m there, he offers me a drink and in a matter of moments my contact has arrived and my training has begun. Before I get to be a guest judge (please add: for the Coffee Bean & Tea leaf employee barista competition), we have to go over the official rules, the etiquette, stages, scoring, and finally we had to work on my sensory technique.
Localize Austin formed a relationship with Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf back in April when we interviewed them about their initiative to feature Austin food purveyors. Our mutual respect landed us an opportunity to sit on the judges panel at the first ever Texas Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf Barista Competition.
Fast forward to the day of the competition – I pull into the large parking lot that has a few more cars than I expected, but not nearly enough to fill the whole lot at the Dell Diamond. As I walk towards the “Intel Club” I am suddenly struck by an appreciation for the training I’ve received, this barista battle is beginning to feel serious.
Some of the competitors are preparing to take the stage, others are breaking their carts down. The event space is filled with a good number of spectators who are surrounded by flat screens projecting the competing baristas technical maneuvers. There’s a row of judges being addressed by an apron-adorned competitor in Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf’s first ever Texas Barista Competition.
If you’re unfamiliar with the barista competition process, you’re not alone. Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf was following World Barista Competition (WBC) guidelines and the WBC isn’t all that old, it held its first competition in 2000 but has been growing ever since. The tone in the room is focused intensity with a touch of pageantry and style, there is after all a fairly substantial cash prize on the line. Think Hunger Games meets a forensics tournament.
As I sit down to judge, it’s hard not to notice the great lengths the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf staff has gone to in order to make this as close to an official WBC event as possible. Along with the play by play video crew, there’s a large flat screen with a timer on it (each contestant has 15 minutes), a soundtrack handpicked by the barista, 4 sensory judges, 2 technical judges, 2 clearers, and a master of ceremonies. As you can see they weren’t taking this competition lightly.I judged in the second flight and it didn’t take long for me to come to terms with the fact that I was the “nice judge.” Each contestant completes three stages in their 15 minute set. First they explain the roast they’ve chosen then proceed to make and serve espresso to each judge, followed by cappuccinos, and finally a specialty drink of their choosing. I wasn’t so nice that I was completely without some criticism, but I did enjoy nearly all of the drinks that were put in front of me. Like a wine judge, you are only supposed to taste each beverage rather than consume it entirely. In the end you judge on some technical aspects of the appearance and taste balance along with an overall impression of the contestant and their performance. I saw some technically knowledgeable baristas, some fun and quirky baristas, and some nervous and tentative baristas… but all in all I was more than impressed with the intensity and professionalism displayed by not only the participants, but the coordinators of the event.
It’s hard to quantify the reasons the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf put so much time and money into this event and that’s what was so nice about it. It was more than just a simple gesture of goodwill, it was a reaffirmation of the employees’ craft, it was a thank you, and it was an experience that was meant to convey the basic integrity Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf would like to see upheld in all of its establishments. If I sound like a commercial, that is not my intent – here at LocalizeAustin we value the attention to individuals and community, the consideration for craft, and the willingness to take risks and try new things. Whether a completely local enterprise or not, what we really like to see is that there are human beings behind the products and services we’re taking part in, and that is what this experience conveyed… a dedication to authenticity.