Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Latte Art at CoffeeFest

I'd been planning on attending CoffeeFest 2009 before I started writing this blog, for a café consulting project that may or may not pan out. But now that I'm viewing every food-related event as another potential blog entry, my interest in the latte art competition that was going on in conjunction with this trade show grew exponentially.

Taking my new role as cub reporter perhaps a bit too seriously, I packed up my journalist's notebook and my cool new phone which allows me to leave my camera at home, and embarked on the train-to-bus trip down to Navy Pier, where the event was being held. I even managed to finagle press credentials through blogger community website Foodbuzz (although not without some hassle when I actually walked up to collect the pass). Anyway, after all that was sorted out, I checked out the first day of the barista competitions.

There were actually two separate competitions going on--latte art and the more all-encompassing barista championships. The latte art competition involves funky, tattooed and pierced baristas creating these amazingly cool patterns out of coffee and steamed milk using just a cup and a pitcher, by simply pouring the milk into the cup a certain way. It's quite incredible to watch. There's a very specific way that they steam the milk, of course, in order to create just the right texture of foam that allows it to pour (true baristas never use a spoon to move the foam from pitcher to mug, I've recently learned), yet still maintain enough body to support the designs. The trick is to keep the brown coffee part of the design as distinct as possible from the frothy white milk foam part of the design.

All latte art looks pretty cool to me, especially when I'm handed a drink over at Intelligentsia or The Italian Coffee Bar with no expectations that it will have a pretty rosette or tulip on the top of it, but after watching the first few baristas put up their three entries in the allotted five minutes, I started to grasp the finer points of it.

It's not something that translates well to verbal descriptions, so I'll post a few pictures.

This is the first one I saw, and I thought it was so amazing that I took about twenty pictures. After I saw a few more examples, I was able to see that this entry lacks sharp distinctions between the brown and white portions and, therefore, didn't score all that well.

This one really shows just how thick and sturdy the foam is on these drinks. Look how the design just sits up there on top, and how much texture and dimension it has.

A tulip design.

This might've been the coolest one I saw all day, but it was done during the barista's warm up period, so it didn't count. The ones he poured during the actual competition period didn't end up being as good as this one.

This was the winner of Friday's round, an entry by ex-Alterra Coffee guy Justin Teisl, currently of Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco. Note how brown the brown part is and how white the white part is, with almost no muddy areas where they mix. Also, check out how he gets the little brown stripes inside of the delicate white leaves.

After getting up early to get down to Navy Pier by 9:30, downing more than a few espressos, and watching the latte art for a while, I started getting those hunger pangs you only get a few hours after you've had way too much coffee, and I figured I'd better get something to eat before entering the trade show, where I'd be likely to just scarf down every muffin and biscotto I could lay my hands on.

So I headed back down into the tourist-trap mall insanity that is Navy Pier. Gah. Now I remember why I never go to this place. Every bad mall cliche you can think of; the cloying scent of those cinnamon-sugared nuts, cheesy kiosks vending cheap sunglasses, name keychains, and cell phone accessories, air-brushed t-shirt art, the obligatory Build-a-Bear workshop, schlocky Chicago souvenirs, and bad corporate chain food outlets by the gross (double entendre intentional).

Plus, as an added bonus, in addition to the overwhelming mantle of crass corporate consumer-land insanity, I was treated to the sensory pleasure that is finding one's self in a food court amidst at least three separate elementary school field trips while buzzing on about twelve espresso shots.

Have I said 'gah!' yet? GAAAH!

I quickly assessed my limited options--Bubba Gump, the Billy Goat, one of those gloppy, corn-starch-laden Chinese scoop and serve places, some deli, America's Dog, and a few other depressing options. I went with McDonald's, simply because the lines were moving the fastest and I wanted to fill my belly quickly and get away from this particular circle of hell as soon as humanly possible. I downed my chicken selects joylessly while the schoolkids threw ice at each other and bumped my chair as they galloped around the food court, and then I quickly scurried back to the CoffeeFest. Sometimes eating is purely about staving off the discomfort of hunger.

The trade show itself was unremarkable, but the Barista Championship competition was really cool. This is a much more free-form and all-encompassing contest, which attempts to incorporate all aspects of a barista's job. The competitors are given 45 minutes (15 for set-up, 15 for presentation, and 15 for break down) total, and must give a presentation to a panel of judges that includes serving them espresso shots, cappuccinos, and a specialty drink of their choice.

It's partly about technical ability, but it's got a lot more to do with the barista's ability to pick an interesting coffee, present and describe it well, and put on an entertaining, well-polished demonstration for the judges. They're scored on the taste of the beverages, but also on how they comport themselves, their technical skills, cleanliness, and creativity.

It's quite a little show. The baristas are miked and background music of their choosing plays while they do their thing. Most of them brought all sorts of fancy serving pieces and glass carafes for their milk, and the specialty drinks are where they really pull out all the stops, employing side burners for warming non-coffee components like spices, syrups, or coconut milk. Some of them even gave very detailed instructions on how the judges were supposed to drink their specialty beverage; "I recommend you drink this coffee by taking three sips: first, you'll take a small sip, and you'll get the chocolaty nose and bitterness of this single-origin estate Yirga Cheffe. Then, with your second sip, draw in most of the shot, where you'll get the full fruity nose and complex notes. The last small sip will give you a hit of bittersweet chocolate, which lines the bottom of the cup, and that will provide a nice, sweet finish."

Whoa. Crazy, dude. It was cool to see all these slacker-looking coffee-heads taking the whole thing so seriously, speaking in terminology previously reserved for wine wonks. But also kind of surreal. I'm a coffee lover and feel that I can taste and appreciate some of the differences in various types and blends, but I'm not sure that some of this stuff isn't the result of self-puffery and/or a few too many bong hits out by the dumpsters behind the coffeehouse.

Anyway, whatever the motivation, it's good to see so many people taking this whole thing so seriously and the barista championship things was really fun to watch.

I'm not even sure who ended up winning, and, truthfully, I don't care. The whole experience was one of those eye-opening things for me where you realize just how deep and involved some people are with certain skills/hobbies/vocations. It's not really my thing, but it's cool to see how passionate these people are and the espresso certainly tastes good. Despite the unfortunate venue, I'll be back next year to check out the barista competitions and indulge in some good coffee.

Probably wise to re-think my lunch plan, though. Maybe I'll make a quick stop at Bari to pick up a sandwich and then shoot over on the Grand Avenue bus. That way I'll get two blog posts for the effort.

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