Coffee competition crowns barista ‘Best in the West’

Alexandra Brell

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While under scrutiny from a judge, Julie Mayer, owner of The French Press in Santa Barbara, begins making her coffee beverages in the Western Regional Barista Championship on Saturday, Feb. 27. Photo Credit: Alexandra Brell / Staff Reporter

Julie Mayer was lost in a daydream thinking about coffee.

“Sorry I just spaced out there. I was thinking about seasonal espresso.”

This is not the daydream of an average Joe, but coming from Mayer, it is no surprise.

“I love coffee. I love making it. I love talking about it,” she says.

Mayer, owner of The French Press coffee shop in Santa Barbara, was a contestant in the Western Regional Barista Competition that ran last weekend from Feb.26 – 28. The competition was held at Siren Studios in Hollywood. Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf hosted the event.

Thirty contestants, mostly from California, including one from Arkansas and Hawaii, competed to be the best barista in the west.

In order to claim the title, each barista made three different drinks for the panel of four judges: an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature beverage, an original coffee drink they concoct from scratch. However, all of these drinks had to be made and presented within a 15-minute time allotment.

The four judges bellied up to a mini coffee bar while the barista, complete with a cordless microphone headset, talked with them about their experiences and knowledge of particular types of coffee beans and drinks. They explained the origin, compositions and nuances of their signature drinks.

Baristas were evaluated on several criteria including “taste balance,” visual presentation and explanation and presentation of their signature beverage.

Mayer’s original beverage, called an orange banger, included orange zest, strained prior to serving and homemade salted caramels blended with coffee. Mayer’s clients, she said, would regularly ask her about the progress on her invention.

“(Competing) really sets a good standard for your customers and employees,” Julie said of her reasons to enter the competition. “They really liked rallying around me.”

Mayer opened her store last July and has six employees. She says she has worked in coffee all of her life, most recently at a coffee shop and roasting operation in Santa Cruz.

Each of the contestants had their own style of presenting with their own explanations and reasons for their choice in drinks. The common thread was a deep knowledge of coffee as well as precise methods of preparation.

The attendees at the competition ranged from industry pros and novices, store-owners and a few casual coffee drinkers interested in the technical background of their favorite drinks.

Vida Tabibian owns a coffee shop in Los Feliz called Psychobabble. Having operated the store for 10 years, she is looking for something different for her store and looked for inspiration at the weekend event.

“I want to change the look, the menu, the coffees, everything,” said Tabibian. “Coffee has changed in the past 10 years. I am coming here to learn,” she said.

Tabibian also attended skill-building workshops, held by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, which ran in conjunction with the competition. Attendees participated in coffee cupping where they learned techniques to evaluate different beans and roasts and how to assess aspects of coffee like taste and aroma.

“It’s important to know where the coffee came from,” Tabibian says of what she learned. “The origin, how it was grown, transparency of the origin,” she said.

The weekend culminated on Sunday when the six finalists, chosen from rounds held on Friday and Saturday, brought out their best for the judges. Mayer and her orange banger did not make it to the last round.

Pete Licata from Honolulu Coffee Company in Hawaii was crowned the 2010 Western Regional Barista Champion. His “salty and sweet” signature beverage was made with candied bacon (made with maple syrup) topped with milk chocolate in an ice creamy, espresso.

Coffee and bacon – it’s not just for breakfast anymore.