Meet Phoenix's 2014 Barista Competitors

Each year, thousands of coffee professionals around the world congregate to crown a new Barista Champion. This year three fantastic individuals from Phoenix will be traveling to Rancho Mirage, California for a chance to be crowned the Southwest's Best Barista. This event feeds into the United States Barista Competition, which in turn feeds into the World Barista Championship.

Take a moment to laugh at the notion of competitive coffee making; I know you're thinking about it. Now regroup, and focus on what I'm about to tell you: the Specialty Coffee industry takes this very seriously. Winning the World Barista Championship (or even just the United States competition) means fortune and glory; in addition to a hefty cash prize, winners are provided with expensive equipment, travel opportunities, and are essentially guaranteed lucrative employment in some aspect of the coffee industry for the rest of their lives.

See also: 5 Reasons to Get Excited About the Phoenix Coffee Scene That Have Nothing to Do with Pumpkin Spice

I am a recovering competitive barista. Believe me when I say that preparing for competition is grueling. Contestants must perfect a fifteen-minute spoken routine designed to introduce not only a particular coffee, but some thematic or philosophical understanding of it. They must have a comprehensive knowledge of the coffee industry, but also of their particular coffee. Each flavor note must be intentionally extracted, each beverage perfectly orchestrated.

During the fifteen minute set, the barista must prepare three drinks for a panel of sensory judges. These judges evaluate the drinks not only for flavor, but for aesthetics, balance, and technical proficiency. Cappuccinos must have a centimeter of smooth, creamy foam on top, and must be filled to the brim. Espresso must be free of any large bubbles, and any discontinuity in the espresso crema will count against the competitor. And the ever-sexy Signature Drink must be coffee-forward, and complement the natural flavors of the espresso without overwhelming it.

These judges scrutinize each word that the barista says; if a mentioned flavor note isn't expressed in their cup, the barista has points deducted. If the judges feel that the barista's demeanor is too relaxed (or too rigid), points are deducted. One point is deducted for each second that a competitor goes over their fifteen-minute time limit; points may be deducted for inappropriate attire, fingerprints on cups, failure to refill a judge's water glass when it is emptied. This is an exercise in superior customer service and trade knowledge, as well as superior coffee service.

While the sensory judges taste and scrutinize, another panel of technical judges watch the competitors closely. They track each movement, monitoring for cleanliness and mechanical dexterity. If a competitor uses four movements to distribute one shot of espresso, but only three to distribute another, the technical judges take away points. If hot water is not run through the steam wands or espresso machine group head immediately prior to each use, they take away points. If a competitor spills something and doesn't wipe it up, if their shots are stopped a few minutes late, if any subtle move is in any way inconsistent, the technical judges take points away.

Now that you have a basic understanding of the mammoth task facing these three fine folks, let's meet the Phoenix competitors.

Michelle Johnson, Cartel Coffee Lab Michelle started working in coffee three years ago on the East Coast. She was hired at Cartel Sky Harbor last summer. Part of what drew her to coffee is the connection that she and her mother shared over coffee when she was in high school. Michelle has her work cut out for her; not only is she preparing for competition, she's also just starting her sophomore year as a Math and Physics major at ASU. Here's a little Q&A with this super smart, crazy ambitious human being.

What coffee are you competing with? "I'm competing with Cartel's Guatemalan Pilar, which is a coffee not only special to me, but special to our green coffee buyer and roaster, Paul Haworth, as well. He was able to go on a trip this past February to visit the farm, Finca El Pilar and shared that experience with us via #cdspilar on Instagram. I actually go into a little more detail about his time there and why I chose this coffee in my presentation. It was the coffee I got to really dive into and explore on my own when I wasn't doing anything else at work. The Pilar is a complex coffee that can taste totally different between brewing methods, and even between sips! I love that about this coffee; that I had to work for its tasting notes. It definitely rekindled a fire within me for coffee that was beginning to dim at the time."

Tell us about the signature drink. "As of right now, my sig drink is still being revised and refined. But you can expect something that looks like what I've found is Phoenix's drink of choice: whiskey."

What do you do when you're not behind the bar? "When I'm not in school or working, you'll still find me at Cartel or at home sleeping. While coffee and my education are huge parts of my life, music was one of my first loves. My move to Phoenix stemmed from a desire to join and make waves in the music scene here. But I also have a deep-rooted fear of performing in front of people, and I am way more confident in my skills as a barista, so coffee took precedence."

What do you love most about Phoenix Coffee? "Arizona's coffee scene has a very "started from the bottom, now we're here" vibe going about it, and I love it (and I love Drake too). There are tons of space here for our community to do some really awesome things without boundaries. Whether it be the expansion of companies, the collaboration of coffee professionals, or even a small group of baristas coming together to help each other perform well at competition. We're a small community in one of the largest cities in the nation and we can use that to our advantage!"

Harlin Glovacki, Nom de Plume Coffee Roasters

Harlin seems to be a trending topic on Chow Bella lately. As one-half of the Nom de Plume roasting super-duo, he's got a lot on his plate: a brand new business, a part-time job as "barista emeritus" at Giant Coffee, and a fantastic moustache that undoubtedly requires hours of grooming. Harlin is methodical and hardworking, and his flamboyant but expertly constructed signature drink is sure to turn heads at the Big Western Regional Barista Competition.

What coffee are you competing with? "I am competing with a coffee from the Giakanja Farmers' Cooperative Society located in Nyeri, Kenya. This region has produced some of my favorite coffees of all time- they're often impeccably processed, and the terroir and varieties grown there produce some of the sweetest, most outrageously fruity coffees I've tasted. This one fits the bill: traditional Kenya double-washed method of processing, SL-28, SL-34, Ruiru 11 varieties, grown at 1750-1800 meters above sea level. {My} preliminary flavor notes are pomegranate, dates, and Niko's* dad's cranberry sauce recipe (sweet, with a little orange zest)."

*Niko Kovacevic is Harlin's Nom de Plume business partner. He will be offering up his services as a judge at the Big Western Regional Barista Competition.

Tell us about the signature drink. "I worked with Chef Jeff Kraus of Crepe Bar on my Signature Drink. He helped me select complementary flavors and assisted with the culinary processes behind the drink. When we tasted my espresso, we noticed the fruity elements most coffee folks focus on, but also noted the coffee's more savory elements- which are also quite pleasant, but which we don't talk about as much. So we're going with a kind of spicy and savory drink, while also aiming for taste balance, of course. You could say that the drink is sugar, spice, and everything nice.

It's served up in a Cordial glass, and the top is rimmed with hibiscus gel and a mixture of sugar, smoked salt, and spices (nigella seeds, and ras el hanout). Then I have a Luxardo cherry in the bottom of the glass, and then the same sugar and spice mix on top again- but caramelized and stretched so that it's arranged on top of the glass like a bright red birds' nest. I pour the espresso on top, the sugar melts, the judges swirl to dissolve it fully into the glass, and then they sip until they get down to the cherry on the bottom. The taste shifts from sweeter up front, from the sugar and spice on the rim of the glass, through more savory-almost a ginger and molasses flavor, with a little kick from the spices- and is balanced out in the end by the sweet and sour cherry, which bring the espresso's pomegranate and date flavors back into focus.

I'd also like to say that I'm really excited for the cappuccino course. I've found some ridiculously good milk from Fond du Lac Farm, in Casa Grande, AZ. The milk tastes really nutty and sweet when steamed. Rick of Fond du Lac, tells me the mineral taste comes from his Brown Swiss cows' predilection for licking the salty Arizona soil. Talk about terroir! In the cappuccino, the flavors come together so that it tastes like cherry pecan pie."

What do you do when you're not behind the bar? "I love to read ancient philosophy and modern literature while listening to semi avant-garde jazz (Monk through Mingus) on vinyl. I like great Art Museums, and traveling. I love eating great ramen broths, and I like really, really good tea."

What do you love most about Phoenix Coffee? "{Niko and I} love the community we've found here. It's so good natured, maybe because really good coffee is pretty new to this area. It's not like there's a bunch of big shops angling for customers- we're all really in this together out here in Phoenix, getting better coffee in more peoples' hands. It's really cool to see the same customers in all the local hot spots on different days."

Perry Czopp, The Coffee Chop Perry has worked in coffee for about five years, but this will be his first time competing. He started as a manager at Urban Beans, which he says is where he fell in love with coffee. Since then, he has roasted, consulted, catered, and trained for several other companies (including Coffee Reserve and Silent Flight). Perry is also the brains behind the Coffee Chop, a local service that provides coffee service for large groups and tours of local cafes.

What coffee are you competing with? "I will be using a coffee from Costa Rica grown by the Montero Family that I sourced with Bodhi Leaf Coffee Traders. I chose it because of the connection between the three of us {Perry, the Family, and the Importer.} After tasting the coffee for the first time, I fell in love with it. The theme of my routine will be causality and understanding the question of the "why" behind {this coffee}. If a craftsman can understand what affects their product, then they can truly tailor the consumer's experience."

Tell us about the Signature Drink. "My coffee has a malic acidity, sweet and savory flavor, and a long white chocolate finish. It reminds me of peanut butter paired with a green apple. I will heat peanut butter, honey, and white chocolate, then add this to two shots of espresso and serve it as a mixed and balanced cocktail."

What do you do when you're not behind the bar? "I like to travel and experience different cultures, sights, and senses. I have friends and family that are really dear to me and I love to spend time with them."

What do you love most about Phoenix Coffee? "Because so many of the coffee professionals in Arizona are entrepreneurial, and because opening a business in this state is relatively easy, the coffee offerings really have a chance to continue growing. Everyone in the industry knows each other, and since communication is so easy now-a-days people can communicate, ask for help, and share information faster."

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