The Western Regional Barista Competition for 2009 took place on January 23, 24 and 25 in Downtown Los Angeles, hosted by Intelligentsia Coffee in Silverlake. This is an intensive competition where talented, diehard baristas from all over California come to practice their craft and show their personal best in front of a panel of judges from the specialty coffee industry for the chance to obtain valuable professional feedback, see how they measure up, and possibly win a spot to go on to the national competition. Winners on the national level ultimately compete in the World Barista Championship, a title currently held by Ireland’s Stephen Morissey.
Kean Coffee’s own Michael Richardson competed in the Western Regional Barista Competition this year and made us very proud. Mike has participated in a number of barista events including the Ultimate Barista Challenge which takes place in L.A. every August, so with the WRBC Mike took it up a notch. This competition is not for the faint of heart. It requires nerves of steel, steady hands under pressure,and the ability to speak eloquently and in an engaging manner while your every move is being analyzed by seven expert judges – a head judge, two technical and four sensory judges. As a competitor, you must prepare four espressos, four cappucinos, and four of your own personal creations, signature drinks, to the closest level of perfection you are capable of in such circumstances. And all of this in exactly 15 minutes, as competitors who go overtime even a few seconds are disqualified, which happens every year to at least a few in the lineup. Competitors are scored on every aspect of their routine from their technique in preparation, to the aesthetics of their table presentation, to their verbal presentation to their cleanliness and efficiency as they work. All of the scoring categories being said and done, ultimately the winning elements in the scoring come down to the taste of the espresso drinks – the definitive element in any barista’s talent.
Barista competitions are events that are crackling with energy. With a room full of fanatical coffee geeks who have all gathered together to indulge their passion for excellence in coffee and the coffee trade, how could one expect anything less? The coffee companies which sponsor competitors in these competitions are almost exclusively the small independents, with chain coffee companies altogether invisible in this world of serious coffee culture. It is a youthful culture characterized by creative intellectuals – philosophers, poets and artists, even “mad scientists” if you will, who use coffee as their medium and life as their canvas. Younger and older enthusiasts alike, the WRBC has a definite rock n’ roll vibe, with the championship baristas being the “rock stars” of the scene.
On Friday, the first day of the WRBC event, Mike along with another of our top Kean baristas, Shane Richardson, (no they are not brothers…. just two great baristas with the same last name!) spent close to two hours serving Kean espresso on the “Fourth Machine”. The Fourth Machine is an opportunity for spectators at the event to sample expertly pulled espressos from a variety of the different independent coffee roasters who have sent representatives to the competition. Mike and Shane had a great time featuring their espresso skills and sharing our own Kean Coffee espresso blend, and enjoyed the opportunity to hang out with other highly skilled baristas from up and down the state.
For his competition performance, Mike was scheduled close to the end of the day on the second day of the event, Saturday, which necessitated staying pumped up but conserving energy and remaining cool and collected through hours of watching other competitors performances. With Martin [Diedrich] and fellow Kean barista Michael Coultier in the audience to cheer him on, (along with Kean Coffee barista alumni Nick Brewer as well as alumni Janelle Bel Isle, who entered the WRBC 2008), and before a live streaming video internet feed, Mike went through his routine for the judges smoothly and calmly, and made his time in just under 15 minutes.
The competitors pick their own music to accompany their routines, all part of setting a mood and creating theatrics, in addition to helping to put themselves in “the zone”. In the background of Mike’s video you can see Stephen Morissey, current world barista champ, watching… talk about pressure! In the end, Mike’s scores placed him just about smack in the middle of the field of 23 competitors including baristas from Intelligentsia (which swept the finals and took the win, but this blog is about Mike..heheh), La Mill and Caffe Luxxe in L.A., Vivace, Verve, Ritual, the Abbey and Barefoot Coffee from the Bay Area, among others. Two baristas from Zoka in Seattle, Washington competed out-of-region just for the practice, as many serious competitive baristas do to hone their skills and develop their routines. For a first-time competitor, smack in the middle is pretty darn good! Verve’s Jared Truby, who placed in the finals, almost seemed proud to brag on camera that the first time he ever competed, he came in dead last. This just underscored how far he had come and how much he had learned by competing in his craft!
Mike came away from his weekend adventure at the Western Regional Barista Competition 2009 newly inspired to continue his pursuit of ultimate barista perfection, and excited to pass along this inspiration through training fellow Kean Coffee baristas both in the coffeehouse, and working one-on-one and in small groups in our newly built barista training lab in Costa Mesa. All in all the weekend was both exhausting and exhilarating. Congratulations, and way to go Mike! We look forward to seeing him in the next WRBC, should he choose to dive under the hot lights once again…stay tuned!