Baristas Abuzz With Caffeinated Competition

Coffee lovers are buzzing about Denver's first-ever battle of the baristas, and things could get frothy.

The Mountain Regional Barista Competition champion will be someone who is a master of their coffee," says Mike Strumpf.

He's standing authoritatively on a stack of empty wooden pallets in Solé Roasters' cavernous coffee-roasting facility in Boulder as roughly two dozen local baristas and other coffee professionals listen in. The competition, on March 1 and 2, will be the first of its kind in the region sanctioned by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and first prize is a free flight to and second-round entry into the U.S. Barista Championship in Minneapolis in May, the Super Bowl for latte-slingers. Strumpf, a quality-control administrator for Allegro Coffee Company in Thornton, organized the event, and he knows his stuff: He placed eighteenth out of 45 in the 2006 national competition.

If any of these contenders hopes to come off as the ultimate "coffee culinary professional," warns Strumpf, they'd better start honing their cappuccinos.

Novo Coffee co-manager Johanna Everts plans to jolt her competitors.
Anthony camera
Novo Coffee co-manager Johanna Everts plans to jolt her competitors.

After all, the competition's sixteen-part, 1,012-point evaluation isn't easy. Take the first stage, for instance, where baristas pull a basic espresso shot. "You want a harmonious balance of sweet, acidic and bitter," instructs Strumpf. He adds that it's a sign of weakness to bring along a timer, which some baristas use to ensure that they pull their one-ounce shot within the optimal twenty to thirty seconds. Then there's the cappuccino, for which competitors need to achieve the perfect, smooth fusion of espresso and steamed milk. Competitors aiming for flare can create latte art in the foam on top, says Strumpf; they just need to make sure it's centered in the cup. Nobody likes off-kilter art.

Those hoping to go the extra mile should see that their cup handles point in the same direction and keep their espresso machines sparkling, Strumpf explains: "Any lint, any coffee grounds, and you start getting points taken off."

Each competitor has fifteen minutes to pour four espressos, four cappuccinos — and prepare their wild card: four cups of an espresso beverage of their own creation. "Push the boundaries of what people might order in your shop," suggests Strumpf, noting that in past competitions, signature drinks have contained raw meat and raw eggs. "The only rule is that it can't have alcohol or illegal substances in it."

Here are profiles of four of the fifteen to twenty caffeinated contenders who've shelled out the $50 entry fee and will go up against hopefuls from Utah, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho — not to mention challengers from other local shops like City, O' City and Fluid Coffee Bar in Denver. The competition is free for spectators and runs from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday at Adams 12 Five Star Schools, 1500 East 128th Avenue in Thornton. For information, e-mail

Doug Naiman

Job: Owner and head barista at Aviano Coffee, 955 Lincoln Street.

Background: "One day I asked my 97-year-old grandfather how he ended up so old. He said, 'I drink a lot of coffee.'"

Training regimen: "I went to Chicago and trained with Matt Riddle [former U.S. barista champion and third-place finisher in the 2006 World Barista Championship]."

Take on the local coffee scene: "We are trying to bring a real coffee culture to Denver. For example, espresso should be enjoyed at the bar. We will never do an espresso to go."

Thoughts about the competition: "Timing is essential. You've got to pretend you're taking a test like the LSAT. Figure out where to save a second here and a second there."

If this were the WWE, your name would be: "The Iron Barista."

If you were a coffee drink, you'd be: "A double shot of Black Cat espresso [which he's using in the competition]. It's strong yet smooth and has a lingering sweet finish."

Theme music during the competition: "'Some Heads Are Gonna Roll,' by Judas Priest," he says jokingly. "It's gonna happen to most people when they get up and compete against me!"

Craziest thing a customer has asked you: "I had someone come in and order eight shots of espresso, and they drank it straight. It was a doctor who did that."

Where would you rather get coffee, Starbucks or McDonald's? "Starbucks. When Starbucks does well, the independents do well."

Greatest coffee experience: "I was a ten-year-old-kid, playing chess with my grandpa and drinking coffee so strong it was like a Turkish coffee."

Signature drink: "Kava s hrukou," a drink involving almond cheese, fruit, and a vanilla cream sauce that his mother used to make for him. He won't say more, but he hints, "I am going to be cooking with a double burner."

Johanna Everts

Job: Co-manager at Novo Coffee at the Denver Art Museum, 1200 Acoma Street.

Background: "I started drinking coffee when I was nine. It was the only grownup drink I was allowed to have."

Training regimen: "Every single latte I do, I put latte art on it — latte art, latte art, latte art. I'm using a wrist brace and taking herbs for my carpal tunnel — the bane of a barista's existence. We are also considering jumpsuits."

Take on the local coffee scene: "Coffee in Denver is people-centered, not coffee-centered. There are a lot of coffee drinkers who just want to drink coffee. Not exceptional coffee, just coffee."

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