Baristas Abuzz With Caffeinated Competition

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.

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 [email protected].

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."

Thoughts about the competition: "My strength is my charisma. As a barista, you are only as good as the conversations you hold. My weakness has been my palate. I was smoking, so I had a dampened sense of smell. I stopped smoking six weeks ago, so my greatest weakness is slowly dissipating."

If this were the WWE, your name would be: "The Strong Arm. Baristas have amazing upper-body strength."

If you were a coffee drink, you'd be: "Ethiopian Worka black coffee, single origin." ("It's got a nice femininity without being girly," says coach Johnny Robinson.)

Theme music during the competition: "I'm going to use some classic jazz."

Craziest thing a customer has asked you: "A heavy-whipping-cream cappuccino."

Where would you rather get coffee, Starbucks or McDonald's? "I worked for both of them, and I wouldn't go into either."

Greatest coffee experience: "In Idaho Springs, where I went to high school, there was a little coffee roaster, and after lunch we would play chess and drink coffee there all afternoon. When they roasted coffee, you'd smell it all over town."

Signature drink: "I don't want to use the 'wow' factor. I'd rather win with taste. I'm going to specialty grocery stores and looking at spices I could use."

Justin Hartman and Greg Lefcourt

Job: Owner and manager, respectively, at Ozo Coffee, 5340 Arapahoe Avenue in Boulder. "Though people think we are the same person sometimes," says Hartman.

Background: "Together we have over twenty years of experience in coffee," says Lefcourt.

Training regimen: "We have been focusing on pulling shots every day, working on milk texture and art," says Hartman. "Now we are working on the structure of our routines."

Take on the local coffee scene: "There've been sixty-, seventy-year-old guys running the coffee in this town. It's time for the next generation," says Hartman. "People should be going from one coffee shop to another, like connoisseurs of coffee."

Thoughts about the competition: "My personality helps. I talk to people all day and remember everyone's names and drinks; my muscle memory takes over," says Lefcourt. "But I need to work on trying to remain modest, which is not a word I often use for myself."

If this were the WWE, your names would be: "Professor Picky Pants and Captain Bean Squeezer," says Hartman.

If you were a coffee drink, you'd be: "I'd be a cortado. A double-shot Northern Italian-style roasted espresso with steamed milk, equal proportions," says Lefcourt. "It's short, powerful, sophisticated and sexy."

Theme music during the competition: "Reggae music, man," says Lefcourt. "I can dance and make coffee at the same time."

Craziest thing a customer has asked you: "The funniest name was 'Skinny bald transvestite on a leash,'" says Hartman. "Half-caffeinated skinny latte to go. Flat, with no foam."

Where would you rather get coffee, Starbucks or McDonald's? "Abstinence is best," says Hartman.

Greatest coffee experience: "When you've been drinking so many espressos that you get a tingle up the back of your spine and you start to hallucinate," says Hartman.

Signature drink: "I did well with my Aztec Con Ponna at Joe's Espresso Barista Jam," says Hartman, referring to an unofficial barista competition in Boulder last year at which he tied for second. "It had dark chocolate, chili powder, cinnamon, a little vanilla, a shot of espresso, spices and chocolate whipped cream that was almost the consistency of a mousse."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner