In January, local coffee lovers will be able to wake up to the aroma of espresso, cappuccino and specialty espresso beverages. They will get to watch 80 professional coffee baristas from the Southeast and Northeast show their skills in the Big Eastern Regional Coffee Competition, Jan. 17-19 at the Cotton Room in Golden Belt.
The baristas will have 15 minutes to make and serve four espressos, four cappuccinos and four espresso beverages. A group of judges will decide the best coffees based on taste, presentation and technical skill. In a separate competition, judges will conduct a blind tasting of coffee that the competitors will make. All baristas will make the same coffee. Those who advance will make their chosen coffee for the judges.
For the first time, Durham-based Counter Culture Coffee and Dallis Bros. Coffee of New York are sponsoring the competition. This event also will be the first that combines the Southeastern and Northeastern regions of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, which produces the competition along with the Barista Guild of America.
Counter Culture has previously hosted the Southeastern competition. When Counter Culture learned of the combined competition, the company wanted to host the event, and put in a bid with Dallis Bros. to the coffee assocation, said Lem Butler, who works in wholesale customer support for Counter Culture. In June, Butler emceed a local tasting competition among the company’s eight training centers. Butler also will emcee the Big Eastern event.
Butler has won the Southeastern competition four times. When he first watched a competition he decided to compete the next year, thinking he could do well. “I placed second to last,” he laughed. Then he began learning more about coffee from Counter Culture.
For spectators, the competition “opens a door to an industry people don’t know exists,” Butler said. “We all drink coffee,” but don’t always understand the connections between the coffee we drink and where it comes from. According to its website, Counter Culture encourages and practices values of conservation, environmental stewardship and fair prices for the coffee producers.
“There’s a whole chain of quality that links that coffee to the consumer,” Butler said, and the competition will also help educate coffee lovers to those links.
Judges will be evaluating more than taste. They also will be looking at how the coffee is served and presented. Jennifer Hall of Sola Coffee Café in Raleigh will be competing for the first time in the barista round. Preparing for the event includes not just perfecting espresso technique, but making sure the machine is wiped down and the work area is clean, she said – all points the judges will consider. The 15-minute limit “is a pressure point,” Hall said. “It’s not just about making a drink; you’re also giving a presentation,” she said.
Dylan Jung, of High Five Coffee Bar in Asheville, will be competing for the first time in the brewer’s cup. For him, the event is an opportunity “to test your own skills, but then also to learn from other people, too, which I think is the great thing. You get to meet other people and bring that back,” he said.
While this competition represents a specialized skill, Jung wants to remind spectators of our universal experience with coffee. Many insiders can talk about the science of brewing, the origins of beans, but “my intention is going to try to bring that back around to our experience of sitting down with a cup of coffee,” he said.
The winners of the Big Eastern Competition and other regional competitions will compete in the United States Coffee Championship in April in Seattle. Winners of that event will then compete internationally in Rimini, Italy, in June.