In Rock Baijnauth’s documentary “Barista,” finalists at the 2013 United States Barista Championship, held in Boston, perform feats of skill and artistry that go light years beyond swirling foam in the shape of a heart. The five baristas featured in the film have 15 minutes to prepare flawless coffee beverages — espresso, cappuccino, and a signature drink of their own creation — for a panel of judges who critique everything from taste to timing to how passionately the contestants communicate about the coffee. As for the signature drinks, don’t imagine a skinny hazelnut latte, but rather a snifter of coffee distilled to its clear essence.
Baijnauth, 36, of Los Angeles, wanted to tell the story of baristas and craft coffee after recognizing how much the culture has in common with wine and cocktails. “Coffee is something that is so fascinating. The competition is this evolution of the craft to see how good you can be at it now,” the director says.
Q. How is the film different from what you might see at a local coffeehouse?
A. Someone described it really well. They said these baristas are doing a really passionate TED Talk while trying to make 12 drinks in 15 minutes. Another barista described it as being like the movie “Best in Show.” It’s a quirky competition that you wouldn’t even think would exist.
Q. How big are the competitions?
A. On the national stage, they filled up the Boston Convention Center. When we were filming, if a past champion or Charles Babinski, who is one of the bigger players, would compete, there would be tons of news outlets there.
Q. How do baristas go about creating their routines?
A. That is a multifaceted thing, totally dependent on the barista. It starts with deciding what you are trying to say in your 15 minutes. The next step is curating the proper coffee that will get you the highest mark. You want to find a coffee that suits the idea and you can talk about passionately. Then it’s lots of little details. What glassware will I use? What music will I use? What will I wear?
Q. How are the contestants judged?
A. There are so many technical areas where you can lose points — wasting coffee, not tamping properly, cleanliness — things that spectators won’t see because it’s so minute. Even in the movie, you don’t know what they’re doing wrong until afterward. Most of the scoring goes into how your drink tastes and how well you communicate the tasting notes.
Q. How intensely do people prepare?
A. When you do this, you want to be known as the best person at what you do. Once they’ve decided to compete, these guys and girls take it incredibly seriously. It’s a lot of stress and a lot of preparation that they’re not necessarily getting paid for. A lot of people told me they would practice for eight hours after their shift is over. We ended up following some of the competitors for three to four weeks before the competition. Some were prepping for four to six months before we found them.
Q. What’s at stake for the winners?
A. One of the best things to come out is respect from the community and becoming an ambassador for specialty coffee. It opens up doors. You might get your own shop, opportunities to consult. That’s the goal for many people, to be recognized. This isn’t an industry where you get paid a ton of money. That’s where passion has to take over.
Q. In the film, the baristas were very precise at everything. Is that typical?
A. They want to deliver you the best product. I’ve been to places where baristas have thrown away coffees because they don’t like the way it pours. It’s all about taking your craft as seriously as you can.
“Barista” is available on iTunes and from Amazon.Interview was edited andcondensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.