It easily could have been the most caffeinated room in the city, if not the entire country. But Zaida Dedolph was the steady-handed picture of coffee-serving cool. She cranked out espressos and cappuccinos with calm. She served the drinks with a smile, looking her customers in the eye. She sought to leave neither drips of milk on the counter nor grains of coffee in the portafilter.
Dedolph had to keep it together, because she did all this in the glare of bright lights and under the watchful eyes of stern-looking, stoic judges.
Dedolph was a contestant in the barista competition at the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 2013 Event. The gathering includes 9,000 coffee producers, wholesalers, cafe-owners, the people who make those little ties that close bags of coffee, and anyone else involved in the process of taking small beans and turning them into your coffee break. The Boston Convention and Exhibition Center was crammed with coffee tastings, coffee roasters, coffee packagers, coffee, coffee, and more coffee.
But the event was at its most wired Friday in the activity room, where roasters, tasters, and baristas battled for preeminence in competitions that positively percolated with tension.
“You can make your career with the barista competition,” said Dedolph, of Chicago, who has been making and serving coffee since 2005, when she was 17. “People don’t joke about this.”
No they do not. As Dedolph and other barista contestants created and served their drinks in an early round of the competition, judges jotted down notes, sought out such demerits as spilled milk, and tasted espresso, cappuccino, and speciality coffee drinks.
Personality was part of the presentation. Last year’s national champion, Katie Carguilo, entertained the judges Friday with her description of the coffee she served in her drinks, which comes from Finca Kilimanjaro in El Salvador, and her theory that coffee is artistic expression and the barista’s duty is to romance the customer.
“The experience isn’t limited to the beverage,” she said, as the judges tasted and wrote impassively.
The judges undergo intense training before they are allowed to referee the event. But Dedolph said they were easier to serve than her own, discerning friends back in Chicago.
“I came pretty prepared,” she said. “It’s easier to do it in front of strangers.”
Each competitor’s turn lasted only a few minutes, but the baristas spent lots of time in a curtained-off portion of the room preparing their presentations and confections. The place had the air of a science fair, with bottles and tubes and cups and trays. One contestant, Truman Severson of Portola Coffee Lab in Orange County, Calif., labored over something that looked suspiciously like a still.
And a still it is, Severson said.
He uses it to extract the essence of coffee. The coffee is boiled, giving off steam that is caught in a condenser tube. The byproduct is liquefied, producing a perfectly clear distillate that is pure coffee. Severson calls it Dark Horse, and serves it with his signature drink, the Agronomist, made of espresso, strawberry preserves, and orange peel.
Severson spent Friday morning testing and tasting his own drinks, which meant “I definitely had my coffee today.” But a barista in competition, he said, has to watch the coffee intake.
“The worst thing you can possibly do is overcaffeinate yourself,” he said. “But you don’t want to underprepare.”
Drinking too much coffee was a peril for one of several other competitions taking place. To prepare for round one of the US Cup Tasters Championship, contestant Wee Jin Chiew, of Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Annapolis, Md., swore off coffee for two weeks, and spent the last week cleansing his palate with Listerine.
The contestants were given eight sets of three cups. They had to select the cup from each set that was different from the other two. They were judged on speed as well as accuracy.
Wee and two other contestants quickly sipped the slightest drops from each cup, then as quickly spat out the liquid, dipping their spoons in water after each sample.
“You have to show up with your taste buds,” said Julie Housh, of World Coffee Events, which helps organize the competition.
The tasters prowled the stage nervously as the judges tallied their result, then Wee shook his fist in triumph. Asked how he would keep his palate clear for the next rounds this weekend, he said “I’ll try to drink a lot of water.”
Sloane Grinspoon can be reached at email@example.com. David Filipov can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.
Correction: Because of a reporting mistake, the coffee used by Katie Carguilo was misidentified in an earlier version of this article. The coffee came from Finca Kilimanjaro in El Salvador.