Barista Spotlight: A Behind-the-Bar Look at Competitions

It's the eye of the tiger, it's the foam of the fight. Rising up to the challenge of our rivals...

He's known as Tripp Gandy and he's eyes are on the prize. He has one shot to make it big. He's a crusader, a competitor, a trained tiger ready to give it his all. No, he's not an Olympian. He's a barista.

Barista competitions are heating up across the country with regionals going on right now and nationals coming up in April. We talked to Tripp Gandy's coach, Sarah Parrish from Metto Coffee & Tea to get a behind-the-bar look at the South East Regional Barista Championship in Atlanta. She gives us a quick dose on what barista competitions are all about.

What happens at a barista competition?

Parrish: This year, the Southeast Regional had a record 35 competitors. Competitors each have 15 minutes to prepare four espresso, four cappuccino, and four specialty beverages. These drinks are presented to four sensory judges for evaluation. There are also two technical judges and a head judge. The competitors have to explain what coffee they are using and why they chose this particular coffee.

So they are judged not only on technique, but also on knowledge and the presentation itself. All of which are required of a good barista.

What is Gandy's signature drink?

Parrish: Tripp's drink was an avocado con panna -- an espresso shot with a drop of honey and topped with fresh whipped cream, with an avocado and brie puree folded in. The barista gets to pick what specialty coffee he or she brews and they sometimes change it up by putting a different origin of bean in it.

How do competitive baristas prepare for the events?

Parrish: It's a lot of work. After hours when the shop closes, a barista practices his or her technical abilities. You have to be very dedicated and be willing to put in extra hours. It takes a lot of patience and skill.

How do the baristas like to have fun when they're not competing?

Parrish: A lot of fun things happen while we're down here. The first night, all the baristas get together for a party. It's healthy camaraderie -- there are some familiar faces from last year and some fresh faces. We all go out and have fun and of course, there's a lot of coffee talk going on.

You've been a barista for 12 years. How has the industry changed?

Parrish: It's always changing. Everyone's trying to make a better coffee, better espresso. Last year, there were 18 competitors in the Southeast Regionals; this year, there are 35. It's come a long way in the past five years and many more baristas are entering the competitions.

Look out for Lem Butler from Counter Culture Coffee. He won the 2010 Southeast Regional Barista Competition with 617.5 points! For more information on barista competitions, visit Barista Competition 2010. Stay tuned to the Zoka blog for all your barista news.