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Battle Brewing Between Baristas

For three baristas from Peregrine Espresso, a shot at the coffee industry’s most coveted honor comes down to 15 minutes, 12 drinks and seven judges.

The South East Regional Barista Competition, held Feb. 11-13 in Atlanta, pits the best coffeehouse professionals against each other in a battle to brew, pour and serve specialty coffee at the highest level of their craft. The goal? Impress the judges with espressos, cappuccinos and “signature drinks” that highlight the coffee’s flavor and the competitor’s technical mastery.

“Every move has to have a purpose — it’s about where you place the cup, where you keep the saucers, how you deliver the drinks,” barista Lindsey Kiser said. “And it’s a lot of fun. You get to coffee geek out for the whole weekend.”

Don’t expect an average cup of joe.

The regional winner automatically heads to the United States Barista Championship semifinals to compete for the national title. Anyone who makes it into the regional finals scores an invite but has to compete for a semifinal spot — with six regional winners guaranteed a place, only 19 other baristas can get a shot at representing the U.S. in the world championship.

And winning the upcoming regional competition promises another prize that barista Jeremy Sterner calls the “biggest deal since the inception of the barista competition”: a trip to “origin,” industry-speak for a coffee-producing country such as Brazil or Colombia.

“Every barista longs to get to origin,” Sterner said.

To get there, however, each barista must first showcase his coffee craftsmanship, excellent service and signature espresso-based beverages.

Kiser — a former staffer in the office of Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) — will offer up an espresso shot mixed with smoked honey, topped off by steamed milk infused with cedar and rosemary. Sterner, who placed first in the mid-Atlantic competition last year, will serve two coffees made from different beans but presented exactly the same way to highlight the contrasting, unique flavors.

Travis Beckett, the third Peregrine representative, is making a Kenya Kagumoini espresso with a distinctly foodie twist. Fresh carrot juice and brown butter — also known as beurre noisette, or hazelnut butter — are added together and foamed, and the drink is finished with drops of aceto balsamic vinegar. “There’s a fruitiness, savoriness and a rich dark flavor,” he said.

“Try in 15 minutes to make 12 drinks and serve seven judges,” Beckett added. “That’s why we’re all so stressed. Yeah, there are competitions for everything, but this one is different — you really get scrutinized.”

For Peregrine’s contestants, however, it shouldn’t be much different from an average day behind the counter. Owner Ryan Jensen subjects his employees to demanding tests like the six-minute drill, challenging them to make espressos, macchiatos, cappuccinos and lattes in less than six minutes while peppering them with random questions.

It has prepared the Peregrine team well for dealing with both customers and judges. Beckett noted that an integral part of the competition — as well as a truly great coffee experience — is the connection between a barista and the coffee drinker. A great barista talks to the customer about everything from where the coffee comes from to the intricacies of the flavors.

“Coffee is really technically demanding and incredibly relational,” he said. “That connection and knowledge ups the ability to appreciate the drink. If the judges have a personal connection, the ability to enjoy goes through the roof.”

The three baristas credit Peregrine Espresso for their coffee skills and serious approach to their craft.

And they do take it very seriously. Sterner said that while he has worked in coffee for 14 years, he doesn’t know whether he has earned the title of barista quite yet. That reverence permeates the Eastern Market shop, where baristas happily take the time to pour over cups, create latte art and explain in detail the various types of coffee.

“There’s such a strong sense of community here,” Kiser said. “Because we’re in a neighborhood, people come here year after year. It’s not only about exploring the craft you love, but doing it within a community.”

For these three people, coffee is not about pressing a button on a machine — it’s an art form.

“There’s just a passion for specialty coffee here,” Kiser said. “Coffee in and of itself is an intricate mystery that you’re trying to figure out, and you get sucked in.”

Peregrine Espresso will set up a projector in the shop (660 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) on Feb. 11-13 for customers to watch a live stream of the competition.

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