Quest: a perfect cup

  • Brooke Fisher<br>Enterprise editor
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 10:44am

Preparing four espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty drinks in 15 minutes is mere child’s play for trained baristas Karl Smeltzer and Jeremy Summer.

The hard part: preparing them perfectly at the United States Barista Championship.

Employed full-time at Hotwire Online Coffeehouse in Shoreline, the two are traveling to Charlotte, North Carolina to show off their skills at the competition, from April 7-10. Forty-two baristas will compete in the hope of representing the US in the World Championships, held in Berne, Switzerland in May.

“Jeremy and I are sort of notorious here for being geeks about coffee,” said Smeltzer, 21, who has worked at the independently-owned coffee shop for almost a year.

“Both of us are constantly reading about coffee and going to different coffee Web sites,” said Summer, 26, who taught himself to make quality espresso five years ago after reading books on the topic. “It is really ridiculous, actually.”

Only two competitors from each coffee shop are permitted in the competition. Competing isn’t new to either barista, as both Summer and Smeltzer competed in the Northwest Regional Barista Competition in October 2005.

At the upcoming competition, each participant will be given 15 minutes to perform; if they exceed 15 minutes they become disqualified. The baristas will prepare beverages in a mock café setting and all that will be provided is the equipment; participants must bring their own coffee beans and any other ingredients they intend to use.

“We are bringing our own coffee beans and milk,” Smeltzer said. “We like to emphasize quality products.”

The competition is taken very seriously, said both baristas. There are seven judges, four of whom are sensory judges. While the baristas prepare beverages, two judges will be right next to them, scoring them exclusively on cleanliness, consistency, water spills, how hard they tamp the espresso and other details.

“If you drip espresso down the side of a cup they will mark you off,” said Summer, who got points docked at the regional competition for not buttoning his shirt cuffs. “It is supposed to be very classy.”

Although most baristas will be clad in slacks, clean aprons and button-down collar shirts, some even wear three-piece suits, said Smeltzer. All will serve the judges beverages on trays, while talking about the products and explaining their signature drink. A few hundred people are expected to be sitting in the crowd.

It is frowned upon by baristas to reuse the same signature drink at each competition, Smeltzer said. His signature drink involves combining anise — a licorice-flavored herb — with orange peel and brewing espresso over the concoction. A separate, small dish of vanilla ice cream is served with the drink and he recommends first eating a bite of the ice cream before sipping the espresso.

“If I put vanilla or chocolate in the coffee I wouldn’t get too many creativity points,” Smeltzer said. “I try to come up with stuff that accents coffee and that not too many people have done before.”

While Smeltzer’s signature drink may sound unorthodox, Summer’s drink involves even more surprising ingredients. Fresh basil and pink peppercorn are crushed, then espresso is poured over the mixture. Condensed milk is added, and all ingredients are shaken with ice in a martini shaker.

The idea for the drink originated when Summer slept in one day instead of going to the grocery store and he consulted his kitchen shelves for ingredients.

“There are a lot of guidelines that people learn in the beginning,” Summer said, “then once we know what we are doing, we break all the rules.”

The men’s coach is co-owner of Hotwire Online Coffeehouse, Dismas Smith, 35, who placed first in the North American Barista Championship and sixth in the World Barista Championship in 2002.

“I think they are both calm and cool-headed and are great baristas,” said Smith, who also is traveling to Charlotte.

And what do the baristas prefer to drink? Nothing but straight espresso, which they say is only bitter when prepared improperly.

“Once you are in our geek world, everything else just masks the taste of coffee,” Smeltzer said.