‘B-a-r-i-s-t-a…?’, the customer standing in front of me at my
coffee shop is mouthing the word with a perplexed
look on her face.  I explained that a barista is someone like
me, a person who can whip out beautiful cappuccinos, lattes, and
espresso shots for a crowd of die-hard coffee connoisseurs while
making it look easy.  Customers often seem surprised that a
barista competition actually exists, as they generally never think
about the effort that is put into the perfect cup.  In other
parts of the world, baristas are respected for their skill, and are
proud to have chosen this career.

Recently, I attended the 2009 Canadian Central Regional
Barista Championships
at the trendy Gladstone Hotel on
Queen West in downtown Toronto. Sixteen baristas from all over
Ontario signed up to compete and I would be judging six of
them.  Each barista was responsible for preparing each of the
four judges with an espresso, a cappuccino and an espresso based
signature drink of their own creation – all in 15 minutes. 
The winner of the competition as well as the top two competitors
will go on to the Canadian National Barista Championship in
Vancouver in October

There are several reasons for holding barista competitions:
competition is healthy, and ultimately it helps baristas perfect
and improve their skills.  The competition also increases
public awareness of the profession, promotes better choices in the
coffees we drink, and supports local, independent espresso

Most competitors were keen and passionate, but were clearly
battling their nerves.  For many, it was their first
. Can you imagine trying to make the perfect
cappuccino for four stone-faced judges while an audience looks
on?  There were also many seasoned veterans
including Sam James and Momiji Kishi.  As a result, the drinks
I tasted were all over the board with taste balance and visuals;
some were too sweet, some too milky, or way too bitter and burnt,
while many were obviously prepared by the creme de la creme and
were outstanding.

After two or three sets, the caffeine high really started to kick
in. The intensity peaked when the judges gathered to tally the
competitors’ scores and I imagine anyone observing might have
thought we were all “on something”.

For many of the new competitors, the experience was an
eye-opener.  As judges, it is our job to be critical, but
fair. Our comments are severe and precise so the baristas can take
the information and use it in their own shops and practice until
next time they come back.  It feels awful being so negative;
in my own shop I try to be encouraging and nurturing with my staff.
I know the effort, the hours of practice, the thought that went
into picking the perfect coffee, the drills of getting the perfect
grind, dose and tamp for the sweet, honey-like espresso extraction,
and the days spent trying to practice the perfect micro-foam to
pour that rosetta, tulip or heart design atop the cappuccinos. I
know that in their own shops, these baristas are the gregarious
hipsters, the passionate technicians in their craft, and when it
comes down to competing against like-minded people, they can rise
to the occasion, or crumble under pressure.
When I was finished judging my last set, I settled in to watch the
final three baristas.  The winner of the competition,
Chris Tellez of Espresso Post in Collingwood,
Ontario, was one of these. Unfortunately, because I wasn’t on his
judging panel, I did not have a chance to sample his coffee, but
noticed his relaxed and professional approach to his set.

After the results of the scorekeeping were announced, we said our
goodbyes to those who had travelled from across Ontario, and in
some cases, Canada.  
Winners of this years Central Barista Championship

1st Place – Chris Tellez, Espresso Post,
Collingwood, Ontario
2nd Place – Sam James, Sam James Espresso Bar,
Toronto, Ontario
3rd Place – Momiji Kishi, Dark Horse Espresso Bar,
Toronto, Ontario

If you live in Montreal, Victoria, Calgary, or Vancouver, you can
catch a Barista competition first-hand.  Here
is the 2009 schedule:

Eastern Regional Barista Championship
Just for Laughs Museum
2111 Saint-Laurent Boulevard, Montreal QC
August 23, 2009

Western Regional Barista Championship
Leonardo Da Vinci Center
195 Bay Street, Victoria BC
August 29-30, 2009

Prairies Regional Barista Championship
Fratello Coffee Roasters,
4021 9 Street SE., Calgary AB
September 12, 2009

2009 National Barista Championship

Vancouver Convention & Exhibiton Centre
200-999 Canada Place, Vancouver BC
October 14-15, 2009

To learn more the barista championships please visit the
Canadian Barista Academy
or the
World Barista Championships

Sarah Ostwald and her husband John Ruttan own
Cherry Bomb Coffee
, located at 79 Roncesvalles Avenue in
Toronto, Ontario.