I went up to Portland, Oregon last week to attend the 2009 United States Barista Championship. No, I was not competing, and unfortunately, not one of the judges either.
You can see all my pictures here.
Portland, by the way, has the largest number of cafes per-capita in the US and has a very active and sophisticated coffee scene (I'm sure you appreciate how hard it is for an ex-Seattle resident to admit this). If you're in town, check out Stumptown Coffee.
The competitors came from all over the country, including the expected share of west-coast baristas and even a guy applying all the charm of a cowboy into his espresso drinks. There were quite a few baristas from Intelligetsia Coffee & Tea, including 4 out of the 6 finalists and the champion, Mike Phillips.
So how do these folks compete? They basically put on a show for 15 minutes, which initially can be quite deceiving because they look incredibly relaxed. The show includes their choice of background music and often some accents in their clothing. In those 15 minutes, they need to prepare espressos, cappuccinos and their "signature drink". They prepare 4 of each, for each of the sensory judges.
All this while, the competitors need to show deep knowledge of their coffee, beginning by explaining their choice of blend, and how each of the flavors comes out in the drink. As they prepare the drinks, they are closely watched by a couple of technical judges, who are watching for every little detail of handling the espresso machine, waste management and timing. Multiple video cameras are following them very closely as they do this, and every now and then the emcee will elicit a cheer from the crowd (let's have it for Mike's first 2 espressos!). If you want to see an example of a wonderful performance, watch the performance of Stephen Morrissey from Ireland when he won the 2008 World Championship.
It was a fascinating crowd from all walks of the coffee industry. There were many spectators in the bleachers, some were huge coffee fans and others who wondered how exactly they got there, but were having a great time anyway. And of course, there was an amazing buzz on the floor around each of the competitors' bars -- after all, everyone in the room was caffeinated...
Finally, the awesomeness of the experience came out most poignantly when I was having a conversation with one of the other attendees and I mentioned to him that I work for Google. He asked: what part of Google do you work for? Food services?