Barista competitions inspire coffee lovers

For as long as I can remember, my mom has brewed a big pot of coffee when she wakes up. I can trace my own education in coffee by the way that process has evolved over the years, from the type of coffee to the machine used to brew it.

At first, it was Folgers coffee and French Vanilla Coffee-Mate. When my dad started working for The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, the choices expanded. From Folgers “Classic Roast,” we slowly but surely made the move to a place where words like “light and subtle” began to mean something different from “light and distinctive.”  What hasn’t changed over the years is my mom’s ritual use of French Vanilla Coffee-Mate. She knows now it dilutes the flavor of the beans, but she enjoys it all the same. What can I say? It’s her way.

It was through The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf that I began to see coffee not just as a tool for survival (zero period band class is no laughing matter), but as a culture and a community in Los Angeles.

That idea was reinforced when I attended my first barista competition in 2011, the Southwest Regional Barista Competition. The competition, held at Siren Studios, a too-cool-for-school space in Hollywood, Calif., introduced me to the skill, passion and facial hair that populates this small, but growing subculture.

For those who don’t know — I sure didn’t — barista competitions are a platform for professional baristas to face off through short, timed presentations where they are judged on their presentation, preparation and creativity in making a  cappuccino, espresso and a signature beverage.

Last weekend, I checked out the Big Western Regional Barista Competition, which moved to the Arts District in downtown Los Angeles this year by two major coffee houses, Handsome Coffee Roasters and Stumptown Coffee.

The competition was held in Lot 613, a converted warehouse in the Arts District. It was a 15-minute drive from USC, and the street I parked on was interesting in its own right, offset by street art by ROA, one of the biggest names in street art at the moment.

The audience at the event was mostly 20-somethings, many wearing denim or plaid. There were plenty of tattoos among the attendees. Most of the men sported facial hair. Among all, a passion for coffee was evident on their faces.

The three-day competition, which is free and open to the public, did feel underground in a way. But, as one of the audience members said, though the coffee community is small, it has grown. For example, she said that it’s becoming easier to call herself a professional barista, without having to launch into an extensive explanation.

I’ll be the first to say that I don’t understand the technical details of much of what I was watching. Still it was cool to see the creativity and energy going into the presentations. One of the baristas who commanded attention when I was there on Saturday was Truman Severson of Portola Coffee Lab, who served his espresso to the judges with a mist of essences such as pineapple.

Though places like Seattle or San Francisco seem ubiquitous for breeding small coffeeshops, walking around the event and talking to local baristas and coffee enthusiasts just reinforced how Los Angeles has its own distinctive and growing coffee culture. From Silver Lake to Koreatown, baristas around the city are building names for themselves and their craft.

The United States Barista Championship takes top scorers from three regions to compete in the national event. The winner then qualifies to compete in the World Barista Championship. Notably, Los Angeles-area baristas took the top three slots this year. Charles Babinski of G & B Coffee finished first, Eden-Marie Abramowicz of Intelligentsia Coffee finished second and Frank La of Copa Vida rounded out the top three.

As I heard one person say during the event, “Viva el café!”


Jackie Mansky is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “City of Angels,” runs Tuesdays.