A coffee-making competition perhaps brings to mind a dozen dizzy baristas, pumping out espressos as fast as they can and sliding them down the counter to judges already jittery from the first few rounds.
Too much caffeine all around, maybe. Or perhaps the scramble of competition would take the pleasure out of a slow five minutes with a foamy afternoon cappuccino.
Yet being a world-class barista involves a lot more than just serving up joe, as a few hours spent with Costa Rica’s national barista champion José Miguel Coto demonstrates.
Atmosphere is half the battle, Coto explained as he practiced for the World Barista Championship, held last week in Japan. It was the third time Coto, 26, would represent his coffee-famous homeland on the international stage, and as he unpacked his equipment piece by piece, he set it up like a surgeon preparing for an operation.
Chocolate and sugar went into little dishes, where they were raked flat as a Japanese rock garden and attended by a tiny teaspoon.
Orange juice and four pats of butter were placed in their own dishes (for a special recipe), and four water glasses sat evenly spaced on the table where four of the six imaginary judges would sit.
“Everything you do has to make them feel good, has to have a good energy,” he said as he placed white lilies in a clear glass vase in the middle of the table.
At the competition, Coto would have 15 minutes to set up and calibrate the espresso grinder and machine, and then another 15 minutes to verbally explain his coffee choices to the judges and make four espressos, four cappuccinos and four coffees from his original recipes.
Twelve coffees. Fifteen minutes. Speed would be of the essence, right? Coto, ready to begin, smiled and shrugged.
“Well, you can’t go too fast, because you have to show the judges confidence,” he said.
Coto straightened a towel just right in his apron pocket. And he started making coffee.
Fine Coffee in Costa Rica
Though Costa Rica has a strong tradition of coffee production, it hasn’t traditionally done much with it.Your average café con leche is a far cry from a cappuccino, and though it’s easy to find a good cup of coffee in most parts, it can be hard to find a great one.
“This is a new trend that’s just awakening,” said Costa Rican Fine Coffee Association Executive Director Gema Siri of Costa Rica’s growing taste for gourmet coffee.
Indeed, it was only five years ago that Costa Rica’s Coffee Institute (ICAFE), a government body, started offering training courses for baristas.
A year after that, the Fine Coffee Association became the country’s licensed national body for the World Barista Championship, an organization formed in 2000 by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.
That means the Fine Coffee Association holds annual national competitions, the winner of which can go on to compete in the World Barista Championship.
Coto trained with ICAFE (in addition to some training abroad) and was the country’s first champion barista in 2004. He went on to compete in the world championship in Italy that year and placed eighth in a field of 30. The next year, Coto went to the world championship again, in the U.S. city of Seattle, where he came in 14th.
Since then, Coto has directed some training courses of his own in Central America, and he now works for a new restaurant chain in Panama City.
He took some time off work recently to practice for the competition in the Fine Coffee Association’s headquarters in the western San José neighborhood of Rohrmoser (Coto does most of his training on his own dime, though ICAFE helps out with big expenses such as airplane tickets to the world championship).
Practice Makes Perfect
The stopwatch started. Coto has the practiced quickness and easy movements of someone used to having a line of pre-caffeinated people waiting for their morning coffee. He is accommodating yet efficient, relaxed but always moving.
First, he put some butter to melt in a little frying pan. That would come in later.
Then he turned to his espressos, one of the most important parts of the competition because they showcase the coffee blend he has selected.
At the real competition, there would be four judges tasting the coffee and two examining his mechanical technique, making sure Coto kept the equipment clean and used proper measurements and standards.
The tasting judges would want to know what they were tasting and why, and so, during his 15 minutes, Coto would also have to explain his blend, describing individually each of the three beans in it and why he selected them.
Moving quickly but not rushing, Coto placed all four espressos on little wooden trays in front of the imaginary judges within five minutes.
Then he stopped by the frying pan to add sugar to the melted butter. This would become Coto’s original recipe, “Exotic Orange.” Once the sugar caramelized, he would add a bit of orange juice and, in the very end, a lemon peel.
First, however, Coto turned to the cappuccinos. All four would have to be exactly the same, including the pattern on top of the milk foam. Once he had those completed and lined up on the table in their little brown cups, he turned to his Exotic Orange drink.
The lemon peel simmered in the concoction for just a minute before Coto poured everything through a strainer.He divided the mix into four glasses, brewed an espresso into each one and placed them on the table.
Time: just under 20 minutes. He wasn’t trying for speed this time, but still, that would have to be tightened up. Coto tasted one of the Exotic Orange drinks and frowned.
“It’s a little bitter,” he said, speculating that he’d overcooked the sugar.
He began wiping down the machine and preparing to go again, this time for local barista judges who would be arriving later.
The world competition has been won six out of seven times by Scandinavians. Coto would be facing 44 competitors from as many countries.
His goal going into the Japanese World Barista Championship was to get into the final, or the top six, he said.
“In Latin America, we have the best location,” Coto said, referring to Costa Rica’s coffee-growing prowess. “We just have to keep on learning.”
Coto didn’t make it to the finals of last week’s championship, but he came in 18th out of 48 competitors.
“Really, I’m very satisfied and proud to represent my homeland, beautiful Costa Rica,” he said via e-mail from Japan.