Steamed Milk and Espresso

That was what everyone was there to see. Really, it was. But in a subliminal sense, it was much more than that. It was a symbol of community, a community surrounding coffee. And that community includes all types: the coffee shop flies that sit in bar seats in front of the espresso machine for hours, the baristas that run the espresso machine all day with fluid movements and flicks of their wrists, the coffee gurus that slurp their cups of coffee to “let the flavor coat their tongues,” and the college kids who just wanted to see a spectacle. It was all a little bit overwhelming with a fervent undertone probably caused from all the caffeine, but it was a testament to how far the coffee culture has grown and how passionate people can become for it.

For me, as a participant in the competition, it was a very surreal experience.

I have only been a barista for a little over a year at a few different coffee shops with varying degrees of artisan focus. So, needless to say, I didn’t feel like very confident in my abilities to compete with some of the other competitors. There were training managers from many big name coffee shops competing and their proteges. But I was here to represent Round Mountain Coffee in place of one of the owners who couldn’t attend, and I wanted to do my best even if I would most likely be out the first round.

There were what felt like a hundred people crammed into the small coffee shop holding the latte art competition, and all eyes were on me when my name was called for the first round. I clutched my milk pitcher to my chest and approached the espresso machine, a Slayer I had never used before. My opponent, a former roaster for Onyx Coffee, shook my hand. A jug of milk was shoved into my hands. Murmured instructions from a voice behind me. Then the shots were pulled. My mind shut out the white noise of the crowd and the blaring music, focusing instead on steaming the milk, getting the rotation, letting the steam wand kiss the milk at the appropriate time. Next, I caressed the unfamiliar mug in my hand that now had the espresso shot swirling in the bottom of it. Still, in my unbroken concentration, I poured a subpar tulip out of nervousness. I knew I had lost. Finally breaking my trance, I absorbed the roar of the crowd and looked down at my competitor's work. And my heart stuttered.

He had poured a shaky, uneven heart. I had actually won my first round. And the second round.

On the third round, I was up against the favorite to win. An Arkansas native, he now lived in Memphis and worked at a big coffee shop as the head trainer, but the five hundred dollar prize money had drawn him back to Arkansas for the competition. He shook my hand and told me his name even though I already knew it. The shots were pulled, and the steamers started.

As I held the pitcher, monitoring it’s temperature through my hands as the milk swirled, I reflected on the competition as I knew it was coming to a close for me. I had entered into the competition expecting nothing, figuring I would come and be knocked out the first round. But I hadn’t. I had won not one, but two rounds. I had thought I wasn’t good enough to enter the competition and had only done so out of pressure from my boss, but I was good enough. Even though I wasn’t the best, it didn’t mean I was the worst either.

I had found myself more capable and competitive than I thought I would be.

I stopped the steam wand and peaked over at my competitor who was already pouring. Damn. He was in the process of making a beautiful, full tulip with clear, distinct lines and a symmetrical body. I couldn’t do that. Trying to pull a trick out of my bag, I attempted to pour one of my experimental designs where I make a rosetta that hugs the perimeter of the cup, making a rosetta circle. But out of sheer nervousness and lack of execution, I failed and blew out the rosetta. I had made a blob. But I did finish in the top eight out of almost thirty competitors.