Events

Coffee Fest Atlanta: America’s Best Espresso Competition

The America’s Best Espresso Competition at the Atlanta Coffee Fest

The crowd watches Bout #1 on Saturday, 2/7.

The crowd watches Bout #1 on Saturday, 2/7.

One of the fastest-moving events at a Coffee Fest is the Best Espresso Competition. I’m not just saying that because an integral part of the espresso-making process is using intense water pressure to extract a shot of espresso in around 30 seconds, give or take 10 of them. I’m saying it because the baristas competing in this event do a lot more than simply press a lever and a button. Rather, they work their way through all the major steps of pulling a shot with precision and intent. Those steps?

  1. Selecting the beans for their espresso. Arguably, this is the most important part of their preparation, and ultimately, they compete as the coffee roasting company, not as an individual. But you can bet these professionals have sampled and combined multiple types of beans ahead of time to find what they think will make a unique, memorable blend that will impress the judges.

I should note here that the judges and competitors tend to be Third Wave coffee aficionados, meaning that the traditional Italian roasts most associated with espresso by consumers, especially in Europe, are not what you’re likely to find at a Best Espresso Competition—or at least not at the bouts I saw. Instead, Third Wave fans prefer single-sourced, often washed, lightly roasted beans and blends as such processing leaves more of the beans’ unique flavor profiles intact. I spoke with Head Judge Cortney Kern of Barista Maniac, however, and he assured me that “sometimes a darker roast will come into the element—you’ll notice what it is visually and by smell. But most [competitors] do use a specialty light roast.”

Judge Cortney shares his rankings.

Judge Cortney shares his rankings.

Let’s continue with the other steps in a Best Espresso Competition!

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Best New Products at the 2015 Atlanta Coffee Fest

Everything that goes into a David Rio Chai.

Everything that goes into a David Rio Chai.

You can find fast-paced, ongoing barista competitions in any corner of a Coffee Fest show, but at their heart, these events are trade shows. And I had far more fun than expected discovering up-and-coming products among the many established brands. This isn’t a list featuring my favorite coffee beans from the weekend—that would be expected. Rather, it’s a list of my favorite unexpected finds, all products I hope may be appearing at a coffee shop near me soon.

1. The Airflow Cooling Lid

Founder Akiva Shapiro with his prototype.

Founder Akiva Shapiro with his prototype.

This lid is designed to deal with a very important problem of coffee consumption: how to cool down coffee with a lid on! I understand that many of you enjoy super-hot coffee, but I prefer mine only a few notches above lukewarm. And while taking off a lid does create a beautiful steam show, it’s not very convenient in many circumstances, especially if the liquid threatens to spill over.

Apparently I’m not alone in that concern, because Akiva Shapiro has invented the Airflow Cooling Lid to solve the problem! With its double-hole design, you can blow through one end to cool down your coffee, and hot air will exit out of the back hole.

Up-close with the Airflow Cooling Lid.

Up-close with the Airflow Cooling Lid.

This product is still in the prototype stage and seeking investors, so I avidly await the day it’ll be mass-produced.

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Coffee Fest Atlanta 2015: Best Coffee Shop Competition

Gratuitous espresso shots.

Gratuitous espresso shots.

Last month, I had the pleasure of covering the 2015 Southeastern Regional Coffee Fest, which took place in Atlanta. The Coffee Fest is a trade show and coffee education opportunity held in four different regions each year—upcoming ones for 2015 will be held in Tokyo, Chicago, and Portland.

I’m writing a post on my favorite products from the Coffee Fest soon, but there’s no question that the flashiest part of the Fest is the barista competitions.

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I am no stranger to latte art and best espresso competitions, and I’ll be writing posts about those particular match-ups in the coming weeks here at the Gourmez. But I wanted to start out my Coffee Fest Atlanta coverage with the newest barista contest, one that only got its start in 2012: America’s Best Coffeehouse.

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Judging the drinks.

Judging the drinks.

What takes place at the regional coffee fests are only the last stage in a multi-pronged competition that begins with an application to compete and moves on to fan voting on the Best Coffeehouse website and secret shopper reports from the actual coffeehouse locations. From those scores, six semi-finalists are chosen to compete at the event itself.

The winners of the America's Best Coffeehouse Competition.

The winners of the America’s Best Coffeehouse Competition.

They all share the same basic set-up behind the counter, but other than that, the teams bring in their own materials. They get an hour total of prep, customer service time, and clean-up. Each semi-finalist team is comprised of three employees who have worked at the shop for at least 120 days. Each coffeehouse must offer standard espresso drinks, two coffee varieties, a flavored latte, and a specialty drink during their competition round.

Peregrine Espresso's pourover set-up.

Peregrine Espresso’s pourover set-up.

Semi-finalists are judged on their expertise on coffee, their skill at drink making, their customer service, and their teamwork by at least 30 judges who mingle in with the Coffee Fest attendees during the café’s 30-minute period of serving drinks.

Ready to judge!

Ready to judge!

A pair of judges also watches from behind the scenes and rates the competitors on an impressively detailed checklist. You can peruse that here.

The top three teams do it all again during the final round on the last day of the festival.

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