Last month, I competed for the first time in a Barista Throwdown. For those of you unfamiliar with this sort of event, a Barista Throwdown is a specific form of a latte art tournament. Competitors are put into a bracket where they are paired off against another barista. With one barista on each side of the espresso machine, the two minute match begins. When the clock stops, the baristas should have already placed down an eight ounce latte in front of the three judges. A moderator counts to three and the judges simultaneously point at the latte they think has better art. One barista continues on to the next round and the other hangs out and drinks the free beer provided.
What makes one latte better than another is largely subjective. There are, however, a few key things judges look for when gauging the quality of a pour. First off, it is extremely important for the barista to steam their milk into proper micro-foam with tiny incorporated bubbles that give milk a consistency similar to wet paint. A great latte has no visible bubbles and this often results in a smooth and shiny surface. Judges also look for symmetry and contrast in the latte art design.
This first throwdown that I attended was at Backporch Coffee in Bend. The entire situation was very stressful for me. The competition’s sign-ups were done first-come first-serve so the three hour drive to Bend had the potential of being a complete waste of time - well almost. I had ulterior motives in attending this event. Several of my closest friends live near Backporch Coffee and this competition gave me a great reason to make an overdue trip to see them.
I made it to Backporch with enough time to get my name jotted down on the sign-up sheet. Although I had no expectation in getting anywhere with the competition I began to feel extremely nervous about it. The place was absolutely crowded with loud hip-hop music playing. Thirty-two baristas were entered into the competition and I was scheduled to pour in one of the earliest matches. When they called my name, I felt as though I was to deliver a speech to a crowd of people I didn’t know. I shook hands with my competitor and we each chose a side of the machine to use. All of my experience as a barista has been on Flag & Wire’s La Marzocco GB5. Backporch was using an older customized La Marzocco Linea. The moment the clock started I felt entirely out of my element. The Linea has a much larger steam valve than the GB5 which meant that I underestimated how far I had to turn it to use full steam pressure. I made a lot of weird mistakes before I even poured my art. As I was pouring my milk into the cup my hand was shaking so drastically that the steam pitcher was rattling against the side of my cup. It was frightening! I tried to pour a swan that I had been practicing for weeks, but it didn’t pour correctly at all. I was pretty upset by it so I set it down in front of the judges and started to walk away. Somehow I actually managed to win that round. In retrospect, it was probably because my milk texture had that great wet paint consistency to it.
In the next round, my name was called and the large group of friends that came to see me began to loudly chant my name. I lost in that second round; and though I wasn’t mad that I lost this competition, I was extremely put off by how much of a nervous wreck it turned me into. I think this is because I care so much about being great at what I do. My realization from this experience is that the only way to truly be a great barista is to keep on pushing myself to succeed and to feel comfortable in these challenging competitions.
Come visit us at the shop and challenge Matthew's latte art skills! We're in McMinnville's Granary District next to Grain Station, open 7am-3pm everyday. Hope to see you soon!