Hot Shots: Which of These Baristas Are Crème de la Crème?

IMG_1063 copy copyKelsey Kudak

Sure, the East Village and Williamsburg have some of the highest concentrations of cafes and coffee shops in town, but who pulls the best shot?

This week, baristas from both neighborhoods and beyond will compete at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition in Long Island City.

Here’s how it’ll go down: each of the 43 competitors has 15 minutes to offer each of the four judges an espresso, a cappuccino, and a signature beverage that might include ingredients like truffles or mascarpone or walnut ganache. Judges grade on quality, technical competency, consistency, flavor and body, milk, cleanliness — even style and poise. The top six frothmasters advance to the nationals, which take place in Boston in April.

Here’s what seven local contenders are planning, and how they’re fighting the showtime jitters.

Zoey Thorson, 31 (photo above)
Gimme! CoffeeWilliamsburg
Origin of competition coffee: Santa Barbara, Honduras
Presentation: “I’m all about red. I have my great grandma’s silverware and I have some linen napkins and table runners from her. I wanted to give the geeky coffee awesomeness of now to the 1950s.”
Failed experiments: “I spent one day with every ingredient I thought might be interesting and a very unhappy stomach. I love spicy things, so I tried to use some chilies because they looked so pretty and fresh. Bad idea.”
Pre-competition ritual: “Besides my hair? I’m going to eat a lot of bananas and avocados and peanut butter in the morning, because these are all things to balance out your system.”

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Angelina Greep, 25
Toby’s EstateWilliamsburg
Origin of competition coffee: Illubabor Province of Ethiopia
Failed experiment: “I took cactus and made a cactus-raspberry simple syrup. The syrup had amazing body because the cactus was so viscous. But it was pretty much gelatinous and I was getting spines in my finger.”
Worst fear: “An espresso machine blowing up in your face would be the worst thing. And it’s happened before. I’ve heard of a barista who ended up with very severe injuries.”
Pre-competition ritual: “I took a lavender bath last night. It was great.”
Over-caffeination strategy: “I still haven’t come up with the answer to that. There’s a lot of coconut water, there’s a lot of bananas. My symptoms vary. Sometimes I’m excitedly running out the door, but I do know people who have vomited.”

IMG_1177Kelsey Kudak

Sarah Sanfino,  23
Café GrumpyLower East Side, Greenpoint, and Park Slope
Origin of competition coffee: Antigua, Guatemala
Tasting notes: “Unsweetened cocoa, almonds and honeydew melon acidity.”
Pre-competition ritual: “I have been listening to these meditation tracks for public speaking and relaxation. So I’m going to try to do some breathing exercises, and I’m hopefully not going to consume that much espresso the day of. I hope I can try a shot and know I’m dialed in and not be super tweaked. You spit the espresso out, but I’m convinced it’s still absorbed.”

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Sam Lewontin, 28
Everyman Espresso East Village
Origin of competition coffee: Mpemba Washing Station in Burundi.
Potential problems: “It’s an incredibly complex coffee, but it also presents a huge risk. Coffees from Rwanda and Burundi and Uganda are subject to defect called potato, and there’s no way to get rid of it. So the coffee is amazing, but it comes with about a 3 percent chance that I will pull a shot that is undrinkable. So I’m essentially smell-checking every dose before I use it.”
Speech planned? “I could do my whole speech for you right now if I wanted. I did theater in college, so I’ve done a lot of rehearsal work and memorizing.”
Coping mechanism: “The moments before competition are a one-note symphony of shrieking terror. You just  have to have confidence that the work you have done will be there; you learn how to take the adrenaline though and make it work for you.”
Game-day outfit: “I’ve been thinking a lot about knit ties lately, and I might do a bright orange knit tie and rock that out.”

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Amanda Wells, 22
Toby’s Estate, Williamsburg
Origin of competition coffee: La Piramide, Colombia.
Tasting notes: “Sweet and soft.”
Sources of inspiration: “Coffee changes every day as every day—even throughout the day. It’ll taste one way in the morning and change at night. I think the way it is always changing, and the way you’re always finding a new flavor is surprising. You might taste snap peas one day, and think, “Well, what if I add this?” There’s always new ideas.

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Ezra Baker, 31
Café GrumpyLower East Side, Greenpoint, Park Slope
Origin of competition coffee: Gatemboya, Kenya.
Tasting notes: “Plum and pineapple.”
Favorite discovery: “When I first started working in coffee, one thing I really liked were fruit tones. It was coffee that didn’t really taste like coffee. I later learned that it’s acidity, which is a sensation that the taste buds experience because of various acids in the coffee.”
Pre-competition rituals: “I’m going to listen to some music — you know, anthems. Lots of abrasive rap music, probably.”

IMG_1135 copyKelsey Kudak

Amanda Whitt, 25
Everyman EspressoEast Village
Origin of competition coffee: Buziraguhindwa, Burundi.
Tasting notes: “White peaches and savory sage. It’s really beautiful.”
Single origin or blended? “I think baristas are always going to be fundamentally drawn to things that are very unique. And I think that there’s always going to be an appeal to the single origin because of that. But if I had a coffee, though, that I thought was maybe too off the wall, I may consider blending that back in with another coffee that would bring it a little more down to earth to fill the parameters of competition.”

The Northeast Regional Barista Competition is free and open to the public. Preliminary rounds are Wednesday and Thursday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Finals are Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Attic Studios, Third Floor. 11-05 44th Road, Long Island City, Queens