Throwdown!

It was the metallic clanging of a spoon against a milk pitcher that quieted the dull roar of a loud, crowded coffee shop.

“Thank you, everyone, for coming!” the pitcher-clanging gentleman shouted. The room fell into the respectful, sophisticated silence of competitors trying to out-manner each other. “I know you’re all rockstars at what you do. Whether you win or lose today, you’re all awesome, and we’re here for a great cause.”

The room filled with respectful applause. The receivers of this stereotypical pre-game pep talk shifted in their consciously crafted leather boots and Toms and folded their arms across their black t-shirts, or re-rolled the cuffs of their flannel button-downs.

“Are we ready to see some great latte art?”

The silent bubble burst into hoots and applause. It was a loud crowd, although neither rowdy nor disrespectful. After all, it was a room brimming with coffee geeks, the kind of meticulous people who put care, respect and pride into their every drink and therefore their every action in the sacred coffee space.

I took in the scene from my perch over by the window, where I stood on top of the smooth wooden chairs, overlooking everyone’s coiffed, hard-parted hair. Men outnumbered the women at least three times over.

How did I end up here? I found myself wondering, looking down at my thrifted navy-striped peasant shirt, clutching a notebook and Polaroid in one hand and adjusting the square frames on the bridge of my nose with the other. What happened to me? Am I… hipster?

All the signs affirmed what I thought to be true—I had been enveloped in the hipster lifestyle. I was taking photographs to blog about a latte art competition. Help.

Despite the fact I had found myself stuck swirling in a lifestyle eddy just off the mainstream, I was thrilled to be there, supporting our lead barista in his first coffee competition.

“This is going to be great,” I commented to my roommate/barista/fellow supporter as I snapped photographs. “One day when he’s slayin’ it at the World Barista Championships, we’re going to look back on this as history.”

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The three of us – fabulous barista darling Claudia and our fearless leader/manager Trey and myself – had driven three hours away from our secluded mountain shop to join fellow coffee nerds at Harbinger Coffee in Fort Collins, Colorado. Our mission was to take on a latte art competition for a cause and represent our shop, a hidden third-wave jewel tucked into the Yampa Valley.

Surprisingly Harbinger was filled to capacity with those participating the competition. I found myself grinning at the particular type of people who filled the space—unusual, quirky, dedicated people wearing cuffed pants and black shirts or pastel button downs. There was no shortage of thick black glasses and certainly no lack of hair product as far as the men were concerned. (Girls seemed to take the opposite approach, letting their hair fly wild and untamed.) The room hummed with conversations I tuned in and out of.

“We’ve got a Malkonig, too,” I heard as I listened to one conversation. Another passing group discussed naked portafilters with a passion. “We don’t split shots,” one barista was saying with conviction.

The competition was broadcast throughout the room via Periscope, a live-streaming app using footage filmed from a phone wired onto the decorative ceiling slats. Three judges sat at the bar, one the owner of Harbinger, another from Starry Night (a local Fort Collins coffee shop) and a representative from Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters out of Denver.

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The room buzzed with excitement. Baristas clutched beers in plastic cups, socializing with their fellow coffee geeks, discussing pour-throughs as though it were a matter of life and death.

Trey, who we came to support, had shaken off most of his nerves by the second round. He won the first round easily. This was no surprise to Claudia and I—his latte art was constantly on pointe, and he was always practicing at the shop. (We probably have more faith that he’ll one day run the coffee world than anyone.)

In fact, a loose stream of comments escaped him as we stood watching others compete. He spoke out of a combination of comfortability, excitement and nerves. All in all, we realized it was an unusual cocktail that, when combined with his extensive vocabulary and verbal eloquence, would probably never manifest itself again.

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I took the liberty of writing down many of his comments simply for the novelty. (I am certain they will someday come in handy when looking back on the first competition of his lengthy coffee career.) For example, “I hope the final round is pouring each other’s phone numbers. Or tattoos.” Followed by, “When are we going to break out the almond milk?” and “Is handle orientation even a factor here?” Or, my personal favorite, “[The judge] said there are going to be a few curveballs, so I’m fully expecting to pour into a tablespoon or a boot in there somewhere.” (Although I am also fond of his comment regarding a competitor who looked like “a charming Harry Potter character” –“Do you think he drinks out of… the House Cup?”)

All in all, the evening was fun, buzzing with beer and caffeine and great competitor camaraderie. In its own way, it was a reminder of what coffee culture really comes down to: building connections and community over a nice hot cuppa joe.

A really, really elegantly defined and perfectly poured cuppa joe.

 

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