“Phoenix poured their hearts out!” 2nd Annual Latte Art Competition and Phoenix Cooks! Re-Cap

by shelbinator3000

Competition grade Nuova Simonelli Espresso Machine on the stage at the 2nd Annual Southwest Latte Art Competition for Phoenix Cooks! - an annual convention that shows off Phoenix's best dining and cuisine. Held on Saturday, the 3rd of September, the event counted over 3,700 attendees! (photo credit: Alex Devine)

In it’s second appearance as a part of Phoenix Cooks!, the Southwest Latte Art Competition began with a bang, continued with the whirring sound of milk-steaming, and ended with the announcement of a winner.

I listened to the crowd’s applauding give constant approval, but I wouldn’t ever hear any slurping – this event was all about the art.

“This year the goal was to put the barista craft on display to the public through a bigger competition,” said Brian Clemens, the Barista Guild of America representative for the Southwest and the director of the SWLAC. “Latte art is indeed an art form. Latte art competitions are a great way to bring together the barista community”

The latte art design that took first place in the Southwest Latte Art Competition. (photo credit: Alex Devine)

A competitor will ask themselves: do I pour a rosetta? A tulip? A swan? At a latte art competition a predestined design is not always the outcome when there are judges who score on originality and aesthetic beauty (in addition to the art’s symmetry and contrast). And that’s okay – each barista has their own style.
Latte art becomes a hybrid because of the intentional wrist movement that, literally, gives way to going with the flow.

(video credit: Alex Devine via Vimeo)

Jen Macias, a barista at Cartel Coffee Lab, prepares her shot of espresso before she steams her milk. A good shot is important to provide the right contrast with the steamed milk. (photo credit: Alex Devine)

Competitors went head-to-head in the first three rounds, presenting their lattes simultaneously to the judges. The final round was fascinating as each competitor presented their latte, allowing the judges to pick apart all aspects of the art and rate accordingly. Upon battling it out, the finalists were as follows: coming in third place, Charlie Commanda from Flagstaff, Arizona; coming in second, Jamie Rice from Las Vegas, Nevada; and the this year’s champion was Jason Calhoon from Scottsdale, Arizona taking home the coveted $500 grand prize. The top three winners received a handsome prize package courtesy of Bookman’s Cafe, Espresso Parts, and Barista Magazine.
“I thought this event, as a whole showcased my job as a Professional Barista fairly well.  Latte art competitions are a great way to show pride in one’s skills and one’s ability to execute under pressure,” said Seth Mills, a barista at Cartel Coffee Lab.Smooth, perfectly textured milk from a powerful steam wand and a practiced barista is the first step. It creates white micro-foam that will lay flat atop a mixture of steamed milk and espresso. Good micro-foam is light and sweet, but compact – bubble bath foam, while fun to play with, won’t make the cut.

And the art stole the show.

Unless you were at the Brew Bar, of course, where slurping played a much bigger part. A new integration to Phoenix Cooks and the SWLAC, the Brew Bar was operated by volunteer baristas and showcased coffee from local roasters brewed across five unique methods.

Brew Bar beside the SWLAC. Shown methods: Clever, Chemex, V60. (photo credit: Alex Devine)

Cartel supplied their  balanced Nicaragua Vida Joven (a farm operated by Young Life) and was brewed via syphon and clever, Press Coffee, owned by Steve Kraus who played a big part in coordinating the event brought their Ethiopia Amaro Gayo (strong blackberry flavored notes) for the Chemex and V60 brew methods, and Coffee Reserve showed off their rich El Salvador San Emelio using the V60 and French press.

Seth Mills, a barista at Cartel Coffee Lab, took the time that he wasn’t competing in the latte art competition or eating his way across tens of Phoenix Cooks booths to brew coffee on the syphon – by many standards the most decadent brew method that uses an open flame to heat water into a second chamber that will fully immerse the ground coffee.

(Video of Chris Owens, of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea in Venice, Calif., brewing coffee on a syphon. When it first premiered this video, appealing to my film background, got me fired up to be more explorative as a barista. Video courtesy of The D4D, via http://www.vimeo.com)

“People are drawn to the theatrics of the Syphon and I tried to take advantage of their captivated attention to educate them about the basics of brewing as well as the specific science behind the Syphon as a brewing method that showcases a coffee’s amazing sweetness and balance,” said Mills. “I love sharing my passion and knowledge of coffee with anyone who will listen, and I really tried to take advantage of the audience’s willingness to be engaged and learn.”

I arrived early to the event with Clemens and Kraus, where I was more than happy to dial in the espresso that the competitors would be pulling. And just moments later, heavily under the influence of a caffeine high, a four-hour-of-sleep night began to treat me much kinder.

As for the rest of the event; if I wasn’t stuffing my face full with lobster mashed potatoes, cornbread french toast, or peppered quail egg atop pork-seared salmon, I was engaging thirsty attendees at the brew bar. Exchanging the knowledge and skill-set I have for the coffee they had no idea they’d come to desire was rewarding for me.

For many of them, coffee became more than a vessel of caffeine – it contained notes of citrus, blackberries, and cashews for the first time. It was an interaction-based transaction, and the greatest asset I came to offer was a simple conversation over a good (simple in presentation, complex in flavor) cup of coffee.

It reminded me very much of the coffee shop setting because it was a perfect example of something I’d always revered as one of coffee’s greatest qualities: it’s a couple seats at a bar, flavors in a mug that politely ask to be audibly appreciated, and the open air between two individuals that combine to become a starting place for good conversation.

And, when all was said and done for the SWLAC and Phoenix Cooks!, make no mistake – the Southwest poured their hearts out!