May 1, 2011

Dream On

The United States Barista Championship is an interesting watch. We've got sparkling equipment, as clean as the day it was built, and baristas, looking perhaps even more pristine. They talk about balance, about phases of flavor, fruit, chocolate, and a million other descriptors, seemingly pulled from a wine tasting handbook. 

It's beautiful, in a way, a sort of ideal cafe universe. In this utopia, customers don't mind waiting several minutes for drinks. They want direction on tasting every potential nuance in their espresso, and never ask for something like a frappuccino.

It's not just the circumstances which are ideal. Every barista is well dressed, tucked nicely in to tapered slacks and vests, neatly adorned with careful stubble and sharp jawlines. They flick and tamp and twist and pour with the sharp, practiced ease of a dancer.

But it is song and dance, in a way, performance for the initiated few, rather than production for the masses. One might thus decide that barista contests are to cafe work what a dunk contest is to basketball ability - a grand display of skills which are ultimately tangential to success when it comes to the genuine challenge. 

But I'm watching, regardless, transfixed on the dose of grounds in each portafilter, the angle and speed of the pour. Mostly, I'm watching all of that, piecing it together, attempting to absorb the cadence with which they work, the rapidity with which they construct prize drinks. 

It's not that I'm competing - though maybe, some day - but rather that, by whatever standard, these people are the best at doing what I do. It follows, then, that there is something be learned from watching them practice their craft. I'm not looking for specific techniques to pilfer, rather, I'm attempting what might better be called learning by osmosis. In watching the best, you absorb more information than you can consciously process, and surely, some of that must be useful.

Well, probably. At the very least, it's entertaining, and impressive too. Again, this is something of a dream scenario on display; and it's a dream I enjoy having.

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