LIQUID ASSETS: BARISTA BATTLES

LIQUID ASSETS


Fourth wave: Clockwise from upper left, Verve co-owners
Ryan O’Donovan and Colby Barr; Verve’s new
Seabright location; fresh roasted coffee beans

BARISTA BATTLES

Verve Coffee Roasters
takes on the competition

BY ELIZABETH LIMBACH
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TED HOLLADAY

Unlike many modern cafés, which boast litanies of complicated, flavored concoctions, the drink menu at Verve Coffee Roasters is strikingly simple. After all, co-owner Colby Barr doesn’t travel 12 weeks out of the year to remote villages around the globe to source “the best coffee on earth” just to have it disguised by syrups and frills. “We’re buying coffee from ultra-specific farms and people who have specific flavor notes and varietals, and letting those bloom on their own,” explains Chris Baca, Verve’s director of education. “We don’t need to dress up our coffees.”

This is characteristic of a “third wave” coffee shop, although the Verve folks dislike the term, which was coined to describe the generation of specialty coffee that followed the “second wave,” or the Starbucks/latte/mocha generation. If anything, Verve may be closer to “fourth wave”—part of a yet-to-be-defined movement, forging the path that the rest of the industry may someday follow. “Whatever you want to call it, we just want to see ourselves on the frontlines,” says Barr.

Barr and co-owner Ryan O’Donovan opened the first Verve, on 41st Avenue in Santa Cruz in November 2007 with the help of head roaster Sean White and barista Jared Truby. In mid-2009, when Baca came on board, the company had about a dozen employees and wholesale accounts in the single digits. The 590-square-foot roastery was adjacent to the café “so you could see the roaster if you were a customer in the café but also so that the roaster could see if we got buried on [the] bar because there was such a small crew, and come in and help,” recalls Barr.

Interest in Verve’s top-notch coffees and famously skilled baristas (who, for example, undergo three days of training and a fourhour test before getting hired) has boomed in the years since—enough so to land it wholesale accounts across the country, from New York and Los Angeles to Pittsburgh and Austin—and catalyze major retail expansions. The Verve team is now 45 employees strong and is spread across three locations, including two that opened in fall 2011: one in Santa Cruz’s Seabright neighborhood, where the company operates a 7,000-square-foot roastery, and one on Pacific Avenue in Downtown Santa Cruz.

Verve’s latest triumph is being chosen by the Specialty Coffee Association of America as host of the 2012 Southwest Regional U.S. Barista Competition, which will take place in Santa Cruz on March 9, 10 and 11. The competition will be one of six regional events that feed into a national showdown later in the year. (What’s a barista competition? See related story, “How Do I Compete?” on p. 34.) Baca organized the event along with Verve Director of Retail Sara Peterson. Both baristas are former regional champs and have placed second and fourth, respectively, at the U.S. level.

Verve had its eye on hosting the competition for several years, but California-based chain, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, hosted it the last two years and provided a Hollywood television studio as the venue.

Team Verve: Lizzy Sampson and Jared Truby.
Team Verve: Lizzy Sampson and Jared Truby.

In bringing the competition back to a small company and a small town, Verve hopes to re-envision what has historically been an exclusive, somewhat esoteric event.

“We’re trying to shake all of that loose and bring everyone to Santa Cruz to have a good time,” says Barr.

Verve will host social activities for visiting baristas throughout the weekend and has added an educational component as well, partnering with the Barista Guild of America to offer classes and Level One testing for barista certification.

As for non-coffee professionals, the event is free to attend and promises to be fun and, of course, caffeinating.

“It’s entertaining, and kind of goofy,” says Barr. “It’s kind of like Best in Show, but for coffee.”

Attendees can partake in tastings, including—for the first time ever—the drinks competitors make for the judges.

“In the past, it’s been a joke in a way that people come to see, but they just watch four lucky judges taste the coffees,” says Barr. But as part of Verve’s overall vision of making world-class coffee more inclusive, competing baristas will be required to stay for half an hour after the competition to make cappuccinos, coffee and specialty drinks for members of the audience.

“Our goal in our whole company, and thereby in this event, is to always be trying to do the best we can at world level but making it as accessible to people as possible,” says Barr. “Because, otherwise, what’s the point?”

Elizabeth Limbach is an award-winning journalist based in Santa Cruz. When not working, she can often be found enjoying the area’s beautiful outdoors, seeking out new delicious eateries and indulging in her latest obsession—vegan baking.

The competition will be held Friday, March 9 through Sunday, March 11 on the fourth floor of the Rittenhouse Building, located at Pacific Avenue and Church Street in Downtown Santa Cruz. Visit usbaristachampionship.org to learn more about the competition, or follow it on Twitter at @swrbc2012. For more about Verve, including location and contact details, visit vervecoffeeroasters.com.

Looking for fresh-roasted coffee closer to home? Go to the “Local Food Guides” tab on the EMB website and scroll down to find “Micro-Roasters Near You,” a complete guide to artisan roasters in the tri-county area.

 

coffee

Regional competitions like the 2012 Southwest Regional U.S. Barista Competition are open to any barista “who dares to compete,” says Chris Baca, Verve’s director of education, but “if you don’t do your homework, you’ll feel ridiculous and get destroyed.”

To avoid this, Baca, whose own rule-bending 2010 regional performance made coffee competition history, is serving as mentor and trainer to the two Verve baristas competing in March: Lizzy Sampson, 21, and Jared Truby, 29.

The baristas began their training in December, first studying competition rules and then working with senior Verve staff to select ingredients and perfect their drink recipes. The training will culminate with rehearsals of their precise routines in the weeks before the event.

“By the time you’re at the competition, what you’re doing on stage should be second nature to you,” says Baca.

The competition itself is akin, in part, to a live cooking show, complete with an audience and seven judges.

“It’s nerve-wracking the first time,” says Peterson, who has been with Verve since 2009. “There are lights shining on you, they’re streaming it online, you’re wearing a Britney Spears-[style] microphone, there’s an audience—it’s really surreal.”

Competitors are provided with an espresso machine and table but must bring everything else themselves, from the coffee and ingredients to table settings and coffee grinders.

“They wheel you out to this blank canvas, and you have everything stacked up on your cart, and you have 15 minutes to unload, prep, dial in your coffee, taste and clean your area before the judges get there,” explains Baca.

Once the judges arrive, the barista has 15 minutes (after which they’re disqualified) to make three courses: a single espresso, a cappuccino and a “freestyle,” or specialty, drink. As they work, the baristas must explain to the judges and audience what they are making and why.

Three technical judges watch closely as the drinks are made and score in categories like efficiency, cleanliness and technical skill, while four sensory judges are served the beverages and grade on flavor, balance, consistency, color, presentation and more.

Competitors choose the soundtrack that plays during their performance—both to help set the mood and also to cue the different stages of the routines they will have memorized.

“It’s like playing a piano—you want to learn it technically first, so well, that you can forget about all of the technical stuff and play it by feel,” says co-owner Barr.

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