The heart behind the cup: Independent baristas prove their artistry

Go ahead and complain about Seattle, about the dot-com fallout that has launched the joke that while there are still plenty of job openings here, they're all behind coffee counters. A handful of independent Northwest coffeehouses are leading a movement to promote America's baristas as culinary artists rather than fast-food workers, as career professionals rather than minimum-wage temps.

At the forefront are people like Seattle's Dismas Smith, the reigning national champion barista who'll defend his title at the 2003 barista championships next week in Boston.

These coffee disciples immerse themselves in trade books and magazines, share ideas on barista online bulletin boards and hold vintneresque "cuppings" to test the quality of the day's roast. They strive for foam perfection and conduct off-duty espresso experiments with anise, allspice or lemon drops.

For them, mechanics are second nature. They can pull shots, clean steam wands and flush group heads in their sleep. They talk about "the guy who got me into coffee" as if describing spiritual conversions, and their bible is "Uncommon Grounds," a book about coffee's emergence as the No. 2 global trade commodity.

Yes, they admit, big specialty-coffee chains like Starbucks and Tully's made the market. But they see those chains constrained by supersized operations that distance customers from fresh-roasted beans — the ambrosia's essence. As barista Kasey Frix of Seattle's Espresso Vivace puts it: "What I do is filet mignon. They're making Big Macs."

Like others, Angie Lof of J.J. Bean in Vancouver, B.C., uses the wine industry as a model. But "a vineyard owner can see the product from start to finish, into the bottle," she says. "With coffee, almost never does the farmer see the final product. That's why baristas are so important. A fantastic coffee can be spoiled by baristas who aren't conscientious."

That noise you hear, that rainstick clickety-clack of swirling beans in small roasters, is the percolating rise of independent coffeehouses — nonautomated, career-minded, brimming with passion, knowledge and personal flair.

The buzz was palpable at February's first-ever Northwest Barista Jam in Seattle, where chains were nowhere to be found. And when their turns came at the machine, you saw just how serious some people were about competing: One wore a tiara; another brandished an arsenal of exotic fruits and servingware.

"Customers have to wait a bit longer, because it takes longer to make great drinks," Jeff Babcock, owner of Seattle's Zoka Coffee Roaster and Tea Co., told the event's attendees. "We're working on that. But as this goes on all over the country, it will help us as little companies to compete with big companies, where the quality has gone down. You guys are on the leading edge of this."

Waking up to specialty coffee

If baristas' futures are bright, it's just the foam resting on the success of the specialty-coffee industry. About 13 percent of adults now drink nondrip coffee daily, one study notes, while the Specialty Coffee Association of America expects membership, just 300 in 1992, to surpass 2,500 by year's end.

Nationwide, the SCAA pegs the number of specialty-coffee operations — everything from Starbucks stores on down to corner kiosks — at around 14,000; in 1989, there were fewer than 600. Seattle, and the West Coast, are mostly responsible: Mark Prince of, a site dedicated to industry news, community forums and product reviews, says the trend here is nearly opposite that of the East Coast, where drip coffee (as opposed to espresso drinks) accounts for about three-quarters of all coffee served.

Even major producers — behold Folgers' Cafe Latte, with flavors like Mocha Almond Jive — are waking up and smelling a market share to be had.

How much more can people take? "Until every American can walk to a coffee shop and get a perfectly brewed cup of coffee, we can't talk about saturation," says SCAA spokesman Mike Ferguson.

This maturing specialty-coffee culture is less prone to refer to Starbucks, as it once did, as "The Green Monster" and more inclined to give props where props are due. "If there hadn't been Starbucks, I'd never have been doing this," says John Hornall, who co-owns Hines Public Market, an Eastlake coffeehouse.

Those big chains, he says, socialized coffee, popularized espresso drinks and created cultural spaces in which baristas could flourish.

Making a career barista

Even at chains, any good barista knows his or her technique. "Once you get used to it, it becomes really easy," says Brandi Golding, 22-year-old lead barista at Tully's Greenwood location, who patiently explains for a bewildered couple one morning the difference between lattes and cappuccinos.

But Prince, of, says only the best can truly manage the foam level created with steamed milk. "That's the sign of a master," he says. "Anyone can froth milk, but only the true pros can control it."

At Capitol Hill's Espresso Vivace, owner David Schomer's baristas excel at latte art, the trademark on which he's built his independent cafe's worldwide reputation. "It takes folks about two years to really earn my faith on the espresso machine," he says.

Vivace's Kasey Frix says he can't imagine any better place to be a barista. "When I started, there were people who'd been working there eight, nine years who knew every single resident of Capitol Hill, what they drank and what their dog's name was," he says. It was nine months before Frix, 29, earned his first shift. "You can't walk in there with the attitude of, 'I'm the best barista ever,' " he says. "A place like that, there's so much to learn."

Good baristas also wield people skills, similar to bartenders. "Customers expect to chat, to have some kind of interaction," says Chris Sharp, co-owner of Capitol Hill's Victrola. "A barista has that responsibility."

Vivace's Schomer trains his baristas, who earn up to $12 an hour, to be attuned to customers' moods, to avoid smothering customers with unwanted banter. "The most demanding part of the job is that you're going to see them every day," he says. "If you crowd them personally, you're not going to see them anymore. So you practice a little reserve. It's the English butler thing. That's my charter: coffee and service first."

The key ingredient independent coffeehouses can offer career-minded baristas, says's Prince, is supportive ownership. Seattle's Zoka and J.J. Bean of Vancouver, B.C., he says, are good examples. By proving willing to develop employees — such as national barista champ Dismas Smith, a 32-year-old married father of three — and send them to competitions and trade shows, he says, Zoka and J.J. Bean are helping to transform the industry.

SCAA spokesman Mike Ferguson agrees. "At Zoka, some of those guys are family guys," he says. "Obviously (owner) Jeff (Babcock) has treated them like they're gonna be around and have some investment in the company."

"A barista has a self-esteem that's missing from fast-food workers," says J.J. Bean owner John Neate. "As soon as you put somebody in a little hat and uniform, it sort of demeans them. There's a certain amount of self-expression that goes into being a barista."

Ferguson says training also is an important factor. "In the average coffeehouse, you'll get a half-hour of training on the machine so you don't burn yourself, then you're on your own," he says. "Some owners say they don't want to invest a lot because the employees are just going to leave anyway — well, that's like saying you're not going to water the flowers because they're gonna die anyway."

The buzz of competition

The first-ever Northwest Barista Jam kicks off with workshops and a coffeehouse crawl in which the event's 42 participants pile into a school bus to tour local coffee landmarks like Vivace, Caffe Vita and Coffee Messiah.

They come from all over the map. There's Juneau's Shane Sewell, a tattooed 28-year-old who hopes someday to buy the coffeehouse where he works, and Melissa Thornton, a budding coffee entrepreneur from White Plains, N.Y. "This is all research," she says.

Richland's Bill Pogue is building a 1,500-square-foot coffeehouse a stone's throw from the convenience store he ran for 22 years. In the kitchen at Ballard's Espresso Specialists, where the day's barista competition will be held, he points out a shelf of flavored syrups. "If you go anywhere outside of here, especially in the Tri-Cities, there'll be a whole wall and a half of these things to cover up the flavor," he says. "And still, people drink the crap out of coffee."

He motions to Seattle's Bronwen Serna — the western regional champion barista — who's making an espresso drink. "Did you see what she just did? She threw out a whole shot because it wasn't good enough. It's a completely different mindset over here."

Share the buzz

Do you have a favorite barista, someone who makes your drink exactly the way you like it and who delivers your latte when you're sick in bed? Who knows you by name and whom you'll maybe be naming your unborn child after? Tell us how your favorite barista goes beyond the call of duty and we may introduce him or her to readers in an upcoming story. E-mail
and please include: what makes the barista exceptional, the name of the barista, where he or she works along with a phone number or address, your name and a daytime phone number.

Sherri Johns, of Portland-based WholeCup Coffee, reviews the rules. Today's winner will earn a spot at the 2003 barista championships in Boston. Participants will have 15 minutes to produce four sets of three drinks — espresso, cappuccino and an individual creation — bookended by 15 minutes apiece of preparation and cleanup.

Danny Johns, her husband, delivers the equivalent of a drill sergeant's "you worthless grunts" speech. He's been around the world, you see — the Lebanese are "very advanced, incredible," he says, and the Australians operate speed-chess style, doing everything in 12-minute spans instead of 15. You think you've got a specialty drink, soldier? Hear this: One Aussie's entry had kangaroo meat at the bottom. "He finished 8th out of 27," Johns says.

But Zoka's Smith, one of five event judges, cautions entrants to play to judges rather than the audience as the first competitors set up at stations topped by top-of-the-line La Marzocco espresso machines. At one table, Mark Pfaff of Sea-Tac's Espresso Express carefully arranges dishes and readies spoons; to one side, an armada of ingredients destined for his specialty drink, flanked by four conical glasses.

Says Sewell, the Juneau barista, watching wide-eyed: "Now, that's just intimidating."

An around-the-clock passion

As if on constant caffeine highs, they're found experimenting, lingering in cafes, even on days off. One Saturday afternoon at his Fremont home, Dismas Smith prepares his ECM Giotto espresso machine and arranges a half-dozen simply marked bags of coffee beans on the table.

He and fellow Zoka baristas Sarah Parker and Jeff Shafer spend hours pouring, blending and comparing espresso. First, a round of Yemen Mocha, a less popular blend. He takes a sip. "Ooh, man," he gasps. "That is ... sharp."

Parker, 24, closes her eyes and takes a long whiff. It was Seattle's coffee reputation that drew her here from North Carolina. "Dismas, do you still have that flavor wheel?" she says.

She consults the wheel and scribbles in a spiral notebook. Dry, she writes. Sharp. Sweet aroma. "I like the berry notes," she says, "but I guess the berry and citrus wouldn't blend well with milk. Maybe that's why people stay away from it."

With each shot, a heady buzz builds, somehow magnifying the tiny kitchen. Ethiopia, Kenya, Guatemala. They talk shop. "Starbucks broke a billion — did you read that?" says Shafer, a 29-year-old Midwesterner with close-cropped hair and a 6 o'clock shadow.

Chains, they say, are starting to opt for automated machines that spit out programmed shots at the touch of a button. As an independent barista, Parker says, "you have a lot more control over your drink. There's a difference between my latte and Jeff's latte."

(At Tully's, while baristas there are encouraged to submit personal concoctions to corporate headquarters — Golding says one of her Greenwood co-workers once devised a popular drink she called "Heaven" unavailable at other Tully's locations — the company prefers to have uniform drinks throughout.)

On the other hand, efficiency lets chains excel at customer service. "That's the disadvantage of independent coffee sellers," Parker says. "They're so into the artistry and craft; the customer doesn't always have that passion. You've got to find a happy medium."

Vying for perfection

Back at the Northwest Barista Jam, emcee Danny Johns wanders the stations, peppering competitors with distracting banter to simulate real-life customers. The room is an espresso symphony — the buzz of grinders, the welding-torch fizz of steamers, the clinking of spoons on ceramic cups — spiced with the eye-popping aroma of coffee beans. Judges watch with furrowed brows, trading whispers.

Says Jessi Skall of Portland's Stumptown Coffee Roasters: "I'm a little surprised at the seriousness of it all."

At last, the finalists are announced: Andy Cronin of Olympia's Batdorf and Bronson, John Lewis of Vancouver's J.J. Bean and Mark Pfaff of SeaTac's Espresso Express.

Pfaff goes first and whips out four shots in three minutes. Now the cappuccinos: "I love talking customers into getting a cappuccino. They're expecting a horrible cup of coffee with sea foam on top." Six minutes.

He wipes his brow with a forearm and moves on to his specialty drink as the time ticks away. He places the four "Strawberry Crèmes" — strawberry-syrup-flavored breve cappuccinos — on the judges' table with two seconds left on the clock.

Cronin is next. He knocks out the espressos in under three minutes using a blend of Latin American beans. "It's important to be familiar with the blends you're using," he says. "A good barista needs to be able to communicate that to the customer."

Finally, there's Lewis' assault of ambience — exotic fruits and props, the boombox beats of moody electronica, a laptop homage to Vancouver's Commercial Drive. It's like a rave at Pier One Imports. "The theme of my presentation is fecundity," he says. "I want to celebrate things that are natural and cultural."

His espressos appear in sake cups in a quick two minutes. Cappuccinos follow. Spelling it out as he goes. Now the big specialty finish, his Americano-based Spice of Life, espresso dripping over little bags of anise, nutmeg and allspice; the water steeped in (among other things) ginger, fennel and orange peel; the honey-flavored milk. One final rocket blast of froth, then a last sprinkling of fruit, a pomegranate crown, and voilà.

The judges confer for 10 minutes: Pfaff is declared the winner. Cronin takes second, Lewis third. Pfaff hoists high his plaque. "The other guys made mistakes that first-time people make," Dismas Smith explains.

"It's going to be a great thing that we've started," Zoka's Babcock says. "And remember — it all started here."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or