Saturday, February 21, 2009

Baristas and Impressionism

Last weekened I was in Atlanta for the South Eastern Barista Competition. I caught the finals, which showcased the top six baristas from the previous rounds. The venue was impressive: three espresso machines in a large gallery in the King Plow Arts Center, which is a beautifully renovated factory. Huge pieces of art hung from the walls, and the ceiling had glass panels, which let in natural light.

Four out of the six baristas were from Atlanta, one came in from Athens and one from D.C. Each competitor had 15 minutes to make 4 espressos, 4 cappuccinos, and 4 signature drinks. It sounds easy enough, but they generally finished with less than a minute left. The first place signature drink was an espresso base, with a splash of root beer, then topped with a carmelized banana whipped cream. I was impressed by how they did not only make drinks, but as part of their presentation to the judges, they would explain where the components of their espresso came from, what it should taste like, how they made it by hand, why carob worked better than chocolate in a recipe, and so on.

I was telling some of my co-workers about the event the next day, and got an interesting response: "Why would I drive down to Atlanta to watch people work? I can do that here any day!" I think the difference is in the idea of what coffee should be. In Atlanta, there was so much attention to detail and creativity in the baristas' hands. In Chattanooga, there are buckets of supplies, slap-dashed together. Certainly, one has to work hard and a cafe has to make money, but if there is nothing in the drinks worth remembering, then you might as well get it at a gas station with spare change. If there is no virtuosity in the hand of the barista, then why not get a machine to pump it out? That is why latte art is the sign of hand-crafted coffee: it is the flourish that separates creative work from "just work".

...which reminds me: the light in my eye sees light

We see more than what is around us, and we see it with some tint of what is inside of us. That was a major motivation in impressionist art (Van Gogh, etc.): to not just show a field or a street scene or a vase of flowers, but to impress something personal onto that object. That's why seeing art (and reading good books and listening to good music and trying to understand difficult ideas) is so important. It makes us re-see the lines and colors and noises that we hear all the time. And hopefully, the world becomes more complex and textured in the process.

Here are some people who are rethinking trade and doing really great things for coffee and farmers: