The New York State Capital Region is rife with young enthusiastic culinarians doing good things with food and beverages. This was readily apparent at the recent Albany Wine and Dine For the Arts benefit event organized by Michelle Hines Abrams and a committee of devoted professionals and patrons. One of the areas of nascent growth that has me particularly excited is that of a nascent regional coffee culture. It may not be Portland, San Francisco or New York City, but is growing rapidly in terms of sophistication and quality. I’m talking people who are taking coffee seriously and doing what they can with the public to both learn and teach about coffee. Under the rubric of a loose organization known as The Capitol Region Coffee Collective, this group of young friends and coffee professionals has begun a free program of educational events involving tasting the attributes of coffee in a scientific fashion based upon changing variables. The first one they held used freshly roasted single sourced coffee beans and brewing through a Chemex as constants. They varied the roasting style having roasted beans to light, medium and dark roasts. It was enlightening in the way only comparison tastings can be. Coming this weekend they will be viewing coffee through the lenses of different constants and variables. This next time the coffee roast and beans will be constant while the brewing methods will vary. It should be equally enlightening. Recognizing this culture, the Albany Wine and Dine organizers with the sponsorship of All Over Albany, feature a competitive coffee challenge amongst area coffee professionals called appropriately enough, Barista Albany.
I was honored to be asked to judge this and several other culinary competitions at the festival. Accompanying me as judges for the Barista event were my friend and noted chef, restaurateur and cookbook writer Suvir Saran and Matt Bruck, the founder and head of Joios, an organization based in New York City devoted to promoting and developing taste awareness and preferences amongst consumers and professionals through organizing blind tasting events as well as through a free app useful for tracking tasting experiences. The emcee and a leading organizer of the event was George Shoemaker of The Biz of Coffee.
There were four baristas competing including the defending champion, David Schulman of the Hudson River Coffee House, who won the toss to go first. Each contestant had to prepare three drinks. The lone constant was the first drink, a single espresso. Variables available to the baristas for this part included the coffee beans, the grind and the cup. The second drink allowed a bit more choice as the baristas could decide to serve either a latte or a cappuccino. The final beverage was a signature coffee drink reflective of the barista’s personal style. The caveat was that ingredients could not be derived from powder form or be artificial.
Joining Schulman as competitors were Ron Grieco of Tierra Coffee Roasters, Luen Proft of Lucas Confectionery in Troy and Heather Froeschle of The Happy Cappuccino in Schenectady, all working in the greater Albany area. Both Grieco and Proft are heavily involved with the Capitol region Coffee Collective and I had met both at that first comparison tasting described above. The baristas each had a total of twenty minutes to complete their three coffees.
Judging criteria were laid out weighing a wide range of various technical aspects of the production of the coffees as well as the more subjective elements of taste. These included such specifics as whether each coffee was made with beans ground expressly for that cup, the timing and neatness of the process and the presence and quality of coffee art in a latte or cappuccino. The competition was tight through the espressos as each made good cups, but for some points were deducted for having pre-ground beans as well as neatness details such as un-cleaned, coffee splattered cups. My favorite flavor-wise was the Blue Bottle Hayes Valley espresso pulled by Luen Proft. It was clean, nutty and chocolatey. Heather’s espresso was notable for having the best heat preservation at serving.
Two of the competitors elected to make lattes while two selected cappuccinos. That the baristas were under pressure was evident in the shakes observed while pouring the steamed milk for their coffee art. That they had all already been well caffeinated was also probably a bit of a factor. Grieco’s latte was the most technically superior product as he suffered less in the creation of his art than Schulman and the capuccini of Proft and Heather, which lacked the appropriate ratios of coffee, milk and foam.
The final signature beverages, helped determine the final results. David Schulman made a rum containing cocktail inspired by pie. His “Chai Pie” was creative and tasty, but as with his pre-grinding his beans, involved some shortcuts surprising from a defending champion. The drink consisted of two parts packaged Chai drink, 1 part fresh egg nog, 1 part coffee, “a touch” of Appleton Rum, “a dollop” of whipped cream, a bit of nutmeg and a side of coconut biscuit to represent “the crust.” He was penalized both for the packaged Chai as well as the canned whipped cream.
Grieco went the furthest out on a creative limb with his specialty drink. He sliced oranges and squeezed a lemon through a Chemex filter and passed hot water to create a citrus tea. This was combined with a shot of espresso and a twist of orange peel. His goal was to highlight the acidity and fruitiness of the coffee beans that he used. It was a novel approach, but unfortunately, it fell short in terms of pleasure. The drink was thin and acidic without sufficient balance. With a greater concentration of coffee, we might have enjoyed it more.
Proft was strong throughout his work, but he left us with a bit of controversy, when he was only able to make two of the three specialty drinks before time expired. While a touch sloppy due to the time pressure, his drink though, tasted by all of the judges was by far the most delicious of all of the baristas. He combined a cortado of coffee with some hot Taza chocolate and Port wine. His was clearly the best to that point, regardless of not having finished all three cups.
Heather showed herself as an extremely competent barista with excellent technical skills. Her hot drinks were served hotter than anyone elses and appropriate to the beverage. Her signature was creative and attractive, but ultimately, the flavor profile combining her iced coffee with chocolate, banana liqueur and Torani Crème de Banana Syrup along with some caramel, was ultimately too reminiscent of a mass market coffee drink for the three judges.
Proft left the door open by not completing the full assignment on schedule, but his work was the best and the most delicious throughout. As such, the three judges agreed that despite that near fatal flaw, he deserved to win the competition that offered a prize of a Compak K3 Touch Espresso Grinder, Chemex 8 Cup Coffee Maker and Filters, Bonavita Gooseneck Kettle, 6 Bottle Case of Torani Signature Syrups – an $825.00 Value.. The best part of it all, for me, was the evidence that serious gourmet coffee is truly coming of age in the Capital District. I look forward to this continued development
For more photos from this fun event please see my Flick’r Photoset.