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Caffeine Dreams

Best Barista in the Silicon Valley?

By Vrinda Normand

THE CLOCK starts at 15 minutes, and barista Eugenia Chien launches into her first round of drinks, the cappuccino. Her demeanor remains serene as she expertly works the espresso machine. The hum of water filtering through ground beans and the hiss of steaming milk are the only sounds to be heard as 20 enraptured faces gather around the counter.

Avid coffee drinkers have flocked to Barefoot Coffee Roasters in San Jose this Saturday evening for the final competition in the Battle of the Baristas, a tournament organized and sponsored by the host cafe's owner, Andy Newborn. Chien and Monica Rae Hill (both on home turf at this South Bay spot), Kelly Price from Global Blends Coffee Company and Eton Tsuno from Etonic Espresso catering service compete for bragging rights to the title Best Barista in the Silicon Valley.

In a soothing voice, Chien explains the craft of cappuccino making. For the steamed milk, she must strike the perfect balance of moisture and thickness so that when she pours it over the espresso, a thin layer of light brown crema appears on top. She wiggles the pitcher and a small spoon as the honeylike fluid swirls in the ceramic cup, forming an intricate leaf shape on top of the foam.

Each of the competitors showcases a signature drink that brings together a host of flavors. Chien wows the audience by whipping together a Firestorm on Mt. Fuji. She lines the rim of a teacup with honey and wasabi powder and adds a teaspoon of almond extract, then lights the alcoholic liquid and douses the blue flames with a frothy mixture of espresso and milk steamed together. Judge Tony Roma, a coffee connoisseur, says the spicy-sweet wasabi paste opened up his sinuses to the rich almond and espresso tastes.

After several more dazzling drinks from the other baristas, onlooker Lynn Doughty exclaims, "I didn't know coffee was that deep. For me, it was always something you take to keep awake." Well, the four judges will probably be buzzed tonight—they've been carefully relishing caffeinated concoctions since 5pm. Tsuno displays an unusual technique for his signature drink, the Espresso Mint Truffle. He stuffs a bunch of fresh mint leaves into the neck of a decanter, through which he slowly strains a small amount of hot espresso. The tedious process lulls the excitement, but his dimpled smile and elegant presentation make up for it.

For the final flair of the evening, Hill introduces an exotic yet soothing drink that, despite her attention to detail, lacks a name. She coats the rims of two fancy glass mugs with lime juice and sugar, mixes the espresso with curry powder, turmeric, allspice and caramel, and steams a combination of coconut and nonfat milk. She sprinkles the saucer with Citron Oolong tea to accent the aroma and then torches the top of the foam to create a sweet crust.

This buttery-smooth drink, infused with a mild spiciness and complemented with a citrus punch, leaves a lasting impression. Hill takes first place, followed by Tsuno, Chien and Price.

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From the November 24-30, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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