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Quest for Perfection

By Gretchen Giles

Baristas here in the states don't get no respect. In Italy, where the fine art of espresso making and drinking was born, a barista "commands the house," says Flying Goat Coffee green bean buyer Phil Anacker. "He makes you a perfect drink while he tells you how beautiful you are." But when baristas here compete, they aim to do their best Italian impersonation. The host of the 2005 Western Regional Barista Competition held last month at Roshambo Winery, Flying Goat saw one of its own place third in a field of some 20 competitors. Pele Aveau, who works at Flying Goat's Santa Rosa cafe, deserves the sound of two hands clapping for making it to the top tier, considering that placing in a barista competition is about a thousand times more difficult than your average Joe might figure.

"They have 15 minutes to prepare four espressos, four cappuccinos and four versions of their signature drinks," Anacker explains, "all the while being judged by two technical judges who are looking for how much milk and coffee they waste, movement techniques that might jar the pot and their cleanliness, all while wearing headsets. They're supposed to be able to converse freely with an emcee who is asking them questions the entire time."

Nightmare!

"I agree," he chuckles. "There's no way I could do it."

While in an Italian state of mind, consider that the chances of ordering an excellent espresso in Italy, a drink that Anacker defines as a 1.5 ounce shot of coffee with a "dark brown mahogany crema that's sweet and aromatic" has about a 95 percent success rate. Compare that to ordering an expensive cup of hot brown water here in the States, odds that he puts at 95 percent--the other way. "As a wholesaler, I run into the same problem consistently and that is that restaurants still consider coffee and espresso to be an afterthought," Anacker says. "Our goal is to get restaurants, even some of the best in the area, to really pay attention to and put some time into training the staff--as much as they would in the bar or the kitchen."

Isn't it really the fault of the megachain-that-must-not-be-named-but-emanates-from-Seattle? "I'll always take the opportunity to snipe," Anacker laughs. "But I prefer to focus on the opportunity that they created for the rest of us. Starbucks did raise the bar 10 or 15 years ago in making people aware of espresso drinks. But now they've gone fully automated and the staff just pushes a button and it makes itself. It's never going to be horrible," he shrugs, "but it's never going to be superlative."

Have Pele pull you a perfect cup while congratulating her heartily at Flying Goat Coffee, 10 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. 707.575.1202.

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From the March 9-15, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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