Who pours the fairest latte art of them all? That question has been the driving force behind an on-going contest, underway around the Bay Area since January, where local baristas have been competing to win fame, glory and lots of cool prizes.
The fourth event of the six-session competition is scheduled to take place Thursday at Farley’s East, 33 Grand Ave., in Oakland. Entry is free to the public (and will include numerous yummy freebies, if past experience is an indicator) and costs $5 for those who want to enter the contest.
A fledgling organization, the Bay Area Coffee Community, kicked off the competition in January, when the group itself launched. Sessions have taken place in Oakland, at Awaken Café, and at two spots in San Francisco. (Scroll down to see a slideshow from the Awaken Café event.)
Richard Sandlin, one of the group’s founders, said the goal of both the Bay Area Coffee Community and the contest is to build connections among coffee lovers and recognize local baristas for their skills and knowledge.
“We wanted to experiment in a fun way and see what happens when you take away the price tag and celebrate what coffee is, from seed to cup,” said Sandlin. “Latte art is really just one piece of that, but it’s one of the most engaging. It’s fast paced, it’s exciting, it’s competitive and it’s beautiful. People naturally want to look at it. It’s great way to give someone the coffee bug.”
Latte art competitions aren’t new. They’ve been taking place around the globe and around the nation for some time. They’ve been a feature of the coffee scene in North Carolina, New York, Boston, D.C., Seattle, Los Angeles and West Texas, and several have happened previously in the Bay Area. But Sandlin said the six-month Bay Area Coffee Community series, with its cumulative format and high-stakes prizes, is the first he knows of to take place on such a large scale.
Four of the six events were scheduled for San Francisco, with the other two set in Oakland. Each has had spots for up to 32 competitors, and hundreds of spectators have shown up to cheer and observe. Sponsors have offered everything from free beer to complimentary chocolate, kombucha and waffles, and even a custom coffee-flavored custard. After Thursday night’s event, the contest will move back to San Francisco for its final two battles.
Competitors are judged on a range of categories, such as color contrast, creativity, visual foam quality and overall aesthetics. Head-to-head brackets are set up for each contestant, with the winner of each round moving ahead to the next heat. At the end of the night, the top three competitors are named as winners; they build up points that carry forward to the next event.
Sandlin said the group elected to hold competitions on both sides of the Bay because of the depth of coffee culture that has developed with roasters and coffee shops throughout the region. San Francisco has made a name for itself with big-name roasters such as Ritual, Four Barrel and Sightglass, but the East Bay has held its own with companies such as Blue Bottle Coffee Co., Mr. Espresso, Bicycle Coffee Co., Highwire Coffee Roasters, and Roast Co., among others, most of which are considered part of the so-called “third wave,” or artisanal, coffee movement.
“Flavor-wise, all these brands are equally awesome,” said Sandlin. “But the stories that companies are trying to tell is different.”
Sandlin, who has been in the specialty coffee industry for seven years, noted the East Bay’s rich history in coffee. It started, by his account, with the birth of Peet’s Coffee in 1966 in North Berkeley, which went on to inspire coffee giant Starbucks in the Northwest. KQED traces local history back even further: “From James Folger selling freshly roasted beans to dusty and thirsty miners during the gold rush … the Bay Area has been at the epicenter of coffee roasting in the United States for over 160 years.”
And green bean importers, such as Royal Coffee in Emeryville and Sweet Maria’s in Oakland, have set the stage for more growth and creativity by keeping the supply lines open for roasters locally and nationally.
For Sandlin, increasing the profile of the coffee industry isn’t just about some kind of quest for a better tasting cup. A burgeoning national thirst for coffee, he said, will ultimately lead to an economic boost and more jobs: for coffee producers, roasters and café workers.
(In addition to his volunteer work with the coffee organization, Sandlin works for Fair Trade USA, where he said part of his job is to “connect coffee farmers to coffee brands to ensure fair prices, transparency, long-lasting relationships and triple bottom line sustainability throughout the value chain.”)
But don’t expect such weighty topics to come up at the group’s latte art competitions, which have a celebratory, high-energy, communal atmosphere. The Awaken event in February, for example, ended in a dance party. The emphasis is more on building community than on latte art domination.
“They’re really not in competition with one another,” said Sandlin, of the contestants. “They’re in competition with the bulk bin at the grocery store that hasn’t been changed for 16 years. With less-independent-minded cafes that are not pushing the boundaries. With canned coffee.”
The events, said Sandlin, are primarily a time for everyone to come together: industry folks, home roasters, coffee lovers and anyone else with an interest in the scene.
“You don’t need to have a long intellectual diatribe about the plight of the coffee farmer. All of us are just geeks who just want to share,” said Sandlin. “We just want to tell you why coffee’s so special.”
Watch a slideshow from the Awaken Café latte art competition below. (Photos by Emilie Raguso.)
Learn more about the Bay Area Coffee Community on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr and on Instagram. Thursday’s competition takes place at Farley’s East at 33 Grand Ave. in Oakland. Entry is free to the public and costs $5 for those who want to enter the contest. Sign-ups begin at 6 p.m., and are capped at 32. Pouring begins at 7 p.m. See dates for the remaining competitions here.
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