A Wired Weekend at the Barista Guild of America’s Big Eastern Event

Flickr / Dallis Bros. Coffee

J. Park Brannen of Counter Culture Coffee took top place as best barista in the Northeast region. Credit: Flickr/Dallis Bros. Coffee

The coffee nerds of New York did our caffeinated city proud at Big Eastern.

The Barista Guild of America held its annual regional competition from January 17-19, drawing the East Coast’s most innovative coffee connoisseurs to Durham, North Carolina, for a weekend of brewer vs. brewer, barista vs. barista one-upmanship.

Century-old New York artisan roaster Dallis Bros. co-sponsored the event for the fourth year running, along with beloved Durham- and New York-based outfit Counter Culture Coffee. And J. Park Brannen of Counter Culture took top place for best barista in the Northeast region. Brannen will go on to compete in the 2014 United States Barista Championship in Seattle, Washington, with a first round bye.

For the first time this year, the Northeast and Southeast events were held under the same roof. Hundreds of spectators came to breathe in the aroma of the world’s finest beans, try a steaming sip of Dallis Bros. espresso and watch competitive baristas and brewers try to outdo each other with recipes calling for tangerine juice, barrel-aged espresso and steamed water buffalo milk.

The grand scale of this year’s event made Brannen nervous. “It actually wasn’t fun for me at all,” he laughs. He and his competitors spent months preparing, devising ways to distinguish themselves within the guidelines and practicing their presentations. Brewers must make a hand-poured cup using any method of their choosing, explaining their choices as they go. Baristas like Brannen serve judges a three-part round: espresso, cappuccino and a specialty drink — all from the same roast — in 15 minutes or less.

Brannen chose an unusual sun-dried, natural-processed coffee developed in collaboration by Counter Culture and a grower from Burundi. To a soundtrack of hip-hop hits covered by a string quartet, he served the espresso in tiny chalices to maximize its aroma. He painstakingly made the cappuccinos individually rather than in the traditional sets of two. And his specialty drink, a mock gin and tonic with chilled shots of espresso, contained 18 ingredients — most of which were steeped into his homemade tonic syrup. All the while, he spoke about what made his coffee so special: the trust between growers and buyers, baristas and customers was at the top of the list. And, of course the coffee’s taste — cranberry, molasses, tannins and chocolate in his case — is what sets a drink apart, too.

Brannen was impressed by his fellow baristas’ skills: “I was taken aback by the quality of the competition this year,” he says. “I haven’t competed for two years, and what it took to win three years ago—you can’t get away with that anymore.” Next year, “I have to up my game,” he resolves. “I have to get better at what I do.”

You can watch J. Park Brannen and other competitors here. Stay tuned for more coffee news from Counter Culture in our upcoming innovations issue that will hit stands this spring.

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