For the First Time in NYC, Baristas Compete on the Quality of a Plain Old Cup of Coffee, Rather Than Espresso

Sam Lewontin meticulously pours water into the filter. View entire slideshow at Photograph by Cheryl Chan.

Most coffee competitions focus on baristas concocting lattes and cappuccinos made with mechanized espresso machines. But at last month’s manual brew competition at RBC NYC, a high-end, specialty coffee shop on Worth Street, plain old coffee made meticulously by hand was the highlight.

“Usually very informal competitions have always been about latte art, which actually isn’t about coffee at all, it’s about milk” explains Teresa von Fuchs, a coffee and espresso consultant for Dallis Bros. Coffee in Queens and a judge at the July 28 contest. (Called RBC #YesEqual Manuel Brew Down, it was run in partnership with the coffee blog Now, says von Fuchs, the new frontier for these brew battles is “one-cup-at-a-time coffee” made manually.

“The reason that we wanted to do a manual brew down instead of a latte art throwdown is that a lot of people are getting more interested in pour-over coffee,” says RBC manager Cora Lambert, referring to the name of a now-trendy coffee-making method where hot water is slowly poured over ground beans through a cone-shaped paper, cloth, ceramic, plastic or metal filter right into a mug. When baristas are evaluated on the making of those drinks, which don’t have added milk, says von Fuchs, the focus of the contest obviously becomes “really more much more about coffee.”

As with pour-over coffee bars, now seen at high-end restaurants and ever-more coffee shops, these types of coffee contests might be taking off. This is the first year the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) held a Brewer’s Cup, says Lambert, which was a manual coffee-making competition, which led to RBC’s competition. The 12 baristas came from coffee shops across the northeast, and were able to choose their beans and their method of creating a great cuppa Joe. Those include not just pour-overs, but anything that used a filter, such as a French press, a two-tier “vacuum” or siphon machine, which looks almost like a piece of laboratory equipment, or the Chemex, a glass contraption shaped like an hourglass.

Brewing coffee through a filter, says von Fuchs, allows the barista control over every aspect of the brewing process–not just the bean used and the fineness or coarseness of a grind, to the water temperature and steeping time, to whether a paper, metal or cloth filter is used. “All these things really changes the flavors, the body of the coffee,” says von Fuchs. This type of back-to-basics coffee-making really creates “an artisan cup,” agrees Lambert.

In addition to von Fuchs, the other judges of the competition were Jesse Kahn of Counter Culture Coffee, Trevor Corlett of Madcap Coffee, and Benjamin Pratt of Barismo, who all followed the SCAA scoring criteria, rating aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body and balance. Judges cupped their hands around the cup, and inhaling the aroma of the coffee, then slurped a spoonful from a spoon. That move, explained von Fuchs, “aerates the liquid in your mouth in order to coat the palate and send those aromatics up to the part of your nose that hangs in the back of your throat.”

The winner was Ethan Miller of Shot Doctors, a Boston-based coffee consulting company. He took no chances with unfamiliar city water, bringing with him Boston H2O in a glass jar, Kenya-grown beans roasted by Barismo, and a Hario Syphon with a cloth filter. He meticulously poured the liquid into a red wine decanter to cool it off, ”to get it a little softer and sweeter for the judges,” he said, and served it at room temperature. Brandon Duff, an RBC barista, took second place, showcasing Kochere beans, an Ethiopia coffee roasted by Mad Cap. Duff went with pour-over, using a paper filter V60 Hario, and brewed his coffee at 92 degrees.

Throughout the competition these baristas coaxed out a complex array of flavors that ranged from fruity hints of berries to caramel to chocolate covered strawberries to lemon. They also employed a slew of makers: Wiggles Peters from Irving Farm coffee used a Japanese Kenta filter designed for camping, which he folded over the cup. Troy Sidle used Counter Culture Guatemala coffee and a Melitta cone filter, a simple pour-over method.

After coffee was poured for the judges, remnants were passed around the room for the audience to savor. Shouts of “woohoo, coffee!” could be heard, despite (or perhaps because of) umpteen cups consumed. The caffeine energy was infectious.

Published in Edible Manhattan:

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