The Jealousy

Barista brews her way to top

By Judith Blake
Seattle Times staff reporter

A sage-flavored espresso drink has helped a Clark County barista steam her way to coffee-brewing fame.

Phuong Tran is the new U.S. champion barista after brewing up her signature drink, Crimson Sage, and two other coffee concoctions yesterday in national competition in Seattle.

Tran is not the first from latte-loving Washington to take the national title. Last year's winner was Bronwen Serna, a barista at Hines Public Market Coffee in Seattle.

Sponsored by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the contest drew more than 40 competitors from around the country, with six of them surviving a series of preliminary events to reach yesterday's finals.

While seven judges watched sternly and took notes on their clipboards, each competitor had 15 minutes to prepare three coffee drinks — a cappucino, an espresso and a "signature" drink of his or her own creation. An audience of several hundred whooped and clapped at key moments, such as when a barista created an artful design in foam atop a cappucino.

Tran later admitted she felt plenty of stress.

"I was really nervous, but people said I looked calm," she said.

Part of her winning turn at the espresso machine involved creating her signature drink, which features espresso, sugar-cane juice, a pinch of white ground pepper and a topping of sage-infused steamed milk.

"It's very unusual," said Tran, who owns a coffee house, Lava Java, in Ridgefield, Clark County, near Portland. She also works for Seattle's Zoka Coffee Roaster & Tea, where she trains retailers in coffee handling.

What makes a top-notch barista?

"I think it's when it comes from the heart, when you have passion and you love what you do," Tran said.

Competitors were judged partly on their drinks' quality — including temperature, consistency of the foam and appearance — as well as proper service to the four "sensory" judges.

The remaining three judges evaluated technical matters, such as control of espresso-shot times, cleanliness and attention to detail.

Six of the judges came from other states. The head judge, John Sanders, co-owns Hines Public Market Coffee in Seattle.

Many of the baristas participating in the weekend's competition or watching from the audience appeared to be in their 20s or their early 30s.

That's not always the case in other countries. The average age of baristas in Italy, for example, is 38, said Mike Ferguson, a spokesman for the specialty-coffee association. There, he said, being a barista is often a long-term career much like bartending.

"We're not there yet [in terms of career longevity], but the young people here for this event will help make it that way," Ferguson said.

At 34, Tran says she plans to make coffee a life-long career.

Meanwhile, she has a more short-term goal: preparing for the World Barista Championship, which will also take place in Seattle.

That competition, at which Tran will represent the United States, will be held in conjunction with the specialty-coffee association's annual conference and exhibition April 15-18 at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.

Ferguson expects the conference will draw about 10,000 participants from some 50 countries.

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