Competitive Craft Coffee, Reviewed

Who doesn’t like a good movie or a good cup of coffee?

One of my rituals of long-distance air travel is to rent one of the 99¢ movies of the week from iTunes. Usually, there’s a mainstream, fiction film—sometimes good, often terrible—but there’s always a reliable supply of independent and documentary films.

Before my recent flight to Los Angeles for the holidays and the subsequent weeks, I rented the documentary Barista (Rock Baijnauth, 2015). The competition follows five baristas from the Los Angeles area as they make their way to the 2013 National Barista Championships in Boston.

To an esoteric coffee snob—that’s me!—I was already familiar with barista competitions that take place all over the world. In fact, I was fortunate to meet and learn a couple of things from Erin McCarthy, a World Champion who ran the coffee cuppings at the Counter Culture Coffee Lab in Chelsea some years ago and, in my estimation, singlehandedly brought respectability to the basket filter well after everyone jumped on the cone-style filter bandwagon—both the two-dimensional cones and the 3D cones found in the Chemex and Hario manual drip methods.

The competition is fierce. It’s fascinating to see how contestants are judged not only on the coffee they brew—an espresso, a latte, and a personal signature drink. Each contestant engages in a kind of performance art and is judged on presentation technique and technical skills. Much of the competition reminded me of academic or professional conferences, where each contestant is firmly associated with an institution. In the barista world, each is identified by name, coffee shop, and city, not unlike academics who are judged by their institution and its recognition well before anyone listens to their presentation.

In the documentary, five baristas were representing three cafes: Intelligentsia in Venice, the Portola Coffee Lab in Costa Mesa, and G&B in downtown LA. The heavy representation of Los Angeles area baristas is likely due to the filmmakers working in their own backyard, which not only skews the prestige of the Southland in the coffee world, but it also creates a dilemma when only one of their profiled contestants makes it to the final, six-person round of the national Barista competition.

Despite the gravity of Good coffee permeating throughout the film, the documentary is compelling because its subjects are so relatable. Each is clearly passionate but none articulates a holier-than-thou attitude about their craft. (Perhaps, profiling LA-area baristas instead of those from San Francisco or from Seattle was done for this reason.) The film makes a humorous attempt to outline the three waves of coffee and the significance of competitions to the professional development of each barista. To most people, coffee is as pedestrian—and complimentary—as milk and sugar, and very few people can understand how one kind is distinct from another. However, because the contestants are so passionate and driven about their artistry and chemistry for brewing extraordinary coffee, it provides the necessary ingredients for a wonderful film.

A compelling profile of five Los Angeles-area, third-wave baristas competing in the national Barista championship in Boston.

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