Baristas compete to pour the perfect cup.

A Thing of Beauty 

Baristas compete to pour the perfect cup.

In every coffeehouse, baristas struggle against time, nature and chemistry in their efforts to steam heavy foam and pull perfect espressos. Even more nerve-racking, the Midwest Regional Barista Competition boils contestants' work down to just 12 perfect cups of coffee.

Aaron Duckworth, who owns Espresso d'ell Anatra, will compete for the first time this weekend. After five years working at Starbucks, he thinks he knows what the judges are looking for. "I've made over a million drinks, but since I opened here, I've had to start all over," he says. "Where Starbucks is all about getting you in and out in three minutes, it might take that long for a good barista just to make your drink." In the competition, baristas have only 15 minutes to produce four espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty drinks of their own creation for a panel of "sensory judges" examining more criteria than a beauty contest.

"They judge you on technical skills: Are you pulling the best shot you possibly can? Are your cappuccinos the correct proportion? The aesthetics don't matter as much, because if it doesn't taste good, who gives a rat's ass what it looks like?" Duckworth explains. With baristas converging from seven states, the 25 available slots contain the best of the best coffee geeks from two time zones.

The winner picks up $1,000 toward competing in the nationals. If he or she wins that, it's on to the world competition in Italy. "If you win that," Duckworth says, "you're king and god for a year."

Baristas can pick out their theme music and answer questions while they brew, turning a stodgy display of knowledge and practice into a kind of performance art. "Unfortunately, we're still largely seen as fast-food workers," Duckworth says. "But it's a craft, as long to learn and hard to master as law or high finance."

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