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25 February, 2015

Coffee Fest Atlanta 2015: Best Coffee Shop Competition

Comments : 1 Posted in : Coffee Shops, Events on by : The Gourmez

Gratuitous espresso shots.

Gratuitous espresso shots.

Last month, I had the pleasure of covering the 2015 Southeastern Regional Coffee Fest, which took place in Atlanta. The Coffee Fest is a trade show and coffee education opportunity held in four different regions each year—upcoming ones for 2015 will be held in Tokyo, Chicago, and Portland.

I’m writing a post on my favorite products from the Coffee Fest soon, but there’s no question that the flashiest part of the Fest is the barista competitions.

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I am no stranger to latte art and best espresso competitions, and I’ll be writing posts about those particular match-ups in the coming weeks here at the Gourmez. But I wanted to start out my Coffee Fest Atlanta coverage with the newest barista contest, one that only got its start in 2012: America’s Best Coffeehouse.

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Judging the drinks.

Judging the drinks.

What takes place at the regional coffee fests are only the last stage in a multi-pronged competition that begins with an application to compete and moves on to fan voting on the Best Coffeehouse website and secret shopper reports from the actual coffeehouse locations. From those scores, six semi-finalists are chosen to compete at the event itself.

The winners of the America's Best Coffeehouse Competition.

The winners of the America’s Best Coffeehouse Competition.

They all share the same basic set-up behind the counter, but other than that, the teams bring in their own materials. They get an hour total of prep, customer service time, and clean-up. Each semi-finalist team is comprised of three employees who have worked at the shop for at least 120 days. Each coffeehouse must offer standard espresso drinks, two coffee varieties, a flavored latte, and a specialty drink during their competition round.

Peregrine Espresso's pourover set-up.

Peregrine Espresso’s pourover set-up.

Semi-finalists are judged on their expertise on coffee, their skill at drink making, their customer service, and their teamwork by at least 30 judges who mingle in with the Coffee Fest attendees during the café’s 30-minute period of serving drinks.

Ready to judge!

Ready to judge!

A pair of judges also watches from behind the scenes and rates the competitors on an impressively detailed checklist. You can peruse that here.

The top three teams do it all again during the final round on the last day of the festival.

Watching from the sidelines, America’s Best Coffeehouse Competition is a remarkable display of what these baristas can do—and believe me, I’m a food blogger who highly values that career. The competition appeals to me because I strongly believe many important qualities must come together to make a coffeehouse excel; it’s not just providing expertly roasted beans or getting the steeping right or flashing those pearly whites that generates a coffeehouse’s atmosphere and reputation.

Plus, it was impressive to watch people in the midst of a stressful competition serve up both customer-pleasing drinks and that ever-important smile.

Smiles from team CG Pops.

Smiles from team CG Pops.

The first team I observed was from Cool Beans Coffee Roasters of Marietta, GA, and they dressed to the nines! I can’t imagine wearing Cheryl Katz’s heels on a normal day, much less working behind a counter with them.

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That feat was impressive all on its own, as was their taking the time to decorate the coffee tables.

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Alas, Cool Beans did not move on to the finals, unlike two of the other teams I watched that day.

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The team from Seeds Coffee, Birmingham, AL, competed all over the place—my lens captured Seeds partner Jeff Huey at the Best Espresso machines earlier that day, too.

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I asked Jeff what his favorite of the competitions was and he didn’t hesitate to pick the Best Coffeehouse Competition, largely because it’s a team event but also because it’s more of an all-around competition, not one that focuses on a sole aspect of the coffee biz. Obviously, I agree with his choice!

Seeds Coffee’s specialty drink was the Strong Beard, an 8 oz. milk chocolate mocha made with organic riceberry milk that had been steamed with orange zest and clove. That drink, and their performance, took them to second place in the overall competition, earning $1000.

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Another team that did not make the finals, CG Pops of Ellijay, GA, won me over with their charming combined espresso bar and cupcake boutique concept.

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They also made an attractive, and what looked to be indulgent, mocha—only fitting for cupcake makers!

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I loved owner Crystal Gembala’s enthusiasm as she competed fiercely, even with a leg injury.

Crystal explaining the concept of CG Pops along with her employees Kali Malham and Kaylan English.

Crystal explaining the concept of CG Pops along with her employees Kali Malham and Kaylan English.

Team Black Water Loft of Floyd, VA, came with matching plaid and braids!

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They also were armed with enough customer service style and espresso skills to take third place overall, for a $500 prize. I admired their beautiful baby’s breath centerpieces,

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–and the latte-making skills of their barista, Jess, on the machine.

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So who was first? The brand-new and extremely talented team from Washington DC’s Peregrine Espresso.

Allison Bouley, Britt Calder, and Joseph Stout.

Allison Bouley, Britt Calder, and Joseph Stout.

I spoke to these three winners after their first bout of competition two days before the final. I was pretty darn impressed by their cocktail-inspired specialty drink and wanted to learn more. The Old-Fashioned Revision, developed by Joseph, features cherry-orange simple syrup, two shots of La Golandrina espresso, 40 grams of ice, and orange peel and bada-bing cherry garnishes.

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Those beautiful garnishes were a great way to leave an impression on the judges! All three members of Peregrine’s team were buzzing after their semi-final round, wishing that it had gone longer because they had so much fun interacting with the customers. Peregrine’s team members had never even worked together before training together, each being employed at a different one of the DC chain’s three locations.

I had no idea that watching people sling coffee drinks would be as exciting and innovative as it was, but the competitors at Coffee Fest Atlanta proved otherwise to me, even if I never did get to try their drinks myself. Each 30-minute competition slot had a steady, long line of attendees wanting to sample the wares so I satisfied my curiosity with photographs.

Black Water Loft heading up to claim their 2nd place prize.

Black Water Loft heading up to claim their 2nd place prize.

Congrats again to Peregrine Espresso, the 2015 Eastern Region Champions! They won $2000 for their excellent work.

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Expect to see this trio competing again as one of six regional champions for the grand prize of $10,000 at the 2016 Eastern US Coffee Fest Show.

For more pictures, head here. 

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