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Last month, in an industrial neighborhood just west of Chicago's Fulton Market, Mike Phillips was fretting in "the lab"—a high-ceilinged room above the roasting plant of Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea. With only two weeks remaining before the 11th Annual World Barista Championships, Phillips, a two-time U.S. champion, was anxiously practicing his craft. As the second runner-up at last year's championship, Phillips was favored this time to defeat contenders from more than 50 other countries and win it all. Rather, he had been. One month earlier he had tripped and suffered a crippling injury—a broken pinkie.
Now, with the cast removed, the finger wouldn't bend, making it "immensely" harder for him to make latte art—the chiaroscuro rosettes and tulips with which high-end cafés adorn one's cappuccino foam. Phillips, 28, would have to limit himself to making hearts, the simplest frothed shape. "I'm having to relearn how to pour," he said, squeezing a wet, rolled-up towel as therapy.
Eleven years ago, when Phillips arrived at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, "I was a crap-coffee drinker," he says. "It was just fuel." Then an ambitious roaster opened a shop in town serving brewed-to-order single-origin beans, and Phillips got hooked. Even after he had graduated and moved two hours away, he found himself returning to buy coffee. He bought a $600 roaster, a $600 grinder, and a $1,700 espresso machine. Until he landed a job hauling sacks at Intelligentsia, in 2006, he had trouble getting barista work. He was "too scary," he says, for neighborhood cafés. "People wanted a cute girl with a nose ring"—not someone prone to giving a 10-minute tutorial on bean origins.
Intelligentsia was different. In the specialty coffee world, the Chicago-based company is a powerhouse. With its eight boutique cafés around the country, it's an innovative industry leader at the fore of coffee's so-called third wave. If the first wave meant canned Folgers from the supermarket, and the second was the relatively gourmet experience offered by Starbucks (SBUX), the third goes further still, treating coffee like an über-artisanal product rather than a mass commodity. Phillips' devotion might sound a little zany, though paying $5 for a latte once did, too.
Phillips is now the company's assistant director of education, instructing its trainers and tasting a lot of coffee for quality control. Good coffee is a missionary calling for Phillips and his peers. He uses the phrase "coffee theory" in conversation and is helping to lead the movement to elevate coffee into the culinary repertoire. "It's the forgotten bastard child of cuisine," he says. These days, when he flies he brings his own beans, an airport-security-friendly hand grinder, and an AeroPress coffeemaker. He gets hot water from a flight attendant and brews an aromatic cup with his seat-belt fastened.
Barista competitions are one way of advancing the movement, though crowning the best barista is impossible, Phillips says, because the competition doesn't assess the less obvious skills. "Do you know how to throw out a crazy drunk man?" he asks. "Can you make it through four hours of nonstop service with good drinks?"
On this mid-June day Phillips was practicing a run-through of his competition routine. He would have 15 minutes to make four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four "signature drinks"—coffee concoctions of his own design. At the single-elimination event in London, two technical judges and four "sensory judges" would score him on a wide range of criteria, from the amount of coffee he wasted to the color of the crema on his espresso. Now, after "dialing in" the coffee—precisely calibrating a burr grinder's setting based on daily humidity and time elapsed since roasting—and setting the judge's table (water glasses, trays, spoons), it was time to begin. As R&B music played in the background, Phillips moved smoothly and efficiently, keeping up a patter about what he was doing. Whenever he turned away from the table to work at the espresso machine, stand-ins playing the role of judges emptied their water glasses. They were testing Phillips. Would he notice and refill them?
Phillips showed little rust. His espressos were creamy and intense, his cappuccinos rich, stiffly foamy, and topped with symmetrical, well-drawn hearts. But the true measure of an elite competitor is whether "you're trying to broach some concept and share an idea or experience." That's where the signature drink comes in. Last year his signature drink deconstructed an espresso, dividing a single shot into two different drinks—one based on the inky, chocolatey, more extractive first half of the pull, the other based on the lighter, juicier second half.
In preparation for this year's festival, Phillips had decided to focus on processing. While visiting Costa Rican supplier Coopedota in February, Phillips was inspired by the varied processing methods used (washed, natural, and honey), and came up with an idea for a new drink. He planned to make three drinks from the same bean, processed each of the three ways, as a study in how processing method influences bean flavor. The full-flavored natural bean—fermented in the sun with its skin on—would be mixed with a ginger-rhubarb reduction. The crisper, washed bean—stripped of pulp in water—would be combined with tart cherry juice and Pellegrino, resulting in a sort of coffee spritzer. For the third—a hybrid of the two methods—he would mix a sweet, honey bean with a date reduction. "I'm happy," he said, "because there's no chocolate and no milk, which are cheap shots."
Phillips finished the 15-minute drill with four seconds to spare. His performance went better than he had anticipated, although he saw room for improvement. "I think the second set of capps came in a little thin," he lamented. The date reduction was too thick to blend properly with the coffee; the ginger-rhubarb reduction had none of the sweetness he had hoped for—he thought he might have forgotten to add agave syrup. Also, he wished he had gone faster in order to have time to clear the pitchers at the end. "I've got a lot of work to do," he concluded.
Two weeks later, on June 25, Phillips won the world title in London, becoming the first American to do so. It would also be his last competition. Phillips' bosses at Intelligentsia, which has fielded four of the last five U.S. champions, have decided the company should step aside and give someone else a chance. Much of the once avant-garde coffee culture that Intelligentsia helped to pioneer has become the new normal among boutique roasters and cafés. Phillips and his colleagues are plenty busy just trying to figure out what's next.
Next time you're looking for a jolt, consider a cup from one of these national- or even world-champion barista's shops
Third Floor Espresso, Dublin: A new downtown café helmed by Colin Harmon, the Irish espresso star famous for his originality. He took fourth place in the 2009 World Championship with a drink that included Morello cherries, crème anglaise, and seaweed.
Caffè Artigiano, Vancouver: This café's baristas have dominated the national coffee scene for a decade. The group is led by Sammy Piccolo, who came out of retirement for the 2009 WBC. (His grapefruit-infused espresso helped him earn second place.)
Whitecross Street Food Market, London: Flat-cap-clad 2009 World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies pulls shots at a freestanding cart in this daily food fair in Islington. Also on staff is James Hoffmann, who held the world title in 2007.
Costa Coffee, Budapest: Hungarian star Attila Molnar—whose 2009 signature drink was made up of layers of toasted pumpkin seeds, maple syrup, and blueberry juice—trains the baristas at this British chain's location in Budapest.