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Barista Smackdown

The Northwest Regional Barista Competition will bring the best shot-pullers to town, and put Tacoma’s coffee potential on full display

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And to think, I thought I loved coffee.

How wrong I was.

As it turns out, though I’m completely dependent on coffee to get my lazy ass out of bed every morning, I only really like coffee.

This weekend, Tacoma will be jam-packed with folks who love the stuff.

That’s because the Northwest Regional Barista Competition — sponsored by the Specialty Coffee Association of America  — is coming to the Temple Theater Friday, Jan. 9, through Sunday, Jan. 11. Nearly 40 shot-pulling competitors from Washington, Oregon and Alaska, along with 22 judges from across the country and countless volunteers (OK, maybe more like 30) will find themselves in Tacoma, surrounded by like-minded people just as passionate and devoted to the bean and its possibilities as they are.

If you’re not in the coffee industry or don’t have a profile set up on — the Facebook or MySpace of the coffee world — there’s a decent chance you need a little background info to understand what this all means.

First things first: Every year since 2002 the best baristas in the United States have competed in the United States Barista Championship, which started as the North American Barista Competition. According to Marcus Boni, senior event manager with the SCAA, the competition was designed after the SCAA’s board of directors witnessed firsthand the World Barista Championship held in Miami in 2001. A year earlier, in 2000, the first ever World Barista Championship was held in Monte Carlo. Winners at the United States Barista Competition now advance to the World Barista Championship — which in 2008 was won by Irishman Stephen Morrissey, who will be in Tacoma this weekend.

The World Barista Championship, the United States Championship and the regional competitions all operate with similar rules.

According to

“Competitors will prepare and service 12 coffee beverages — one espresso, one cappuccino, and one signature drink of their own creation, for four judges in a space of 15 minutes.”

To compete in the United States Barista Championship, baristas must first emerge victorious in one of 10 regional championships — the NWRBC being the oldest and biggest. The first NWRBC was held in 2004 in Portland, Ore. Since that pioneer event the competition, world-renowned for the quality of baristas it draws, has bounced between the Rose City and the Emerald City — both, obviously, huge and natural destinations for a coffee competition of this magnitude.

But this year is different. This year is Tacoma’s turn, and look out.

Tacoma invasion

“I’m tired of people talking trash about Tacoma, unfounded trash,” explains Jay Lijewski, a coffee program developer with Sumner-based Dillanos Coffee Roasters and one of the main reasons this year’s NWRBC is coming to town. “I love it here, and I wanted people to see why.”

Lijewski — just one of many people I met during the writing of this story who is truly, deeply passionate about all things coffee — was the one who applied to the SCAA with designs on bringing NWRBC to Tacoma. After seeing the event call Seattle and Portland home since its inception, Lijewski figured now was the perfect time not only to bring the NWRBC to Tacoma but to show the world what Tacoma has to offer. After selling the SCAA on Tacoma’s resurgence and budding coffee community, things were off and rolling. Dillanos became the official host, and Lijewski saw his workload explode. For the last month or so, making sure his vision comes to life has consumed Lijewski for upwards of 50 hours a week.

“It’s a big undertaking and a lot of work. It’s a big deal,” says Lijewski. “We want to keep everything as local as possible — and uniquely Tacoma. We want people to experience this place. Over the last four years things have really ramped up. Specialty coffee is hitting people in Tacoma. Competitions like this do a great job at raising the bar of what’s expected from coffee and baristas.”

“It’s going to be a big wake-up call,” says Joshua Boyt, a Tacoma kid and one of the many judges who will help decide who emerges victorious at this weekend’s competition. “Tacoma has been an overlooked gem. We’re on the bubble. I want people to see it for the bigger picture.”

In his effort to keep the event as local as possible and in the process put together, perhaps, the most memorable NWRBC to date, Lijewski has pulled out all the stops. In addition to the competition held at the Temple Theater this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, several other events will act as worthy side attractions designed to shine a spotlight on Tacoma’s uniqueness as well as provide those who’ve traveled to the City of Destiny a clear picture of the artistic and coffee-driven rebirth they’re all missing out on in Portland and Seattle. For instance, the competition’s reception will happen Saturday night at Sanford and Son and feature live music from L.A. Lungs and I Defy — not to mention a skeet ball tournament.

How Tacoma is that?

Another truly Tacoma-touched event being organized as part of this year’s NWRBC will happen Friday at Black Water Café. There the Latte Art Throwdown will offer those competing, those volunteering and those in town simply to experience the action a chance to wind down barista style — not to mention see how those cool little trees on the top of your lattes are made. Lijewski describes the Latte Art Throwdown at Black Water as something of an underground event but one at which everyone and anyone is invited to hang out, have a good time and, naturally, talk coffee.

All of this, Lijewski says, will be good for the city of Tacoma. Not only will people leave with a better understanding of what Tacoma’s all about, but maybe — just maybe — the NWRBC will stir the buzz that finally puts Tacoma over the top.

“We want this to be memorable. We’re doing everything in the name of Tacoma. We’re promoting Tacoma more than we’re promoting Dillanos,” offers Lijewski. “Because it’s in a smaller town this year, we want to make it worth everyone’s while. I want this to be big.”

“It’s going to be a really good opportunity. The most forward-looking people are always looking for the next stop,” says Lijewksi of out-of-towners who may be turned on to T-town this weekend. “Maybe Seattle or Portland will have to steal (the NWRBC) back from Tacoma now.”

Tacoma ties


Formerly of Temple of the Bean

It can’t be understated the effect Temple of the Bean — the long defunct Tacoma coffeehouse that sat in the same location as Satellite Coffee does today — had on Tacoma’s coffee culture. For many, Temple of the Bean was the catalyst that started them down a path of coffee adoration, and to many more it was just a place to get a really fucking good cup of coffee. Michael Elvin, who many old-school Tacomans will remember as one of the Temple’s finest baristas, now lives in Olympia and works as an espresso consultant for Espresso Parts Northwest, but this weekend he’ll be back in Tacoma for the NWRBC. Though Elvin has participated as a judge in past barista competitions, this year’s event in Tacoma marks the first time he will be a competitor.

“I first moved to Tacoma in the early ’90s and just happened to find Temple of the Bean,” says Elvin. “It was a really enjoyable time for me as a barista. I often hear of people who got inspired by Temple of the Bean.

“Mostly my reason for getting involved in competition is surrounding myself with passionate people,” continues Elvin. “Coffee nerds are more than happy to share with people their passion. It’s a tight-knit and open community.”


Satellite Coffee and Black Water Café

Zachary Marvick may well be the best known barista currently pulling shots in Grit City. Known these days for his work at Satellite and Black Water Café, this weekend’s competition will mark Marvick’s first foray into formal coffee competition. However, with a long history tamping and steaming, Marvick certainly has a worthy resume — having worked at New York’s famous Ninth Street Espresso during a stop in the Big Apple, not to mention starting his career at Queen Anne Thriftway here in Tacoma under A.J. Anderson, who went on to start Valhalla Coffee.

But, not surprisingly, for Marvick and no doubt many others, his love of coffee started at Temple of the Bean.

“I started drinking coffee at Temple of the Bean. I wasn’t drawn to coffee, but I was drawn to the culture,” says Marvick, who will be the only Tacoma-based barista competing in the NWRBC. “I had heard about the competition, and when I heard it was in Tacoma I thought it would be a good opportunity. That was the impetus.”

Marvick says it was also the support of his many loyal customers as well as his boss at Satellite that convinced him to throw his espresso making hat in the ring. “If you make them a great cup of coffee, people will love you.

“At first, I got pretty intimidated. It was like, ‘Wow, this is kind of a big deal,’” continues Marvick. “I do look forward to doing a great job. I feel confident in my abilities. I hope (the judges) love it. If I’m not highly successful with the judges, it will be personally successful.

“There’s been a coffee culture in Tacoma for a long time. I think it is a big deal to have people come to Tacoma (for the NWRBC). It gives them a look at someplace they wouldn’t see otherwise.”

Northwest Regional Barista Competition

When: Friday, Jan. 9-Sunday, Jan. 11, doors at 9:30 p.m., barista competition 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Finals are 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. Awards ceremony and slammin’ coffee 1:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Temple Theater, 47 Saint Helens Ave., Tacoma

Cost: Free and open to the public

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