They may craft your grande two-shot, soya decaf vanilla latte each early morning, but how much thought have you truly given to the high street barista?
It turns out, there is more to them than might meet your un-espresso machine-trained eye.
It’s a dark, rainy evening in February and Manchester’s city centre streets are lined with the last ebbs of rush hour. Whilst most workers are choosing the comfort of their home to warm up with a beverage, local Caffè Nero employees are descending upon one of the company’s Deansgate branches.
Here, a representative from each store will battle in a cut-throat competition to be declared the best barista.
‘Barista of the Year’ is bigger than just Manchester, however. Tonight’s winner will proceed to the regional competition, inviting the best of the best from across the North West. Whoever defeats the lot will then go through to the national battle and then, if they’re very lucky, the ultimate, acclaimed, near-fantastical international one – a sacred sight perhaps only previously seen in this room by a friend of a friend of a former colleague at their old store.
The chosen just-for-fun theme for the Manchester area competition is Disney, a dress code that a good half of the challengers and their supporting colleagues have abided by.
Displayed in store throughout the day was a sign warning customers of its early closure for an “internal event”. The few who hadn’t got the message and try to burst through the entrance doors sporadically are most surprised to see their usual baristas dressed up as Peter Pan, Woody from Toy Story and Captain Jack Sparrow – and to see stacks of beers lining the fridges that usually host paninis and breakfast yoghurts.
On a board by the bar, a photo of each challenger – varying from pics worthy of LinkedIn profiles, selfies and embarrassing candids you can only assume were submitted by colleagues – has been blown up to show tonight’s competition.
These baristas, uniformly suited and booted in special Barista of the Year t-shirts, will compete in twos (one on each espresso machine station), with judges hovering behind and scrutinising if they are following each meticulous process of making the perfect coffees.
Naturally, the competition is identically recreated globally, with everyone everywhere abiding to the exact same rules.
First, baristas must create the perfect on-brand cortado, seamless espresso and faultless latte.
The everyman’s go-to, the latte contains two shots, with a flat surface of velvety milk reaching the brim of a regular-sized cup.
A cortado is a little more compilated. When summoned from any Caffè Nero, cortados should be served in a glass shot glass, contain one shot of espresso that has a ROP (rate of pour) of approximately 21 seconds, and be topped with silky steamed milk. The glass must be filled to the rim, topped with a slither of foam – between 0.5-1cm, of course.
Competitors would be unlucky to lose marks when making their espresso. Whilst specific guidelines are given for an espresso’s taste and appearance (golden brown in colour) the making of which involves the pouring of a single shot into a small cup.
They say it’ll be alright on the night, and today it certainly almost is. Despite a slight hiccup in setting up the espresso machines, Manchester’s BOTY is soon underway.
It soon becomes apparent that nerves are present. Whilst it is obvious that these baristas as skilled at their job, usual high standards are swallowed up. Shaky hands rattle almost every coffee served and the foam tops of cortados stretch a little too deep.
The klaxons would sound immediately if budget would allow for some, as several baristas kick off their competition debut with bad start straight away. Barista of the Year guidelines state that the first action taken must be the placing a tray on the bar topped with the correct saucers, napkins and smudge-free tea spoons, and yet, for many, too early is there a scrambling for the coffee grinder.
All the while, the crowd is crammed around the bar. Cheers and in-joke jeers call in encouragement to the competitors but stress-induced panic remains evident on several of their faces.
Before the onlookers, the two judges stand at the bar, inspecting appearance, foam levels and taste of drinks. Very little is given away in their faces as they secretively write down scores on clipboards.
Once all five pairs have taken to the stage for round one, it’s time for break and a debrief. The queue to the one toilet lengthens and the popularity of each pizza topping reveals itself through what has been left behind untouched.
Michael, representing the Manchester Piccadilly Station branch, has a special person in mind tonight as he goes into the competition. “I’m doing this for Reggie, my pride and joy.”
In a moment of relief from the intensity of the competition, Michael excitedly shares that eight-month-old Reggie “is a chug – a chihuahua and a pug.”
Maybe all too soon, it’s time for round two. The second attempt at crafting drinks requires once more a latte – this time teamed with cappuccino and a flat white.
And the game is on.
The challenge is ramped up this time. With the absence of a simple espresso, baristas are required to steam milk of perfect quality and texture for a whole extra drink.
A Nero cappuccino is the foamiest of the lot this evening, requiring exactly 2.5cm of white, airy-yet-smooth foam lining the top of the dome-shaped coffee. Flat whites, served in a smaller 8oz cup, must be crafted with whole milk to produce a glossy finish with just a touch of froth.
The everyday practice of making Nero’s most popular drinks reveals itself in candidates’ near-habitual movements. Although they will be judged on their milk usage (wasted liquids will savagely result in point knocked off), these baristas have muscle movement of how much to pour – leaving more time to worry about how the finished products will come out.
“Oohs” of both praise and disapproval rise from the crowd with the arrival of cups. Within the pressure of making them against the clock and in front of expert peers, many competitors’ cappuccinos are tragically indistinguishable from their lattes.
“From the start it was a bit nerve-wracking but as the rounds have gone on and I’ve seen that I can do quality coffee on cue, I’m really enjoying it,” comments Michael after his second performance in the midst of rumours that the judges are impressed with his work so far.
“I think I’m definitely in the top three. Hopefully I’m in the top two and can get through to the final to show what I can do.”
Michael’s dreams are not to be wasted. He has made it to the final, and in a dramatic twist is facing the barista he went head-to-head with in earlier rounds.
With all previous scores discarded for the decision, the winner will be chosen based on the three final drinks of the night. To win, Michael must once again make a cortado, a flat white and a cappuccino in four minutes.
Withing everything left to lose, both finalists show their prowess from the get-go, diving into the stack of trays, saucers and spoons. While in the earlier rounds Michael was polite in waiting for his barista-to-beat to collect theirs first, now he’s taking no prisoners.
Preparation is done, and drink-making can commence. Every eye in the room is on the bar and decibels in this usually chilled-out café are undoubtedly the highest they have ever been.
When the drinks are served and the beep of the stopwatch sounds, it is hard to tell who will take the coffee crown.
It’s getting late in the evening and slowly attendees have streamed out the door home to get some sleep before their shifts the next morning. For those who remain, crowns and fairy wings have been left aside, leftover snacks have been piled and the last of the beers have been bagsided.
Impatience lingers in the air as the wait for the results drags on and on.
At last something happens. The judges are back and the finalists are beckoned to the bar. Tonight’s attendees and officials are thanked for their support in the event, and the news everyone has been waiting for is finally declared.
Met with eruption of celebration screams, Michael is the winner and will be going to the regional final.
“I’m happy with the t-shirt that I got because it says ‘Barista of the Year’ and when my customers see it they’re just going to think I’m the barista of the year,” reflects commiserating challenger Viktor.
“My name is Viktor but I wasn’t so victorious today.”
Highstreet coffee chains may compete ruthlessly within a £10billion market, but it turns out nothing matches the battle between the individuals who keep them going.
WINNER WINNER CHICKEN DINNER: Michael takes a break between rounds in a ‘borrowed’ Woody hat