Java Enabled: Kaldi's Barista Smokes His Way to the Top

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Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.

Tobacco smoke, caramel and coffee sound like things you'd encounter only while visiting a great-aunt. This, however, was the flavor combination that won Mike Marquard, a trainer with Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company, sixth place at the 2009 United States Barista Competition in Portland, Oregon.

This was Marquard's second year at the competition. "The atmosphere at the competition was pretty intimidating the first time I went," he says. "There's a lot of celebrity in the coffee community. Baristas and certain roasters develop a reputation. The second time around I knew more what to expect. I wasn't so distracted and a lot calmer. You just go and make coffee; that's all."

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Samantha Watts Marquard
Kaldi's Mike Marquard in competition.
At the competition, Mike had to prepare twelve drinks in under fifteen minutes: four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks for a panel of sensory and technical judges. Most people know what an espresso or cappuccino is, but "signature drink" left me blank. This, it turns out, is the barista's way to highlight the flavors present in the espresso.

"Some people might say, 'Oh, there's blueberry notes in my coffee, so I'm going to serve it with blueberries.' I hate that," Marquard explains. "We were going for earthy flavors. We thought about shaving leather and toasting it. We also tried cherries, but it was too hard to find cherries in season, and the frozen ones aren't any good." Finally, after four months of trial and error, the team settled on a combination of caramel and honey tobacco.

At the competition, Marquard prepared a caramel sauce of brown sugar, cocoa powder and butter on stage. Instead of water, he added more espresso to the sauce and then a final finish of cream. After pulling the espresso shot, he mixed in the caramel sauce to balance the bitterness of the espresso.

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Samantha Watts Marquard
"We originally infused the tobacco straight into the espresso but it was making people sick," Marquard says. Instead, the team decided to place a pinch of honey tobacco on the espresso cup's saucer and burn it. As the tobacco began to smoke, Marquard placed a tumbler over the espresso shot and tobacco. When the tumbler is removed, the accumulated smell, subtly sweet and earthy, primes the judge's palette for the espresso and caramel to come.

While the infusion of honey-tobacco smoke and caramel sounds like the star of the show, it's still all about the espresso. Kaldi's Espresso 700, which Marquard used at the competition, was a combination of microlot coffees from Sumatra, Brazil and El Salvador. The blend took years to develop.

The national barista competition proves that not all baristas are created equal. As Marquard described the competition, I thought about how important a barista really is to the whole coffee experience.

"The barista is the last step between the origin and the customer," Marquard says. "You can have the best coffee in the world, but if your barista doesn't do a good job, it's just like all the other crap."

A good point. Coffee, unlike soda, wine, beer or just about any other beverage isn't a finished product. You need someone like a barista to transform those dark, oily beans into a full experience.

"I'm trying to think about how to make quality sell, how to show the consumer all the flavors in coffee," Marquard explains, emphasizing the importance of consumer education. "Coffee has more flavors than wine in it, but people don't think about it that way."

How does Marquard like his coffee? "I've really been geeking-out on espresso lately."

Score one for the black-coffee drinkers.

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