O.C. Experts Will Compete In This Month’s U.S. Coffee Championships

Photograph by Emily J. Davis

Her high ponytail swinging behind her, M’lissa Roser strides into the room and greets us with a big smile: “The Slayer is in the training space.”

“The … Slayer?” It sounds dangerous.

“An espresso machine,” says coffee pro Carter Page.

Page hovers over the coffee bar at Portola Coffee Roasters at The District in Tustin, where a half-dozen people are leaning into their laptops, oblivious to the fact that Page is training for the Brewer’s Cup.

Roser, the executive director for Portola Coffee, is coaching him (as seen in the photo at left), just as she has tutored more than a dozen people across the country over the past 15 years for the grueling, high-stakes U.S. Coffee Championships. The national competition comes to Orange County for the second time in its nine-year history, from Feb. 21 through 23 at the OC Fair & Event Center, and offers the public generous opportunities to sample coffee and gather tips. With an entry fee of $5, it’s cheaper than many lattes.

“When you walk in, you’re going to have five competition stages in front of you,” competitions coordinator Nathanael May says. “Whatever domain of coffee you consume, there’s something there for you. … Latte drinkers will want to watch the barista competition. Or visit the roasting stage. Contestants are given a compulsory coffee. They don’t know what it is. They roast it right there on site. This is not (about) who can source the best coffee or find the fanciest coffee, but what can you do if you are given a coffee right now? What kind of profile are you going to put on that?”

May, a coffee executive in Portland, Oregon, started his career running the coffee cart outside Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland in 2000. “I had no idea as I pulled shots of espresso and steamed milk that I was starting down a path that would take me around the world and into the realm of barista competitions,” he says.

Other contests at the event include latte art, and what many consider the most exciting: Cup Tasters, in which competitors get three tasting cups and must identify which one is different.

“But in Brewer’s Cup, I’m just doing regular old coffee,” Page says. “How to brew the best cup of coffee.”

Page wears slight stubble, his hair styled in a chic short pompadour, as he readies a Phoenix70, a triangular skeleton that holds the paper filter. He rinses the filter with hot water then pours a small amount inside the coffee. “That’s called a bloom,” he says. “It lets the gas release.”

“It’s like choreography. Every movement needs a purpose,” says Roser, her neckline showing off many colorful tattoos, her ears a constellation of piercings anchored by some impressive plugs. “The coffee likes to dissolve in water heated between 195 and 205 degrees.” Too high, and too much can be extracted from the grounds.

Page pours more water into the filter. “The water level is going down slow. If it’s taking longer than five minutes, it’s taking too long. You can extract too much of the coffee. I might have ground it too fine.”

“About 28 percent of a coffee bean will dissolve in water but not all of it is delicious,” Roser says. “You only want to dissolve 18 to 22 percent.” Consistency of particle size and distribution are important.

Roser says a purchased kit can help contestants grow their vocabularies for the competition. For example, coffee aromas include cola, marzipan, blueberry, vanilla, and tangerine, as well as cooked beef, burnt rubber, and mustard.

While we’re waiting for the drip, I can’t resist. “Carter Page? Spelled like Carter Page? Not like the Carter Page?”

He grimaces.  “There are only two Carter Pages with the middle name William, and I am the other one. Just say that I’ve gotten a few calls from people who don’t normally call civilians.”

Page’s drip is finally complete, and he smiles, gazing into the filter frame.

“I just have to brag about this,” he says, tilting the filter our way. “You want as flat a bed as you can. It’s a sign that you did it right.” An even pour.

Page comes into the contest with acting chops: He has appeared in several commercials and TV shows, including “House M.D.” This gives him an edge in a contest where nerves run so caffeinated that contestants forget their spiel or drop their cups, shattering their chances for a victory.

And some contestants go so far out that, in one case, the judges burned their mouths with a liquid nitrogen coffee. In another, they had to sample coffee poured through a block of stinky cheese.

The contest is high stakes with marketable bragging rights. For six weeks, Roser trained contestants in a specially outfitted facility at Portola’s Costa Mesa location. She has coached a few champions and has had some trying moments, such as the time in London when she couldn’t get her favorite Straus organic milk so she went around the city buying as many kinds of milk as she could find.

May says the nationals have taken place in several other locations, but Orange County is a natural because “the coffee scene has just exploded there in the last eight years.”

Roser also believes the county is perfect for nationals: “Orange County is a community of educated consumers.”

Winners in each category will move on to international competitions in May in Melbourne, Australia, and in June in Warsaw, Poland.

But the real winners are the caffeine-swilling fans, who can learn in a few hours better ways to make coffee at home, sample various styles, learn about roasting, and compare 36 roasts of the same beans. After 2 p.m., there are even samples of coffee cocktails if you’re the sort, as May says, “who wants your upper mixed with your downer.”

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