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She's 21 and fully caffeinated

Heather Perry, America's top barista, has the art of coffee down to the last steamy detail.

September 10, 2003|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

The classic image of an Italian barista is of a middle-aged man in a spotless white waistcoat with the dour manner of a snubbed headwaiter. You place an order and he hands you a cup of espresso that is so rich, concentrated and complex you can't believe it.

Heather Perry does not fit that description, except for the coffee part. A 21-year-old Cal Poly Pomona senior, Perry has a personality so bright and bubbly it's hard to say if she's more caffeinated or carbonated.

But don't let appearances fool you. Perry is the best barista in the United States and one of the 10 best in the world, according to the results of the U.S. and World Barista Championships last April. Perry, who works in her family's Inland Empire coffee shop business, leaves Thursday for this year's Western regional championships in Portland to begin her title defense.

That she doesn't fit the barista image doesn't bother anyone in the group of hard-core espresso aficionados gathered for her demonstration at the national headquarters of the Specialty Coffee Assn. of America in Long Beach.

Rather than a white waistcoat, she's wearing a pair of white capri pants (the dark streak of ground coffee smeared horizontally across her rear could stand as some sort of badge of professional honor, or a warning to be careful where you lean).

She quickly runs through the basics of brewing, or "pulling," an espresso: the bean, the grind, the tamp, the cup. Perry talks so fast it makes even casual listeners breathless. She moves on to steaming the milk for a cappuccino ("capp" in the jargon).

"It's different from when you're steaming for a latte," she says.

The crowd goes silent. One middle-aged man raises his hand. "You steam differently for a cappuccino and a latte?" he asks.

"Sure," she says. "A capp has more foam in it, so you steam appropriately. If you're making a latte, you don't want to just steam cappuccino milk and hold the foam back. You use the same process, but when you're stretching the milk, you stretch longer for a cappuccino and allow more air to come in, which will give you more foam."

All in the family

Don't ever underestimate Heather Perry. Not when she's talking about coffee.

She practically grew up in the business. Her father, Mike, owns two Coffee Klatch stores in San Dimas and Rancho Cucamonga. His company is one of only 28 in the country to receive the top award for excellence from the association in 2002 -- his second year in a row.

The barista competition is new -- the first was in 2000 -- and it is still in its formative stages. Though international in scope (last year's world champion was Australian Paul Bassett), it is curiously short in Italian competitors given the history of espresso. ("They think they're too good for it, you know what I mean?" Perry says.)

The event is an odd hybrid of figure skating and "Iron Chef." Each competitor must be able to pull perfect coffee. That is a given. But they must also make it perfectly: with exactly the right motions and timing. Then they must each create and demonstrate a "signature drink" -- an original recipe that is designed to show off the flavor of coffee.

This is no slap-happy coffee cook-off. There are six judges for each contestant, and two of them watch only for style flaws -- the Dick Buttons of the espresso world.

There's a lot that goes into making a perfect espresso. First, there's the right mix of beans, usually from between four and seven sources, according to Perry. She won't get specific about exactly what goes into her competition blend because it's sold at the stores (her dad is her roaster).

Each type of bean is roasted separately to exactly the right degree -- just 10 seconds over can make a difference in the flavor. Although freshness is important, you don't want the beans to be too recently roasted or they'll be "gassy" and acidic. Three to four days is perfect for her beans, Perry says.

How the beans are ground is crucial, and so is the "tamp" -- how the ground beans are pressed into the portafilter, the cup mechanism that holds the coffee while it's being brewed. These are the steps that dictate, more than any other, the final quality of the coffee.

The exact details vary according to the barista. That's where talent comes in. If the beans are ground a little too fine, a light tamp can still get a good espresso. The reverse is also true. And it doesn't take a $12,000 La Marzocca espresso machine either. Although you couldn't compete with a Mr. Coffee, Perry says at one conference a couple of baristas demonstrated on good home machines and pulled very respectable espressos with their usual techniques.

Brewing is a particularly sticky part of the process. Espressos must be brewed between 20 and 30 seconds. Shorter means your coffee is watery; longer means it's over-extracted and bitter. Either way, you lose points. And so does variation. Pull a 22-second shot the first time and a 28-second shot next, and you're docked.

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