Furthermore, everything needs to be done just so. In her first competition, Perry says, she lost points because she tapped the portafilter three times to clean it instead of twice. "That was a big deal," she says. "It was written down on my score sheet: 'Hit three times.' "
It's not all style, of course. Each espresso is judged on its sensual qualities as well -- things like flavor balance, tactile balance and the intensity and persistence of the crema (the cocoa-colored emulsion of coffee oil and water that floats on the top of a good espresso).
Cappuccino, with its steamed milk, adds another layer of complexity. Perry uses what she calls the "Schomer Technique," after Seattle coffee guru David Schomer (owner of Espresso Vivace and star of several espresso videos). This ensures that her foam is silken and moist. "Some things the judges will give you a break on, you know, but dry, airy foam, that's just bad," she says.
The basics out of the way, the competitors are judged on their signature drinks. These can be quite elegant: Perry's winning entry last year was a cold espresso layered with a clear lemon verbena syrup.
They can also be over-the-top. More than one contestant has tried adding hot pepper sauce. One Australian competitor used kangaroo meat. "That was like three years ago," Perry says. "He didn't win, but they're still talking about that."
The Prickly Blue Perry
This year, she is banking on something she calls Prickly Blue Perry, which incorporates espresso, blueberry puree and prickly pear juice. She is still undecided about whether to add white chocolate.
Points are also given for originality of presentation, but again you have to be careful not to go overboard. In her first competition, Perry did a specialty drink called a S'more, topped with melted marshmallows. She served it dressed in a cowboy hat with toy pistols strapped to her side. "People are still making fun of me for that," she says.
Don't mistake her for some espresso bunny, though. In addition to going to school, majoring in international business, Perry manages her family's Rancho Cucamonga store and a coffee kiosk at the Kaiser hospital on La Cienega Boulevard in West Los Angeles. She's married and has a 4-year-old stepson whose PeeWee Soccer team she coached last year. She's already taken the entry exams and applied to law schools and business schools for next year. "I love coffee," she says, "but you don't find many 50-year-old baristas in this country."