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Continued: The great barista battle is brewing

Grind. Brew. Extract. Steam. Serve. Repeat. And repeat again, several hundred times, quickly and gracefully.

Since early February, Adam Palmer has spent 30 hours a week in a Zen state, practicing for the Olympics of coffeemaking, the U.S. Barista Championship to be held this weekend at the Minneapolis Convention Center. As one of three young Twin Cities men competing in this creme de la creme contest for coffee fanatics, he knows that no ordinary cup of Joe will tickle the picky palates of judges who consider coffee a high art, not a mere beverage.

Palmer does, too. That's why the signature drink he has created to impress them is "Doughnut Deconstructed," involving a spoonful of a crumbled maple-flavored longjohn pastry.

"I take apart the elements of the coffee and the doughnut, rearrange them, and the result, I hope, will be a new way of tasting," said the 25-year-old barista.

Palmer estimates he's poured up to 4,000 shots of espresso down the drain and uses 20 gallons of milk a week in his quest to be the best, cranking Andrea Bocelli's version of "Con Te Partiro" all the while. His supportive employer, Paradise Roasters, is a top-of-the-line importer in the Anoka County suburb of Ramsey that buys "green" (raw) coffee, then roasts the beans to customer specifications.

"It's partly in support of the industry, but it also shows we know what we're doing as roasters," said Paradise co-founder Miguel Meza.

In the company's storage room, for now a makeshift laboratory, Palmer practices with a top-speed pro grinder and the "official machine of the competition," a gleaming La Marzocco.

"I'm trying to go through my routine as often as I can so it becomes like driving a car," he said. "When you don't need to focus on what you're doing at the moment, you can think a few steps ahead."

Sound obsessive? You have to be, in this game. At the event, each of 60 contestants who have qualified by placing in regional competitions must prepare and serve a total of 12 espressos, cappuccinos and signature drinks to a panel of four "sensory" judges, all in 15 minutes or less. They will be critiqued on taste, texture and temperature. At the same time, two technical judges will dog their every move, docking points for "inconsistent tamping and dosing," excess coffee waste or insufficient cleanup. A head judge presides over the whole nerve-racking process.

That's enough to give even a decaf drinker a case of the caffeine jitters. But as Palmer finishes off a practice cup of espresso (a Brazilian/Colombian blend) with a perfect dollop of heart-shaped milk froth, he steps back with a slight, proud smile, like a painter who's just put the finishing touch on a portrait.

And it was a masterpiece, at least to the enthusiastic but unschooled palate of this coffee lover. I tasted at least three separate-but-harmonious flavors, none too heavy or bitter.

"I try not to be snobbish about coffee," Palmer said. "But when people think that Folger's or even Starbucks compares to this, it bugs me. It really does."

A side of ham with that, please

Over at the Black Sheep Cafe in South St. Paul, co-owner Peter Middlecamp is testing his own signature drink, "Un Pranzo Leggero" (Italian for "light lunch"), on some willing guinea pigs.

The Espresso Romanza is made from a three-bean blend including a yellow-bourbon heirloom from Brazil and a "one-of-a-kind" Hawaiian variety. He tops the cup with whipped cream lightly infused with melon and rose essences and places it on a small round plate between a cube of prosciutto-wrapped melon and a square-shaped dish of melon-rose panna cotta -- even the geometry of the presentation has been carefully thought out. Consuming the three-course aperitif in order, left to right, proves to be exactly what he's planned -- an entirely new and delightful taste sensation.

Middlecamp, 29, placed sixth in last year's national competition in Long Beach, Calif., with a signature drink that includes basil and homemade caramel. He works with the confidence born of such a feat. He prefers listening to jazz, Prince and Leo Kottke when homing in on his brew muse.

"You have to have a very focused state of mind," he said. "It's like being a chef on a small scale. Making and drinking these coffees is its own reward, much like the passion some people have for wine. "

Middlecamp calls the barista competition judges "espresso athletes" who must pass blind taste tests, or rather, "palate exams." Because they have to drink 18 shots of espresso in 90 minutes, judges are rotated out in groups to avoid caffeine overload.

"A few of these people can tell you not only what country a bean is from, but what farm," Palmer said.

The road to Copenhagen

The barista challenge is part of an annual conference held by the Specialty Coffee Growers Association. Mark Inman, recently elected association president, runs an organic herb farm and coffee roastery in Northern California's Sonoma County. He calls himself a "reformed oenologist," echoing Middlecamp as he likens the intensity of coffee culture to that of wine culture.

To people outside this niche-interest scene, he said "it might seem amazing, but it has a huge international fan base. Our winner will go on to be one of 45 baristas competing in the world championship in Copenhagen."

Caribou, after Starbucks the nation's second-largest purveyor of coffee in terms of number of stores, is a major sponsor of the conference, yet has no baristas entered in the competition. Why don't titans like Starbucks and Caribou participate?

"On a corporate level, I think they choose not to expose themselves to this arena," Inman said. "You'd think they have the resources to hire and train the best talent in the industry and sweep the competitions, and someday they may do that. Now it's more of an underground cult thing, but they're obviously watching it and strategizing how to take advantage of it."

Inman calls baristas "the American Idols of this industry. Most of them are self-funded now, but I can see in a few years that TV, like the Food Network, could get interested, and with the corporations on board, the baristas could be decked out head to toe with sponsor logos, like NASCAR drivers."

For now, Middlecamp, Palmer and a third local competitor, Andrew Millstead of Kopplin's Coffee in St. Paul, happily labor in relative obscurity, with a collegial attitude.

"It's high-tension, high-stress, but also a lot of fun," said Millstead, 22, who is scheduled to be first up in the semifinals at 9 a.m. Friday. "At least I'll have the judges' clean palates going for me."

Will he drink a cup of coffee beforehand?

"Yes, because I have to be wide awake."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046

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