The action went from 12-ounce lattes to 7-ounce cappuccinos to 3-ounce macchiatos, the dwindling canvas ever harder to "paint" with a palette of foamed milk and espresso. Nonetheless, the first Tampa Bay Barista Jam and Latte Art Throwdown went off without a hitch last week at the Oxford Exchange, aided and abetted by a serious dose of caffeine. At least 100 spectators crowded around the Buddy Brew counter in Tampa's hottest new restaurant to watch more than two dozen baristas compete, freehand pouring hearts and rosettas. From hometown Buddy Brew and Kahwa to Axum in Winter Garden and Orlando-based Barnie's Coffee & Tea Company, the assembled competitors showed just how far coffee culture has come in the Tampa Bay area in recent years.
"We're looking for three things," said Anthony Rue, owner of Volta in Gainesville, a judge of the evening's event and regular judge at events such as the World Barista Competition in Colombia. "We're evaluating gloss, symmetry and contrast."
Joining Rue at the judging table were Dean Hurst, director of spirits for Bern's and SideBern's, and Rich Mullins, a reporter at the Tampa Tribune. They sipped coffee-infused beers from 7venth Sun Brewing in Dunedin to ready their palates as the competition got under way.
"Usually baristas learn first how to pour a heart, then with a concentric design, and extending that into a rosetta and a double rosetta. I've seen a guy do seven rosettas," said Neal Faul, a barista at Axum.
Competing at the Oxford Exchange in pairs, each contestant steamed milk, tapping the metal pitcher gently to settle big bubbles, then pouring into the finished espresso with flicks of the wrist to achieve the desired pattern or design and walking the finished drink over to the judges. On the count of three, the judging panel pointed at the better-made drink, eliminating the loser and sending the victor on to a next round.
Ty Beddingfield, who has overseen coffee brewing at Buddy Brew for two years, served as master of ceremonies, pairing up heats from all over the state in an ever-dwindling number of competitors. In the end, in a cappuccino round, Mandy Spirito of Buddy Brew took top honors in a flurry of high fives with her barista brethren.
"She's always been an artsy kid," said proud father Tom Spirito. "We have a good cappuccino machine at home. She's there practicing. You should see the coffees she's doing for our friends."
Laura Reiley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.