Merriam-Webster defines a barista as “someone who makes and serves coffee and coffee drinks (such as cappuccino) to customers”, but when it comes to many of the bean pullers I’ve encountered around the world, they view their occupation as close to god. And god help you if you actually order a cappuccino in Auckland or Wellington, but that’s another story!
In an editorial role for a trade magazine, I once attended a coffee “symposium” and also a local coffee awards that necessitated that the organisers fly in an international specialist in the field who, naturally, went by just one (invented and absurd) name. Both events were quite pretentious but also surprisingly enjoyable, and I came away with a new level of admiration for what it takes to make the perfect cup o’ joe.
Most people think the – often bespectacled and bearded - men and – ironically tattooed - women behind the counter at their local cafe are just university-bound kids and unemployed actors working for a bit of extra pocket money. Many definitely are but for plenty of baristas, this is their chosen career. They are serious and they are dedicated, and their role in society these days has pretty much surpassed the bartender as a harbinger of scorn and hipster-by-numbers cool. Ignore their Breton stripe-wrapped attitude at your peril – these guys are seen by many as the rockstars of the hospitality industry with good reason.
Which brings me to tonight’s documentary, BARISTA. As the title suggests, it’s about people who make coffee. But these are not just any people who make coffee, they are the (at time of filming) top five baristas in the US, and cameras follow their journey as they work their way through the highly respected National Barista Championship. So how, exactly, does one take part in a barista competition? Well in this case it’s an intense, cutthroat competition wherein competitors get 15 minutes to prepare 12 drinks. That’s just 15 minutes to prepare a trio of beverages for a four-person judging panel - one espresso, one cappuccino, and one specialty drink of their own devising – all the while keeping up a steady chat about barista-important topics such as the origins of their coffee and their own espresso-pulling philosophies. The stress is palpable as we reach the specialty beverages stage, with competitors experimenting with the likes of liquid nitrogen and moonshine-style coffee distillery to impress and hopefully, take home the crown.
Thankfully director Rock Baijnauth keeps things light, and despite some of the characters he shines his light on being insufferably pious in the extreme, his filmmaking style is fast and refreshingly choppy. The sight of not one but two absurdly solemn competition judges stooping down in unison to closely observe how evenly a barista tamps down on his coffee grounds has been called more than a little comical, and Baijnauth knows just when to pull back on the superlatives and get back to the action. The obsessive techniques and hilarious-sounding tasting notes the baristas talk about are no sillier than what I have heard on the regular in the wine world, which seems to get a lot more respect.
Anyway, it would be too easy to compare BARISTA to Christopher Guest’s awesome mockumentary “Best in Show” - one of the film’s subjects does so herself – but it has a similar vibe and is an easy watch as a result. I wouldn’t say I loved this but it was a nice way to while away just over an hour and a half, and you might just learn a little more about what makes your local barista tick.
BARISTA premieres Thursday 20 April at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel
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