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Caffeinated Showdown

Local baristas prepare to compete at weekend food festival

by Erin Pihlaja on January 17, 2013


Latte art by Ron Grieco. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

If you’ve ever met someone who can describe the difference between a coffee bean harvested in one country versus another, or the various ways that the bean can be processed once it is removed from the coffee cherry, it’s likely that the knowledgeable java connoisseur was serving coffee or an espresso at a specialty coffeehouse. The expert is called a barista, and that barista has likely spent hours online, at sites like YouTube, studying showing how to pull a perfect shot of espresso, or to make a cool design in the steamed milk of a latte—known to insiders as latte art.

This Saturday (Jan. 19), the Albany Chefs’ Wine & Food Festival will crown one local coffee guru Albany’s Best Barista at the first ever Barista Albany competition, presented by Chris’ Coffee and UNIC-USA.

Ron Grieco, barista and manager of Tierra Coffee Roasters (1038 Madison Ave., Albany), has no problem calling himself a “coffee nerd.” Grieco would like one day to attend barista school, and while he will have to wait to compete in the World Barista Competition (the quintessential contest for the coffee obsessed), Grieco has been training for Albany’s barista showdown for weeks.

“I am absolutely very passionate about this,” he said. Grieco spent last weekend perfecting his signature drink, which is one category in the contest. He won’t reveal his secrets, but said that he “made thousands of lattes” and “tested them out on two other coffee nerds.”


Grieco at Tierra Coffee Roasters in Albany. Photo by Erin Pihlaja.

He’s not the only one who is practicing. Another competitor, David Schulman of Hudson River Coffee House (229 Quail St., Albany), said, “I’m taking it very seriously.” Over the past few weeks Schulman has stayed late after his shifts to practice “pulling a perfect espresso,” another skill that will be used to judge the baristas.

“It’s an artful sort of chemistry,” said Schulman of the intricate process from which gourmet coffee is created. Besides flavor, the judges will score the presentation of each beverage, which is where, according to Schulman, the artistry comes in. “It’s fun to work off the shape [of the poured milk],” he explained. “It takes a very specific pour to get shapes like an apple, heart, or swan.”

Like Grieco, Schulman refused to reveal what his signature drink is. He did say that it was a “spinoff of a more traditional drink that you could order in any specialty coffeehouse.”

“For me, the essence of the competition is to get people to say, ‘Oh my god, there is a difference between that Kenyan and Colombian [coffee],’ like they would say there is a difference between a cabernet and pinot noir,” said Lee Cohen, owner of the Daily Grind (204 Lark St., Albany, and 46 Third St., Troy). “As with wine and food at one time, coffee is really underrated. It’s the affordable luxury people can buy if they’re interested in it.”

Mary McGrath, Cohen’s employee from the Troy location, will compete on Saturday. Cohen doesn’t know what McGrath has up her sleeve but said, “She has so many signature drinks, I don’t know what she’s going to do. I will say that she makes a mean espresso martini.”

Flavor to GO Cafe, Happy Cappuccino, and Apostrophe Cafe also will compete in Barista Albany (Jan. 19, 11 AM) at Hotel Albany (40 Lodge St., Albany). For more information, go to albanywinefest.com.

–Erin Pihlaja