It’s playoff season and the crowd is eager for the game to begin. The players are warmed up and the night air is thick with excitement.
Actually, it’s thick with steam and the smell of coffee, because this is the Queen City “TNT” – Tuesday Night Throwdown. And it’s where the best latte artists meet to compete, head to head. Tonight the event is taking place at Central Coffee in Charlotte, but it rotates among independent coffee spots.
“Welcome to the first ‘TNT’ of 2012!” announces barista Brady.
Round 1 pits Brady against Patrick. Each free-pours a combination of dark espresso and frothed milk to create a swirled design in the cup. Spectators “ooh” at the motifs which can feature hearts, swans, and feathery ferns called “Rosettas.”
Tonight’s latte-loving judges are Taylor, Ben and Lauren. They refer to the judging criteria on handouts: overall impression, balance and symmetry, use of space, color infusion and definition. Too much foam, too little control – anything can affect the result. The entire score is based solely on appearance, not taste. (In fact, the lattes are discarded unless onlookers drink them.)
The judges rule: Brady advances and Patrick is eliminated.
In Round 2, Corey accidentally sloshes some coffee over the rim. “Nooo!” someone groans. “I choked,” Corey admits. He’s out; opponent Genevieve moves ahead to the next round.
In Round 3, Jimmy wins and Jonathan loses. Round 4 is a close call, but the judges give the nod to James over Kyle. Corey gets a second chance in the “Redemption Round.”
By now a fragrant cloud of steam, milk and coffee seems to be hovering over the counter.
The competition continues until only two contestants remain. Then, with an expert flourish, Jimmy pours a heart within a Rosetta, and defeats James.
The Grand Prize? Coffee gear donated by supplier Counter Culture Coffee.
While the “TNT” is a friendly contest, some coffee connoisseurs take competition much more seriously. They join the Barista Guild of America, attend conferences, and the best of them challenge each other nationally and internationally for bragging rights – and for cash prizes up to several thousand dollars.
Closer to home, a latte artist who lost this time around can work on his or her game and try again. Will tonight’s winner hold on to the title, or forfeit it to a competitor? Will a spill spoil an otherwise perfect pour?
No one will know until the next “TNT”: March 13, 7:30 pm, at Not Just Coffee. If you want to go, follow your nose.
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