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Halifax's cappuccino undergrounds

2008: the year coffee culture broke out in Halifax.


What do off-duty baristas do? With good-natured sadism, they train picky customers to pull espresso shots and make them compete against one another. That's the premise of the 2008 non-barista championship, in the year coffee culture percolated in Halifax.

At one end of barista Zane Kelsall's kitchen is Steve-O-Reno's first ever espresso machine, a small ranchillio. Behind the judge's table are two dozen coffee artists and addicts, crammed into a tiny underground space on a Saturday night.

Twenty-odd people at a kitchen party? Peanuts, you say. And yet, it signifies so much. Half the people are baristas from all over town. Java Blend's Jim Dikaios credits Kelsall and Smiling Goat's Geoffrey Creighton for this culture shift.

Soon after the Smiling Goat opened, Kelsall started to manage Steve-O-Reno's. He was back from a year in Calgary, where he won best latte artist at the prairie regional barista competitions. Training under Canadian champ Sammy Piccolo filled him with proselytizing vigour. Local baristas flocked to espresso events these guys put on.

Kelsall takes his profession seriously. "I wanted to bring the independents here together cause we're all trying to restore that art. A great barista is no different than a great chef in my mind."

Back to sadism: When Kelsall's greener baristas kept catching flak from pickier customers, he plotted revenge. "They'd get a little tap on the shoulder---'Don't worry, you'll get it right one day.' When I heard this, I just felt like grabbing and making them do it. I'm like, that'd be hilarious, if we took our picky customers and just said...'you make us coffee.'"

So he found three willing, masochistic coffee hounds: Robyn Cox, who once worked at a Second Cup (no one counts that as experience she says, because her competitors "would never drink coffee from there"); Ken Gildner, a Dal planning student and "chronic customer"; and cardiologist Lawrence Title.

Title's blog, Daily YHZ espresso, is a necessary read if you want to get a feel for the Halifax coffee scene. He's a "self-taught snob" (his words) who's experienced two certifiable "god shots" of espresso over the years and is on a quest to repeat that transcendental experience. Many baristas in the room hotly anticipate his performance. As is the case for anyone who dares call themself a snob (however ironically), swords quickly leave scabbards. No one wants him to fail, but they wouldn't mind seeing a comeuppance.

"I know many of you in this room served me espresso and I have probably torn it apart. And now I feel like shit," Title says, addressing the crowd. "But now, after a training session with Geoff, I realize how difficult it is to make good espresso." He gets an appreciative roar.

They must make four espressos, four cappuccinos and one artistic cap. Nicole Bertram, barista from Just Us!, Gabriel McDonald, former trainer at Caffe Nero in the UK, John Howse, barista-poet from Java Blend and I judged them.

Every contestant prepared great coffees and poured duds. Howse told me consistency is tough to master. "It's pretty impressive how much they've learned in one hour's training." Dikaios echoed Howse, saying his baristas receive three weeks of training before they're left alone on a machine.

Cox made me a crackerjack espresso shot. It's hard to explain---all the flavours in her shot formed into a solid balance of salty-sweet-sharp. It was an Agent Cooper damn good cup of coffee. Her latte art won her the competition: She was the only one who made a near-perfect foam heart with a halo of crema around it.

"The celebratory champagne tastes better than the coffee," Cox says. "Pulling off the latte art, I surprised even myself."

After the competition the baristas converge on the espresso machine. They start to perform absurd tricks. Kelsall makes latte art in a kneeling woman's mouth. As I'm leaving, I see him taking a hot cap shot into his cupped hands, as if it were communion.

Listen: Lawrence Title on god shots (runs: 3:07)

Listen: Zane Kelsall on 49th Parallel Coffee (runs 1:16)

Listen: Highlights of the Non-barista coffee contest (runs: 8:20)


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