Judges pick winning latte art during the tulip round.
  • Judges pick winning latte art during the tulip round.
  • Image by Jared Armijo-Wardle
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Bird Rock Little Italy

2295 Kettner Boulevard, Little Italy

On October 23, 48 baristas gathered at the newly opened Bird Rock Little Italy to compete for bragging rights and an $840 cash prize in the latest installment of a monthly latte-art competition organized by the San Diego Coffee Network.

The network has been staging Thursday-Night Throwdowns over the past year in efforts to foment community within the San Diego coffee scene. The organization grew out of a local coffee blog started by Jessica Percifield in 2010. Last year she teamed up with Caffé Calabria roaster Mike Helms, barista Matt Barahura, and artist Jared Armijo-Wardle, who shared her interest in evangelizing local artisan coffee. The group works with sponsors from around the industry to promote events bringing coffee professionals and aficionados together.

In the process, they aim to expose casual coffee drinkers to the elevated standards of third-wave purveyors. The hope to elicit what Barahura calls the “Aha! moment,” when a drinker realizes coffee can taste significantly better than the commodified brews served by corporate franchises. While the throwdown events are nominally competitive, the feeling is mostly celebratory.

Barahura says that whenever you get a bunch of baristas around an espresso machine, “a throwdown just happens,” as they try to outdo each other drawing shapes by pouring steamed milk over espresso. He says visiting similar events around California showed him the sense of community that could exist around a city’s coffee culture, and he hopes SDCN’s efforts can bring some of that here.

Previous throwdowns have been hosted by Coffee & Tea Collective and Young Hickory, among others. Local roasters also participate by providing coffee — Café Virtuoso and James Coffee were on hand Thursday, brewing cups at a pour-over station while the contest waged around a pair of espresso machines at the other end of the counter.

To celebrate the opening of his new shop, Bird Rock owner Chuck Patton broke out an expensive and tough to get Haraaz Red Maraqah from Yemen. Patton says he is one of only three roasters in the U.S. to serve the bean.

While onlookers sipped free coffee, baristas competed one-on-one through a tournament-style single-elimination bracket. Round one featured heart-shaped latte art, round two focused on rosetta designs, and round three went with tulips.

As the bracket was whittled down, two finalists emerged: Bird Rock’s own Jacob White and previous winner Joshua Bonner, representing Ladies & Gentlemen, a roasting shop he recently launched along with his wife Hannah. In one of the closest calls of the night, the three-judge panel gave the cash prize to Bonner.

The evening concluded with a season finale: a mini bracket that saw the past four months’ top competitors vying to be named barista champion. This time, White emerged victorious. Glad to have the win in a shop he helped get up and running, White says he’s happy to be working in a business that values quality above all. He added that getting into coffee in the first place felt almost lazy, “But it’s wound up being the least lazy I have ever been.”

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