Ever heard of Coffee Flair?
Me neither until a few months back. Apparently it's a twist on the moves popularized in Tom Cruise's movie Cocktail, but instead of flipping bottles of liquor, baristas work with portafilters and other tools of the trade. Trust me, like the Matrix, this is something that cannot be described. It must be seen. Fortunately the website 9 bar has videos that will introduce you to this Italian barista spectacle (I recommend the last one shown in the page; be forewarned the window and resolution are quite small).
Coincidentally I met one of the men behind 9 bar, Andrea Lattuada. I attended a group dinner during the past SCAA conference and we were sat next to each other. We made smalltalk, asking what brought us to the conference, where we hailed from, that sort of thing. Later he shared some of his irritation with the recent judge certification, as he was among those who failed the taste discernment test that was introduced this year. Being an Italian barista national champion a couple years back, he figured it would be a shoe in. Others were surprised by their not making the cut too (I met another disgruntled past WBC-qualified judge in the Elektra booth the next day).
Figuring that Andrea was a uniquely experienced barista, I pried him for his thoughts on the espresso scene differences between America and Italy. Honestly I expected a lambasting, but that's OK, I lived in France for years and am long accustomed to being a stand-in US blame-boy. Much to my surprise, he railed against his own country's indifference. Ticking off them on his fingers, he named cafe after cafe in Seattle that would shame the best in Italy. "Really?", I said, "Isn't espresso a way of life in Italy? It certainly was when I visited."
"Sure, sure, there's decent places if you know them" he said, "but most are crap."
He went on to explain that there's two significant factors preventing espresso innovation in his country: Know-it-alls who think being Italian means you must be a great barista, and the lack of quality coffees. Huge Italian roasters dominate the market and sell substandard products compared to the micro-roasters that are gaining popularity in the US.
Despite my surprise, I nodded in agreement. Who would have thought an Italian barista would be jealous of espresso culture in the US, home of Starbucks? Then the conversation turned to "Coffee Flair." That's where my mental train jumped the tracks.
At the back of my mind I'm thinking, "You've got to be joking. Juggling portafilters?" I can appreciate the crowd appeal, but how can this do anything but slow the advance of respect for the knowledge and skills of top baristas? Apparently he picked up my incomprehension and didn't push the matter, only noting is was quite popular in his own country.
Let's hope it never makes it to the SCAA judge certification sheet.
Later in the conference I had another brush with greatness, this time with Austin Gregory (leftmost):
Austin is one of the four amigos in the Extreme Pours video. I hadn't seen the video beforehand, he's not on the boards I frequent, so I'd never heard of him. And yet there we were in the ESI booth, jamming on the GB-5. We shook hands and introduced ourselves (me = home barista guy, him = American Barista & Coffee School guy). Of course I asked him for some tips on latte art. What can I say? I'm never shy to ask for help. But that day Austin's mojo went missing.
A final few comments on Andrea and his interest in Coffee Flair. While I'm not a fan of the phenomena, there is one barista I would pay big bucks to see do his thing:
Your average ex-chef, ex-entrepreneur turned coffee fanatic, Chris Tacy
Well, maybe only if he uses the flaming portafilters.