In a quiet room above the gas-powered roasting machines at Intelligentsia Coffee’s warehouse on Fulton Street, Matt Riddle worries the edge of his black apron with one hand and the start button of a timer with the other. He’s surrounded by gleaming stainless-steel worktables, an industrial fridge, and sleek espresso machines that line the tabletops like big sleeping cats. The galvanized sink at his back is full of dirty cups, steaming grounds, and the caramelly mess of dozens of wasted espressos–his morning’s work. A soft groan rises from the belly of the warehouse. Riddle takes a deep breath and hits the timer.

The 28-year-old Riddle is a competitive barista–the reigning U.S. champion. He’ll be defending his title at the United States Barista Championship, which takes place May 4-7 in Long Beach, California, against 48 competitors; they’re selected by region, but they’re coming from every state but Hawaii. He’ll have 15 minutes to prepare an espresso, a cappuccino, and a “signature drink” (made with a shot of espresso and anything else but alcohol) for four judges who’ll rate him based on the taste, appearance, and description of his drinks, his mastery of the equipment, and overall service. This year’s winner gets a trophy, a Compak coffee grinder, $1,000 in cash, and a $7,500 stipend for travel costs to Tokyo in July to represent the U.S. in the World Barista Championship; second and third place winners get a trophy and cash prizes of $500 and $400.

Relative to the history of coffee consumption, which dates back more than a thousand years, competitive coffee making is a new phenomenon. Aficionados share stories of freewheeling cappuccino showdowns between “bands of rogue baristas” at small cafes in Portland and San Francisco in the 70s, when lattes and cappuccinos were practically unknown in the rest of the country. In 2000 the Specialty Coffee Association of America–the world’s biggest high-end coffee trade organization with more than 3,000 members–teamed up with its European counterpart to launch a world-level competition in Monte Carlo. Two years later the SCAA started hosting competitions at home, organizing them around their trade shows. One of their aims was to create a “community of coffee professionals.”

Nick Cho, who owns the Murky Coffee cafe in Virginia, cohosts the coffee podcast Portafilter, and has been involved in competitions since the first WBC in 2000, says it’s taken a while to get there. At the 2004 USBC in Seattle, he recalls, “it was like one of those 80s ski movies, where everyone is on different sides and has this hot shit entourage and wants to kill each other. The Seattle team showed up in matching black outfits–they were chef’s outfits but they looked like karate uniforms–and they were actually wearing them the day before the competition even began.”

At the SCAA’s Great Lakes regional competition at Navy Pier in early March, where Riddle, who lives in West Town, secured his spot in this year’s nationals, competing baristas traded tips between rounds. As the 2006 U.S. champ, he drew some 50 to 60 spectators, mostly other baristas in knit caps and ripped jeans, including his hefty entourage from Intelligentsia. Emcee Nick Cho, who’s also competing at Long Beach this weekend, urged the crowd to “give it up for Matt’s espressooo!” as he served the judges his first round of drinks.

While Riddle worked, two judges with clipboards in hand swooped and darted around him, looking for stray grounds and inspecting his pitchers for wasted milk. Later there was an audible “ooh” when Riddle announced he’d be pouring latte art, though no one could see the coffee from the seats. For his win, he received $300, a spot at the USBC, and a trophy in the shape of a portafilter, the familiar barista’s tool that looks like an ice cream scooper.

Unlike the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, say, or the World Pastry Chef Championships, barista competitions haven’t found an audience beyond serious coffee connoisseurs and, of course, baristas. There are no TV monitors and no scoreboards, and though contestants are miked, the judges remain mostly silent. Final scores tend to be low. Out of a possible 1,200 points, Riddle earned 844 at Navy Pier; it was his highest score ever.

“We’re really at the infancy of where we can go with this,” says Cho. “When we look back at the 2007 USBC in five years, we’re going to be like, ‘Man, we did not know what we were doing.'”

The point of the competition, he says, is to elevate the status of both coffee and the people who serve it. He says coffee is every bit as sophisticated as wine but its drinkers don’t have the vocabulary to articulate what they like. “Say you walked into a wine shop and there were all these racks of bottles, and one rack just said ‘French wine’ and the other just said ‘California’ and the other just said ‘Australia.’ You don’t know anything about region, vintage, varietal, or the producer. That wouldn’t be OK, right?” he says. “Well, coffee inherently has all of those characteristics, too.”

The barista should be a “respected craftsperson, like a sommelier or a pastry chef,” Cho says. “We want the consumer to understand that the difference between a cappuccino served by a national barista champion like Matt Riddle versus one served by a high school kid in a green apron making six bucks an hour is like night and day.”

Michelle Campbell, a WBC organizer with the SCAA, echoes this sentiment. She looks forward to a time when someone working at a coffee shop won’t feel the need to make excuses like, “I’m a barista, but I’m really going to school for…” She says, “We want people to say, I’m a barista, period.”

At the Fulton Street warehouse, Riddle nervously smooths his shirtfront. Competitive baristas, like figure skaters, choose their own music; a lot at Navy Pier leaned toward the Buena Vista Social Club. Riddle likes brainy electronica. He starts a Books tune on his MP3 player. His practice space above the roasting works is an exact replica of the SCAA competition area right down to the silvery La Marzocco GB-5–the Ferrari of espresso machines. Tray in hand, he stiffly greets four imaginary judges, sets out napkins and flatware, and fills four water glasses from a swan-necked pitcher. “Good afternoon,” he says. “My name is Matt Riddle. I’m from Intelligentsia Coffee, in Chicago. I’ll be serving you coffee today.” He looks meaningfully into the empty space in front of him–the judges will be checking for eye contact–but he seems to have forgotten to smile.

Riddle takes a step back, his arms tightly at his sides. “We’re all here for one thing today, and that’s coffee,” he says. “I chose South American beans for my espresso today because that’s what’s fresh and great right now. Seasonality is so important in the cup, and I think the Colombian gives my espresso a nice sweetness, and I think the Brazil gives it a great body…” His ears redden; he’s rambling. He abruptly turns and stops the timer. He’s going to take it again from the top.

Baristas, judges, and cafe owners who post breathless play-by-plays of barista competitions at sites like CoffeeGeek often comment on Riddle’s economical style on stage. Spencer Turer, who works for the syrup company DaVinci Gourmet, is known as one of the toughest USBC and WBC judges. After he judged Riddle’s performance at Navy Pier, he called him “the stealth bomber of baristas.” “There’s no wasted movements,” he said. Tony Dreyfuss, co-owner of Metropolis, Intelligentsia’s biggest competitor here, saw Riddle at the regionals. “He’s like the best DJ, who shows up with the least stuff,” he said.

But it’s not enough for a barista to master the machine, according to Turer. He says an ideal espresso has a “thick crema . . . toasted hazelnut brown in color with a reddish-brown reflection and striping or flecking of both light and dark brown colors” and “depth and complexity, sweetness, acidity, and defined body.” What he’s looking for in an ideal barista is less objective: someone who’s “engaging to the customers.”

For Riddle, that’s the hardest part–“the talking.” He envies baristas who are, well, funnier than he is when onstage. “I’ve seen baristas who have everyone laughing during their routines, and I know I can’t be up there telling knock-knock jokes because that’s not me, but I want to figure out some way to be less formal,” he says. “I worry that the competitions are becoming about out-seriousing each other, and I worry that I’ve contributed to that.”

Riddle is tall and angular, with close-cropped dark hair, calm bright eyes, and strikingly long arms. He has zero tattoos, two pierced but undressed ears, and a tidy soul patch that sometimes sprouts into a modest goatee. Favoring printed t-shirts and jeans, he dresses somewhere between a fixed-gear-bike nut and a graphic designer: he’s both. He earned his BFA at Indiana but had a hard time finding work after moving to Chicago with his fiancee five years ago. In the fall of 2002, he took a job at Intelligentsia’s Broadway store as an evening-shift barista. Riddle says he’s always been obsessive about things–he and his fiancee spent four months researching pedigrees and interviewing breeders to find the perfect French bulldog–and Intelligentsia turned him on to the art of coffee making. By the spring of 2003, he was working as a specialist teaching baristas how to brew. By that fall he was made Intelligentsia’s designer.

Riddle entered his first competition two years later with Intelligentsia’s full financial backing. “It was kind of an evolution we went through as a company. We started paying attention to the competitions starting in ’03 and ’04, but we didn’t want to just jump in without figuring out how to go about it,” he says. “We were holding back and watching because we knew if we were going to do it, it would be a total commitment.” Riddle placed fifth in the 2005 Great Lakes competition at Fox & Obel, but found the pressure addictive; Long Beach will be his seventh competition.

His signature drink at last year’s USBC was made of espresso sweetened with molasses, star anise, and fresh fig syrup; he called it “Star.” His prize included a wood-mounted gold-plated portafilter.

To prepare him for the world championships, Intelligentsia flew Riddle to Denmark for three days of training with Fritz Storm, a tall, bald, succinct Dane who was both a former WBC champ and a judge before retiring from competition to become a consultant for coffee shops; he also coaches competitive baristas. Four of the seven past WBC champions were his students. “He polished my whole routine,” Riddle says. “He helped me change the way I pull cappuccinos. He pared down the tools I have on stage–I used to keep a lot of towels around, just in case, and he said to get rid of everything I didn’t absolutely need. ‘Make everything you do purposeful,’ he said. He shaved two minutes off of my time.” Storm also came to Intelligentsia earlier this year to work with Riddle and three other baristas who are competing at this year’s USBC.

“Somebody called us the Yankees of the barista competitions because we invest a lot of time and money into our competitors,” says Intelligentsia’s marketing rep Marc Johnson. “But this is just one of the things we do–we treat our farmers like artisans, and this is the final link of that artistic expression.”

Riddle’s performance in Bern, Switzerland, last summer reflected Storm’s tutelage, from his simple black dress shirt and pants to his stripped-down speech. He placed third–the highest an American has ever gone. First place went to another of Storm’s students, a tall, minimalist from Denmark named Klaus Thomsen, whose espresso drink, “Symphony of Coffee,” consisted of tidy tiers of espresso, panna cotta, and iced-coffee foam in a concave shot glass.

Although there’ll be 45 countries competing this July in Tokyo, the most in the WBC’s history, some areas of the globe–not to mention their various coffee cultures–are still underrepresented. No African nations competed until Kenya entered its first contestant last year; this year Ethiopia, Zambia, and Nigeria will make their debuts. Although the finalists in 2006 included an Italian who was accompanied by a live string quartet and a soft-spoken Icelander who played Bjork and called her fennel-scented drink the “Fairy Storm,” all of the baristas who’ve taken the world title fit a stricter mold–specifically a Scandinavian one. Thomsen was the sixth Scandinavian (and the fourth Dane) to take the top prize.

According to Michelle Campbell of the WBC, Scandinavians keep winning because they already have a highly evolved coffee culture. “Those countries are extremely passionate about espresso,” she says. Some Scandinavian baristas, she says, train all year-round for competitions.

Mark Prince, who owns Coffee-Geek and has judged several barista contests, including the WBC, says Americans who follow Norway and Denmark’s lead are the ones who make it to the next level. “The judges know what the WBC is like–you’re up against these straitlaced, precise Scandinavian competitors,” he said. “When I’m picking the winner, I’m thinking, ‘How well will this person play at the world level?’ So, unfortunately, the Americans get knocked down when they’re too ‘American.'”

At the Long Beach nationals Matt Riddle is looking forward to seeing Jay Caragay, a large-waisted, deep-voiced former film producer, hula instructor, and “semiprofessional paintball player” from Hawaii who now runs a coffee shop in Maryland. With a career high score in the mid-600s, Caragay has never come close to the WBC, and he readily admits he’s not as technically skilled as some of the top competitors. Still, he’s a celebrity on boards like CoffeeGeek, which has more than 27,000 members.

Caragay’s routine at last year’s USBC in Charlotte paid loving tribute to his former life in Hollywood and his favorite tobacco shop. Titled “Coffee and a Cigarette,” it was set to the theme music from Superman and Mortal Kombat. For his signature drink he used heavy cream infused with cigar tobacco to top shots of espresso flavored with vanilla extract; instead of saucers, he served on fire-engine red ashtrays. Throughout his performance he mugged at the audience, wiping sweat from his brow, drawing cheers and whistles while the judges stood stone-faced.

Last weekend, a week before the Long Beach nationals–when Riddle had already practiced his entire routine close to 30 times–Caragay was still playing with ideas for his signature drink. His last attempt had been inspired by a recent trip to the Peter Luger Steakhouse in Brooklyn. “Unfortunately,” he says, “I couldn’t make the combination of beef au jus and espresso reach any sort of culinary pinnacle, and I’ve abandoned the idea. . . . For now.”

Caragay’s been too busy with other projects to get much practice. He just returned from judging at the first-ever Ethiopian nationals in Addis Ababa. He blogs about coffee and cohosts the Portafilter podcast with Nick Cho. This summer he’s opening a new coffee shop, the Nail Salon Espresso–an homage to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry. “And when I’m not working,” he says on his blog, “I’d much rather be out with friends eating great food, smoking big cigars, driving recklessly . . . or chasing women.”

He hopes to make up for his lack of prep work with personality. “I mean really, how interesting is it watching some schmo quietly and politely serving four other people? I usually find myself turning comatose,” he writes. “I find it entirely droll to listen to some barista explain why he likes to adjust the grind so that he can pull a better shot. Or that the doser lever needs to be pulled to evacuate grinds from the doser hopper and into the portafilter. Say that one more time and I’m going to bury you in cardamom.”

He’d like to see competitive baristas stop catering exclusively to the judges and start appealing to the audiences, and he’s careful to keep them entertained. “I want them to stick around and watch,” he writes.

Mark Prince of CoffeeGeek, who’s also a fan of Caragay’s, says changes need to be made if the SCAA wants competitions to attract a wider audience or get shown on the Food Network. The way the event is organized now, audiences can’t see much, can’t taste the drinks, and have no idea what the judges are thinking. Fifteen minutes is a long time for polite conversation. “Even as a judge,” he admits, “I would get bored up there.”

Prince says he’s had conversations with SCAA organizers suggesting Olympics-style scoring, live video of the baristas behind their machines, and passing samples of signature drinks to the audience, but so far little has changed. “In my opinion, the SCAA is afraid of thinking outside the box,” he says. “It’s a fear I have myself, that people will laugh at it like it’s some Star Trekker’s convention.”

The same people turn up year after year, he says, and publicity efforts are minimal. “My growing concern is we’re preaching to the choir,” Prince says. “I’m still a huge fan and I still love seeing competitions, but we’re not reaching the masses to really move coffee into a higher culinary place.”

Champion baristas, meanwhile, are wasted as potential coffee ambassadors, Prince says. “At the Miss USA competition they have a whole cadre of people who do nothing but promote the winner all year.” Riddle says he’s gone to a few “barista jams”–consisting of cafe crawls, tastings, and classes–and will speak on a panel at this year’s USBC. He’s even lent his name and face to a coffee syrup. The SCAA has never officially asked him to do anything.

Riddle’s going through his final run-throughs at the warehouse with one week to go till the nationals. He’s wearing an Intelligentsia T-shirt bearing one of his designs, the striking puma logo of their Black Cat blend. “I’ve had a breakthrough!” he says. The stiffness of his routine had been frustrating him for weeks. “I just want to talk about how this is supposed to be fun, and about sharing a good cup of coffee with your friends, and how important it is not to lose sight of that,” he said. As the reigning champion, he realized there was nothing stopping him from doing just that. This year he’s ditching the “opera” blacks he wore at Bern for “dinner party” slacks and a crew neck.

He throws a towel over his shoulder and starts wiping demitasse cups with his apron. “Last year I felt like so many people wanted me to do well and go on to represent America at the worlds, and there was a certain amount of pressure,” he says. “I’m not saying this year is a victory lap, but it feels like I’ve already accomplished what I wanted.” He still wants to win, but he’s not afraid of losing.

He starts the timer. “Hello everybody, how are you? Great!” He describes the Brazilian and Colombian beans from which he’ll make his espresso in the language of a sommelier. “I think the Brazil provides this really nice, stable, pleasant, smooth chocolatey base. The Colombian crop is five months old and has had a chance to settle, so the acidity has died down and given way to this cherry, super fruit sweetness which kicks over and complements that milk chocolateyness of the Brazil.”

With a nod he turns to the GB-5, which suddenly whirs and blinks under his quick hands. From the grinder he “doses” a pile of grounds into a small metal basket and levels it with his fingers. He tightly compresses it with a couple swift presses of a tamp, a tool that, to a barista, is like a magician’s hat or a maestro’s baton–romantically symbolic far beyond its function.

He grins slyly at the imaginary judges over a metal pitcher of frothed milk. “I’ll be dazzling you all with my amazing latte-art skills in these cappuccinos,” he says, pouring four perfect “rosettas.” He talks about his “lively, malty” espresso cocktail–a shot of espresso mixed with ginger-infused carbonated water and served with a slice of lime–and he punctuates points by thrusting his hands out like a belting tenor. He still finishes in 13 and a half minutes, like he learned under Fritz Storm. But the tone is downright American.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.