By RENEE FITE
Baristas came to Tahlequah from as far a Poteau and Arkansas Friday night to show off their talents, making art from cream on the smooth surface of a cup of coffee.
A crowd gathered at The Drip for its first barista competition. Mayor Jason Nichols, one of the judges, said he’d never seen people do the designing before, and had only drank one cup of coffee in his life, but he was game for the contest.
“I’m not a coffee drinker and I don’t have any experience with this,” he said.
The other two judges are fans of coffee, especially from The Drip.
Coffee connoisseur Linda Spyres, also a member of the Tahlequah City Council, described the coffee at The Drip as “fabulous.” She’s had coffee from New Zealand, Australia and wherever she travels, and is convinced the coffee served here is the best.
“It’s smooth, delicious,” said Spyres. “[Owner] Al [Soto] knows what he’s doing. He asks what you like and how you like it.”
A 12-ounce espresso with milk is her favorite.
“He knows where the beans come from, like Mexico or Ethopia, and they’re all absolutely delicious,” Spyres said.
Alyssia Hylton, another judge, was impressed with the baristas’ work.
“And when they’re trying to impress me, they’re going to be top-notch,” said Hylton.
As the competition heated up, two baristas at a time were given mugs of hot lattes, and the pour-off began. As each completed a design, two mugs were carefully set in front of the judges, and they selected the best of the two. The winning cup was chosen, and that barista moved forward to the next bracket.
Those in the crowd had the opportunity to admire the designs, and servings of latte were given away after each two cups were judged.
Nick Giovanetti, of Topeca Coffee Co., won the competition, and Soto himself came in second. A total of 14 baristas vied for the honors.
Barista Tori Powers said the competition helps him hone his skills.
“I take pride in it,” said Powers. “I’m still the baby of [The Drip], going on six months. I like to do the tulip design. And I’m striving for a rosetta.”
Maria Ims, from the Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas, came to get a feel for what other people in the coffee community are doing.
“I’m here for the throwdown and to learn what other people are going,” Ims said.
The tulip design is her specialty.
“I want to see what different shapes people do, making designs is complex in terms of symmetry and layering,” Ims said.
Dallas transplant Mitchell Murray, of Tulsa, works in design and marketing for Topeca Coffee Co. He started out as a barista.
“I’m here to support a shop we very much appreciate, with its first-ever latte art competition,” Murray said. “The camaraderie is great!”
He likes to make hearts, the design with which he’s most consistent.
“They’re simple, but how you execute can have a lot of complexity,” said Murray.
Drip Barista Erik McKee was enjoying meeting baristas from other places.
“We’ve never done anything like this. I’d like to go check out their shops,” said McKee.
The tulip design comes most naturally to him.
“Presentation makes the drink just that much better,” McKee said.
“It’s fun watching people enjoy the aesthetics and hear them say, “Wow, I’ve never seen that!”
Angelica Avila visits The Drip a couple of times a week, and attended Friday night’s event to support her friends.
“I’ve become familiar with the baristas and came to show my support. I like when they show me one of the designs they’re working on. It’s cool they can draw pictures in milk,” Avila said.
Tammie Johnson, owner of The Coffe Cup in Poteau, brought three of her staff members to compete.
“This is the best thing for the baristas, to get out and meet other baristas. It’s friendly competition, fun and a way to show off their skills they’ve worked hard at developing,” Johnson said.
It also prepares them for regional competitions.
“We’ve traveled to Oregon, Georgia and California to participate in these competitions,” siad Johnson.
Soto hosted the competition to bring people closer to the artistry of coffee.
“This kind of thing happens in big cities” said Soto. “We wanted to bring a big-city experience to Tahlequah.”