BOSTON (Reuters) - Who is the emperor of espresso? The conqueror of cappuccino?
Dozens of baristas from across the United States have gathered in Boston this weekend to answer that question, in a contest of coffee-making skills where they will crown a national champion of their trade on Sunday.
More than 40 baristas qualified for this year's U.S. Barista Championship, which requires competitors to prepare espressos, cappuccinos and original beverages for four judges within a 15-minute period.
The contest, now in its 10th year, is part of a trade show hosted by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, said Ric Rhinehart, the group's executive director.
Judges evaluate baristas on the quality of their drinks as well as their level of service. They consider factors including technical skill, efficiency and presentation.
While preparing beverages for judges sitting at a counter in a hangar-like room at the Boston Convention Center at an early round of the competition on Friday, competitors narrated the process and explained details about the coffee itself.
"It's a great way for baristas to really hone their craft and to take some pride," Rhinehart said. "Ultimately, we think, it makes a better, more positive coffee interaction for the consumer."
The baristas in Boston qualified at regional contests held across the country. The winner will travel to Melbourne, Australia, next month to compete against baristas from 57 other countries at the World Barista Championship.
American baristas have "really come up in the world," Rhinehart said. Early championships were dominated by baristas from northern Europe, which leads the world in per-capita coffee consumption, but in recent years winners have come from a wider range of countries.
An American won in 2010, while the past two years saw the first champions from coffee-producing countries — El Salvador in 2011 and Guatemala in 2012.
Competitors today have a much deeper knowledge of the product and how it's processed than they did when it began years ago, Rhinehart added.
"They've trained themselves a lot on the sensory side of it, how to describe the flavors and taste," he said. "The creativity is off the charts."
Judges may look for acidity — considered a favorable quality that makes coffee vibrant — balance, aroma and flavor notes reminiscent of fruit, flowers or chocolate.
Katie Carguilo, who has entered the contest several times over the past decade and won the 2012 United States Barista Championship, was competing again on Friday.
"Every year the level of competition gets harder and harder," said Carguilo, 29, who works for Counter Culture Coffee in New York. "But that's great, that's great for coffee."
She started as a barista when she was in college, she said, and "fell in love with coffee, with the industry."
"You're always trying to make a better cup," she said.
Editing by Scott Malone and Kenneth Barry