Local barista deemed among nation's finest

It's not just your regular cup of joe

Posted: Monday, June 09, 2003

The day before he left Juneau in April to compete in a national barista competition in Boston, Heritage Coffee Co. employee Shane Sewell expected to receive a specially ordered package of four demitasses. Instead, he received two cups intact and the pieces of two others.

"It was pretty crazy," Sewell said. "I threw a little tantrum."

Demitasses are essential tools of baristas - those trained in the art of making specialty espresso drinks. Without four identical cups, Sewell would lose an essential edge in the competition.

So Sewell left without the cups, and Heritage Coffee Vice President and Director of Marketing Gretchen Garrett, who was leaving for Boston two days later, searched frantically in Juneau for proper demitasses. She had no luck, and ended up hiring a delivery service in Seattle that was willing to pick up two new cups and deliver them to Sewell at his hotel room during his overnight layover in the city.

"And then, of course, we got to Boston and right across the street from our hotel was a Crate and Barrel (home furnishing store) that had hundreds of them," Garrett said.

Sewell, 28, the barista trainer for Heritage Coffee, earned the chance to compete in the United States Barista Competition by winning fifth place in February's Northwest Barista Jam in Seattle. In that competition, he served four espressos, four cappuccinos and four coffee drinks he created especially for the competition. The whole production took 15 minutes, with judges and an emcee heckling Sewell.

"It's really quite a show," said Grady Saunders, president of Heritage Coffee.

Saunders and several Heritage employees attended the event, part of conferences held by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. The conferences are a place to trade ideas, find new products and show off skills.

Sewell won 22nd place in the United States Barista Competition in Boston, competing against some of the country's finest latte makers.

One competitor at the conference served his drinks on dry ice. Another created a creme brulee drink, using a flame to apply a crunchy top, similar to the one on the famous French dessert. Sewell heard of an Australian at the world competition in a previous year who included kangaroo meat in his drink.

"They get pretty creative," said Sewell, who was competing in the event for the first time. He created the "Jamaican Jazz Latte," a blend of allspice and brewed espresso with steamed milk, almond syrup and three kinds of sugar: brown, white cane and sugar in the raw.

The drink was a product of Sewell's love of the art of coffee-making, a passion that has been brewing in him for the three years he's worked at Heritage.

"I didn't know much about (coffee)," Sewell said. "When I started working here, I realized how big specialty coffee was, and I took a liking to it."

Sewell has learned - and is still learning - how to steam milk for a latte to a perfect temperature and texture. He knows how fine to grind each type of bean the Heritage Cafes serve, how much pressure to apply when "tamping" the grounds in the espresso filter and how long the steam should be sent through the grounds to create the espresso.

His passion has grown to the point that he now owns a commercial-quality espresso machine in his home, and he is working to develop his palette so he can recognize different beans and roasts.

"One of the things that we look for in employees is finding people who have a passion for what they do," said Saunders. "... Shane deserves a lot of credit. He's really come to the forefront in training all of our baristas."

Sewell works full time at the Heritage Glacier Cafe in the Mendenhall Valley, and already is brainstorming ideas for next year's competition. Garrett is preparing as well.

"Next year we're ordering our demitasse cups two months in advance," she said.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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