SANTA CRUZ -- Big city baristas were crowned the creme de la creme Sunday during the finals of the South West Regional Barista Competition at the Top of the Ritt downtown.
The winners were: Eden-Marie Abramowicz of Intelligentsia Coffee in Los Angeles, who scored first place, by one point; followed by Charles Babinski of G&B Coffee in Los Angeles in second place; and Kevin Bohlin of Saint Frank Coffee in San Francisco who poured in at third.
Each barista had 15 minutes to make a dozen drinks -- four espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty drinks. Contestants were also judged on how well they cleaned up the silver machines after pumping out caffeinated creations.
Abramowicz, a 22-year-old who hails from Atlanta, was mobbed by well-wishers after her performance.
She said her edge came from "intensity of flavors and clear ways of articulating them and making them approachable to customers and coffee roasters."
"And I made tasty coffee that the judges liked," she added, beaming, in just the right mix of professionalism and down-to-earth joy.
Abramowicz said one signature drink she created for the judges was an espresso from the Huila Region of Colombia with brown sugar and water and grapefruit oil around the rim of the cup.
"I get to go to Kenya!" she exclaimed to a friend, referring to a trip for finalists next year courtesy of Cafe Imports. But first was a trip to Boston for the national
finals followed by a possible trip to Melbourne for the internationals.
A friend told her she was "just so glad a girl won."
As far as local talent, Stacey Kock of Verve snagged fifth place in the barista battle, which was hosted for the second consecutive year by local coffee roaster Verve. Kock Sunday wore an orange shirt, grey vest and black tie that matched his black-rimmed glasses. His hair was slicked down and he swayed to some high-intensity music as he quickly worked, telling the judges he was keeping it simple and that coffee at this level doesn't need to be intimidating or complex. When he vigorously shook the coffee in a cylindrical shaker, the audience roared.
Verve owner Ryan O'Donovan said the coffee roasting company, which has shops in downtown Santa Cruz, Seabright and Pleasure Point, had a few baristas in the competition and were proud of them.
"It's been awesome; attendance has been incredible," O'Donovan added.
The event included a simpler coffee contest called the Brewer's Cup as well.
Winners of that competition were Charles Babinski, again, but this time in first place; Tommy Kim of Cafe Dulce of Los Angeles in second place; and Albert Que of Hearth Coffee Roasters in San Francisco in third place.
The event gave baristas from seven states a showcase for judges and a nearly full house. There were six winners in the Barista Competition and Brewer's Cup. Finalists will go on to compete at the national championship, held April 11-14 in Boston.
Jared Truby of Verve Coffee Roasters won last year's competition. This year, other local competitors included Keith Garrett of Java Junction and Alexandra LittleJohn and Jasper Wilde from Verve Coffee Roasters.
While anyone working at a coffee shop in the southwest region could apply to compete, the maximum was two per company. Saturday, judges narrowed the list to 16 semifinalists who rounded out the weekend Sunday in front of an appreciative audience, whipped up by announcer Tony Serrano.
Montana Mirabella of Santa Cruz said he heard about the competition from a friend.
"It was great; I came on Friday and came back to see the finals," he said. "I don't know a lot about coffee, but I learned a lot. It's worth it just for the free espresso and cappuccino."
Mike Mierz, who grew up in San Jose, said he was studying philosophy and theology in Pasadena when he started getting into coffee. He now works in Los Angeles for San Rafael-based Equator Coffees & Tea.
He spoke about how those in the industry try to find farmers and cooperatives that are growing the best specialized coffee beans and then employ the best brewing and roasting techniques.
"This whole scene is about what's the best coffee out there," he said. "It's not mainstream in a lot of ways, but it's great. It's been really fun."
Follow Sentinel reporter Cathy Kelly at Twitter.com/cathykelly9 ___