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Scott Conary: barista judge

By Henry Gargan
Staff Writer

Scott Conary is enthusiastic about coffee, and it’s not just because he has trouble waking up in the morning.

Conary’s selection as head judge at the 11th annual World Barista Championship attests to this. The competition, held late last month in London, tested competitors’ mastery of quickly serving well-made drinks and their ability to inflect classic concoctions with their own personal style. Competitors had 15 minutes to create 12 drinks, three for each of the four judges – a cappuccino, an espresso and a barista’s choice of coffee that makes “culinary sense.” Cleanliness of presentation, charisma and overall impression also contributed to the barista’s final score.

The judging process, Conary said, is inherently tinged with subjectivity: “There’s a very technical aspect to it, but there’s largely a sensorial aspect to it as well.”

Conary, who owns and runs local coffee haunts Caffe Driade and the Open Eye Café, tries to use this experience as a judge of baristas on the world stage to better his own businesses. Perhaps in an effort to educate his customers and employees, he made sure that video coverage of the event was streamed live into Open Eye.

“The same parameters [as in competition] are in place when I’m looking for someone to serve high-quality drinks,” he said.

The World Barista Championship was launched through the grassroots initiative of passionate coffee drinkers with the help of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA). Conary has been involved with the competition since 2003.

“I recognized the inherent value of it, and I said, ‘Wow, this is a good thing, and this could be a great thing, but only if somebody makes it happen,’” said Conary, who serves as chair of the SCAA’s Barista Competition Committee and has been a judge at the championships for the past four years.

His passion for the beverage took off as he became first a casual drinker, then a curious consumer and, finally, a member of the industry, submerged in the grounds of coffee lore.

“A little bit of it is my personality,” Conary said of this transformation. “When I like something, I automatically want to know more about it.”

Through this desire to learn and constant involvement with the coffee world, Conary made a name for himself as an aficionado and, eventually, a judge.

“I just put myself out there, and that was really important to becoming part of the movement,” he said. “Plus, it’s totally volunteer-based. No one is paying us to do this.”

On a larger scale, Conary hopes to change the way Americans view the coffee-drinking experience, and even the product itself. His businesses and other local coffee houses, Conary said, are leading the charge in committing to bringing the sophistication to coffee-drinking they think it deserves.

“Barista should be a profession,” said Conary. “It is in other countries, and there’s no reason it can’t be here, as long as we raise the level of awareness with consumers. We take it very seriously.”

So do his customers. The local customer base is well-educated about their coffee and is in part responsible for rising standards. It’s a promising sign. Still, Conary feels that the overall perception of the drink itself needs to change in America.

“There’s still this disconnect on what coffee really is,” he said. “And unfortunately in the U.S., it’s always been considered a staple. It’s not a staple; you can’t always count on it being there. It’s an agrarian product.”

Conary hopes that through a heightened awareness of coffee’s true nature—a luxury—consumers will be quicker to advocate for better and more responsible cultivation.
So he persists, a man on a mission. Conary believes that what he does has important implications.

“There’s this cultural thing that comes into play,” he said, describing the world championship. “Whether you’re dealing with interpreters or you’re just feeling the flavor and effect of the cultural experiences that they want to share with you, that’s just truly awesome.

“And,” he said, smiling, “we have more countries represented here than at the World Cup.”

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