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Side Dishes: Barre barista goes for broke

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Making a perfect espresso isn't easy, but making a perfect espresso with two "technical judges" and four "sensory judges" looking over your shoulders might seem nigh on impossible. Yet Barre barista Elizabeth Manriquez is ready to give it a shot.

Manriquez, who co-owns Specialty Coffee Association of America's brew-offs when she lived in Seattle, well before she ever "pulled" drinks at her own joint. Last year she placed second in the first round, then bombed in the finals.

How does the fast-paced contest work? Each competitor has 15 minutes to serve three rounds of drinks - espressos, cappuccinos and creative "specialty drinks" - to the four sensory judges. Participants are marked down if they don't tamp the grounds properly, if their brews aren't consistent and if they spill a drop. Manriquez will be competing with a bean blend from Vermont Artisan Coffee, and will bring her own milk from Monument Farms. Why? "I wouldn't want to steam somebody else's milk, every milk is so different," she exclaims.

Sounds like a lot of pressure. Manriquez explains, "There's very few people in this area who are as diehard about espresso as I feel that I am. There's nobody that I can think of that I can really sit down and talk [with] about the kinds of crazy things that baristas talk about." Basically, she suggests, the event provides social networking for the coffee-obsessed: "For me, it's like a big giant geek fest, and I'm trying to meet people who are way geekier than I am."

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