Letter from Trieste

A REAL GRIND

Vancouver's Sammy Piccolo recently won silver at the World Barista Championship. STEVE BURGESS reports on the making of a coffee champion.

July 19 2004
Letter from Trieste

A REAL GRIND

Vancouver's Sammy Piccolo recently won silver at the World Barista Championship. STEVE BURGESS reports on the making of a coffee champion.

July 19 2004

A REAL GRIND

Letter from Trieste

Vancouver's Sammy Piccolo recently won silver at the World Barista Championship. STEVE BURGESS reports on the making of a coffee champion.

LIKE SO MANY other Canadian competitors, Vancouver’s Sammy Piccolo is in Europe this summer seeking glory and medals. Unlike those others, Sammy’s destination was not Athens. He is in Trieste, Italy, to do battle at the World Barista Championship. It’s all about the golden portafilter, and Sammy is about to take on the finest espresso makers on the planet.

That the WBC should be held here in Trieste seems appropriate. This stunning little city on the Adriatic loses much of its potential tourist volume to nearby Venice. Likewise, an international contest for the people who whip up your daily cappuccinos is unlikely to grab headlines—not yet. But who knows? Once upon a time the prospect of spelling bees and poker on TSN seemed remote. With any luck, baristas could become the next spoiled superstars of sport.

Sammy is poised to crash the top ranks. Having won the first annual Canadian Barista Championship last year, and then the second just before departing for the Worlds, he is Canada’s first ever competitor at the WBC. Nearly 40 nations are represented here, and the titans are not who you’d expect—last year’s winner was Australia. As this year’s event opens, many are predicting big things from Norway, whose champion Tim Wendelboe has been runnerup here in 2001 and 2002. And Canada? “We hadn’t heard anything about you guys,” Wendelboe would say later. He and the rest of the field are about to find out plenty.

In January 2000, brothers Vince and

Sammy Piccolo turned Vancouver café society on its ear when they opened the first Caffe Artigiano at Pender and Thurlow. Like some green raptor, a Starbucks had soon alighted right across the street—would the Seattle monolith crush the budding business of the Piccolos?

Pat chance. Vince, Sammy and crew were turning out coffee drinks that made the Starbucks offerings taste like day-old bus station brew. Today there are three Caffe Artigianos in Vancouver, with two more set to open in the area. There’s even one in Seoul, Korea. Thanks to their skill with “latte art”—leaf and heart designs drawn atop a cappuccino with careful pouring of foamed milk—and Sammy’s two victories at the Canadian championships, the Piccolos can reasonably lay claim to the title of Vancouver’s first family of coffee.

Now Sammy, 26, is in Trieste, preparing to play in a different league. Months of practice have preceded the event. With only 15 minutes to prepare three different sets of drinks for the judges, baristas here face more pressure than a hot steam boiler.

Sammy’s turn comes early on Day 1. Looking a little edgier than his usual ebullient self, he welcomes the judges and proceeds to make four cappuccinos, each topped with a lovely leaf design. His artistry is a pleasure to watch, but generally barista work appears unlikely to make Sports Illustrated anytime soon. Considering that mopping spilled milk and proper coffee tamping are among the crucial judging elements,

the NBA should not feel threatened.

Not that the WBC lacks for fans. Petr Reithmaier of the Czech Republic has a cheering section loud enough to rival a gang of English football yobs. The Japanese contingent is also large, numbering about 30. Adding spice to the whole proceeding is José Arreola, the emcee. Sporting a groomed matinee idol look worthy of a Mexican soap star, he brings to the event enthusiasm and a talent for truly mystifying English. “I guess there is a way of saying things,” José muses at one point, “and we don’t know what it is. So thank you.” Umm ... you’re welcome.

Sammy has reached the final stage of his presentation, the “signature drink” required1

of all competitors. Sammy’s is called insieme (Italian for “together”), and it includes egg yolk, bittersweet chocolate and a dash of curry. It’s a gamble—one judge tells me later, “It’s very difficult to pull off a coffee drink with curry.” Signature drinks are supposed to be innovative, but the judges will tolerate only so much. Australia’s Paul Bassett once offered up a concoction that included a piece of kangaroo meat. He didn’t win—that year. The following season he returned with something a little safer and claimed the crown. This year he’s a judge.

By the end of Day 2, the baristas have sweated through their routines, literally. (Once at a lower-level tournament, the story

goes, an American absent-mindedly mopped his brow with a towel, which he then immediately used to wipe out a judge’s cup before serving him a drink. It didn’t go over well.) Only six baristas will advance to the finals on Sunday. Announcements are in alphabetical order, by country. “If they start by mentioning Denmark,” says Sammy’s wife and teammate Andrea Piccolo, “we’re out.” They do mention Denmark. But only after saying, “From Canada—Salvatore Piccolo.” Already, Sammy has matched the best ever finish for a North American, and the finals are yet to come.

At the party Saturday night, Canada and Norway are prominently featured in the

buzz. “There’s a feeling in the air that Canada will win,” a Brazilian says. But more common is another opinion—as a two-time bridesmaid, Norwegian Tim Wendelboe is due.

Finals day—Canada is first of the six. Sammy turns in a bravura performance, looking more confident than last time and finishing with 90 seconds to spare. The gauntlet is down.

Norway’s turn comes last. Wendelboe reprises his act from the day before, a rather odd burlesque to ’70s-era porn-movie music and selections from the soundtrack of Shaft. “He has the same hobby I do,” Wendelboe says by way of explanation. “Aside from coffee, I most enjoy women.” The Norwegian Don Juan finishes with a liquid version of tiramisù, an apt signature choice for an Italian competition. Now it’s up to the judges: like figure skating, the judging is split between the technical and the subjective. And like figure skating, it can be controversial.

Time to hear the decision, but first a few more words from José. “Coffee is the medicine to end all war.” Swell. Let’s go.

They start with No. 6 and work up. First name mentioned—New Zealand. No. 5— the lively barista from Lebanon, easily the event’s Mr. Popularity. No. 4 is Njáll Björgvisson of Iceland, who had told me minutes before that the top three would include Denmark, Norway and Canada. He’s right, but in which order? The bronze medal goes to—Denmark. “I will raise the arm of the winner,” says the judge. And hoists the arm of Norway’s Tim Wendelboe. Canada, in its first time out, has just scored the silver medal at the World Barista Championship.

Perhaps we should have done even better. As it turns out, Sammy won the technical category, but Wendelboe scored higher on the sensory side, which includes performance, taking the top spot by just six points. I quiz a couple of judges about the difference between Sammy and Wendelboe—the answers are vague and, frankly, unconvincing. It is hard to escape the conclusion that three times a runner-up was just too sad a story, whereas Canada could be expected to be pleased with silver. And so a way was found to make the Norwegian bridesmaid a bride.

Not that Sammy was complaining—he was thrilled with the results. Perhaps it means that next year is scheduled to be his. The 2005 event is in his backyard—Seattle.

Meantime, bring on the Olympics. Canada’s already in the medals. ii1]