DUBAI // It is 10am, and the organisers of the UAE Barista Championship are worried that the first competitor has a case of cold feet.
Darwin Malit, from Kozi Africafe in Dubai, is nowhere to be found. Luckily, the Middle East Coffee and Tea Convention, at which the competition is taking place, is running behind schedule.
At 10.30am Mr Malit shows up at the competition hall in the Meydan Jumeirah hotel, wheeling a cart full of equipment. "Too much tension," he says, patting his stomach. Butterflies calmed, he sets up. The competitors had to supply their own beans, cups and other and supplies - only the espresso machine and coffee grinder are provided - and they must prepare three drinks: an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature concoction. Among Mr Malit's ingredients are about a dozen tomatoes.
Station set and equipment tested, he takes a deep breath and pauses. He raises his hand, and the clock starts. He has 15 minutes. As he serves the espresso, he attempts to win over the judges. "What do you think of the African bean?" They stare silently back at him. And the secret of the perfect espresso? First, the "crema". "It's the foam on the top of the espresso, which is actually an emulsion of the coffee oil in the grounds which is released by the pressure in the espresso machine," explains Ben Bicknell, a coffee expert who earlier in the week had trained the judges about what to look for during the competition.
In short, the crema contains a good deal of the flavour in an espresso. Mr Malit's espressos, sadly, were virtually crema-free. Eight minutes pass, and Mr Malit is starting on his cappuccinos. He grinds the beans and turns on the milk steamer. The spray knocks the lid off of the grinder. He is so focused on the time that he does not notice the lid, or the judges noting his mistakes. Seemingly unaware of the clock, Mr Malit lets 12 minutes elapse before he gets his cappuccinos out. They do not look pretty.
Making a good cappuccino requires the steady hand of a watchmaker. Too little steamed milk, and the drink will not be light and frothy. Too much, and it will be devoud of the taste of coffee . On top of the frothed milk in the perfect cappuccino that Mr Bicknell made during his demonstration was a heart, made by pouring the milk into the serving cup just so. But he had the luxury of unlimited time, whereas Mr Malit's hopes of winning are slipping through his fingers with each passing second.
His cappuccinos are either completely unadorned, or the designs on the milk foam look more like Rorschach test blots than a heart. Among the judges is Vikram Kashyap, who sailed to victory in last year's competition with his cherry chocolate coffee. With 50 seconds to go, Mr Malit is not about to equal Mr Kashyap's triumph from last year. He chucks tomatoes, ice, honey and espresso into a blender and flicks it on.
As he begins to pours the mixture into four tall glasses he stops and grabs his hair in frustration. He has made enough for only three drinks, and there are four judges. "I'm not satisfied, because I know I can do better," he says as he wipes sweat from his brow. "Better luck next time." firstname.lastname@example.org