The Curse Of The Barista

There’s no way it would happen for a fourth time.

                             It would be hilarious. Insane, but hilarious.

                                                                     Nah, it’s totally his year.

“In fourth place… froooom Caballero Coffee in Los Angeles, California, Ralph Snider!

Ralph forced a smile that pushed his eyelids into a squint, hiding disappointment and bewilderment. He followed it with a shrug and an even more forced chuckle before collecting his trophy and struggling to pay attention for the rest of the awards ceremony. Attention shifted for the most part to the top three but scattered coffee professionals in the freezing convention center stared at Ralph in amazement. For the fourth year in a row, he had rather frustratingly placed fourth in the United States Barista Championship. Four for four… for fourth.

Having given up on his initial dream of teaching philosophy at the collegiate level, today Ralph was a known quantity in the specialty coffee industry. Indeed, his presentations at the often inaccessible barista competitions struck a balance between professorial and comforting. He was a storyteller. He was driven by the desire to tell the story of coffee to anyone who would listen, whether through engaging competition routines or some well-favorited Instagram posts of his bi-annual origin trips.

When he wasn’t serving espressos, cappuccinos, and signature beverages to judges, Ralph shone as the dedicated head trainer for Caballero Coffee in the trendy Los Feliz neighborhood of LA. Just a year out of his program at UCLA, he’d had some misgivings about starting his coffee career in a neighborhood he thought was a little suspect, but seven years in, he felt that Caballero had really lifted the neighborhood up and inspired even more quality food and beverage spots to establish themselves. There were now two equally good pho spots for lunch.

Caballero was a respected coffee roaster, though some vocal Twitter users frequently dragged the operation for its predominantly white male staff, which contrasted its myriad Latin American design influences. Ralph was open to ongoing dialogue about what the industry could do better but was greatly encouraged by the company’s recent hire of a woman of color, who he had no doubt would eventually graduate from cashier to barista.

As Ralph prepared for his seventh coffee competition season, he felt certain that he was contributing positively to his community but craved the ultimate recognition for his hard work more than he let on to his peers. Surely he wouldn’t be stuck in this perpetual cycle of fourth place for the rest of his career?

“Being up on that stage with five people who inspire me to strive for excellence is the great honor of my life,” he had told Bean Teen Magazine in an interview after his most recent fourth ranking. “But of course, I’d like to, sort of, y’know… take it to the next level.”

While working a rare bar shift at the roastery to cover for a sick barista, Ralph was so distracted by his determination to find the one element that would tip the scale in his favor in competition, that he failed to notice a paper cup that sat sideways on top of the espresso machine for a full minute.

“Anita,” Ralph said with a smile. “You know, it’s supposed to be cups up for milk beverages and cups down for americanos, right? I mean, I think it’s fun to put your mark on the place by putting a cup sideways, but it’s a little clunky for service if I don’t know what you mean by it.”

Without moving her head, Anita shifted her eyes to the espresso machine and then quickly back to the Chemex she was attending to. “Didn’t put that up there. We haven’t had a customer in the last five minutes.”

Ralph shrugged, grabbed the cup, and threw it into the compost heap, but then saw that the cup had writing on it. He took the cup back out and brushed off some ground coffee and bits of zucchini muffin to read a message neatly written in black marker:

“Fourth place again this year… OR DEAD LAST?!?!

Ralph was confused, if not a little unnerved by this hostile message. He was quite certain that the specialty coffee community deeply respected him. Who would taunt him like this when he had worked so hard and been so congenial with coffee professionals the world over? Was some jealous barista trying to get the best of him and shame him into giving up on competition? What had been a strong desire to prove himself quickly turned into an angry determination to prove the anonymous cup-writer wrong. He crushed the cup in his hand, thinking to himself, “First place this year, asshole,” as he threw it back into the compost.

After closing the shop for the evening, Ralph’s rage for the cruel cup message made him angry at just about everything. Anita had left early to attend a night class, leaving him all alone to attend to closing duties he hadn’t performed since his last bar shift a year and a half prior. As much as he thought it was the admirable thing to do to put himself in the floor worker’s shoes every once in a while, he thought Anita might have showed a little more dedication and initiative, especially if she wanted to work her way up in coffee. On top of that, a customer had spilled simple syrup on the floor by the condiment bar hours before without saying anything and the sticky mess was taking forever to clean up.

He worked in silence after the Fleet Foxes album he had barely been listening to ended. As he walked to retrieve the mop and finish cleaning, he heard a crisp whisper echo from the slightly ajar door that led to the roastery.

Fourth…fourth…fourth…fourth…

Surely this was his seething mind tricking him when he was ready to leave his frustrations behind for the evening…

Fourth…fourth…fourth…fourth…

Ralph was nervous at first but quickly resolved that he would teach this spineless asshole a lesson. Writings on a cup? Creepy whispering? Not today. Ralph stomped back to the roastery and flung the door open, ready to give his tormentor an earful, but was immediately struck by how dark it was in the roastery. The tall windows had somehow mostly been blacked out, save for a dim light from outside that shone on a patch of floor, where loose green and roasted coffee spelled out the message,

DEAD. LAST.

As Ralph finally started worrying about his safety, bright lights flooded the roastery and he turned in all directions looking for the menace. It took only a few seconds to discover a man with a weaselly face and barely any neck glaring at him while perched atop a large stack of green coffee bags. Ralph instantly recognized him as a truly annoying figure from his past. The man had spent all of his spare time hanging around Los Angeles coffee shops for hours telling any barista he could trap behind the counter about all of the coffees he had tasted that week and complaining that very few coffee professionals actually knew how to pull a great shot of espresso. But that was years ago. The guy had totally vanished. He hadn’t seen this man in… four years.

“It’s finally starting to make sense, isn’t it,” the man hissed.

“But,” Ralph started in disbelief, “how did you…”

“Make sure you’d come in fourth place every time?”

Ralph felt ill but curious as to how this man could’ve pulled off such a consistent sabotage.

“Look away for a few seconds,” the man started, “and you’ll be surprised at how easily your competition coffee could be switched out after your prep time. Not to something terrible. Wouldn’t want you to be suspicious of always coming in last. Just close enough that you would flub on a few flavor calls and always wonder if you just weren’t good enough to take it all the way.”

“But… why?” Ralph asked softly, stunned that someone could despise him so much.

“You’re too self-absorbed to even remember HUMILIATING ME??” the man wailed. “I tell you about the most amazing coffee I’ve had in my life and you very LOUDLY and CLEARLY tell me and everyone else in the cafe that it’s not “gay-shuh”, it’s “gehhhhhhhhhhshuhhhhhhhh”. I couldn’t be seen in another coffee shop after that! You’ve gotten what you deserved for long enough. If you won’t do the honorable thing, and end your mediocre career, I’m going to have to end it for you.”

Good god, had this strange man really spent years lurking in convention centers, committed to ensuring that Ralph was merely a very good competitive barista? And why was he clutching a spouted portafilter like that?

“Look, I’m sorry, it wasn’t my intention to make you feel bad, ummm…” Ralph struggled to remember his name.

“Thurston! As I told you countless times, MY NAME IS THURSTON.”

Thurston lunged at Ralph with the portafilter over his head and before Ralph could fully grasp what Thurston intended to do with the bludgeoning instrument, he jumped out of the way just in time for Thurston to lose his balance and jam his hand inside a retail coffee bag sealer. Ralph looked away but shuddered hearing Thurston howl as the hot sealer closed on his thin hand, burning his skin and crushing his fragile fingers. But after the initial howl, Thurston immediately returned to glaring at Ralph and wouldn’t take his eyes off of him even as he was arrested and being taken in for booking.

Almost being murdered by a vengeful customer might have made other coffee professionals take a moment to rethink commitment to competition, but Ralph quickly became more determined than ever. It all made so much more sense now. He was better than he had imagined the entire time. He actually made coffee just as well if not better than those who had placed ahead of him for years. He truly was meant to be the person to tell the world the story of coffee. Standing with the others in the final six that year, he knew that with Thurston out of the way, this was his time.

“In sixth place…”

This is my year. Those judges were all smiles the whole time.

“…from Court Place Coffee in Austin, Texas, John Seles!”

I know those tech scores were perfect.

“In fifth place…”

That natty Gesha I just served them was literal bomb-ass shit.

“…from Elderflower Espresso in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Rita Washington!”

But wait… did those capps really taste like Nilla Wafers?

“In fourth place…”

Eric J. Grimm (@ericjgrimm) writes about pop culture and coffee for Sprudge Media Network, and lives in Manhattan. Read more Eric J. Grimm on Sprudge.


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