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Local baristas test themselves in regional competition 

"Pittsburgh has amazing baristas, and shop owners should reward their hard work by sending them to things like this."

The Big East Barista Competition was projected live at Commonplace Voluto, in Garfield.

Photo courtesy of Megan Drew

The Big East Barista Competition was projected live at Commonplace Voluto, in Garfield.

If Pittsburgh is indeed "the new Portland," as a Washington Post blog claimed in 2012, then it's no surprise the local craft-coffee culture is on the rise. The Commonplace Coffee Company — which boasts two Pittsburgh shops, a roaster in Larimer and a growing presence on restaurant tables — is becoming a big part of it.

Recently, three Commonplace baristas took part in the Big Eastern Regional Barista Competition in Durham, N.C. There, Phil Johnson, Commonplace's head roaster and green buyer, volunteered as a judge, while barista Nick Oddo and Pittsburgh operations manager Drew von Arx competed.

The event involves making 12 drinks — a mix of espressos, single-shot cappuccinos and originals — in just 15 minutes, while "displaying knowledge and enthusiasm for specialty coffee," adds Oddo.

Though local shops have sent baristas in the past — von Arx previously competed for 21st Street Coffee — Commonplace was Pittsburgh's sole representative this year. "Pittsburgh has amazing baristas, and shop owners should reward their hard work by sending them to things like this," says Oddo.

In a field of 22, Von Arx and Oddo finished 16th and 18th, respectively, but say there's really no way to lose. It's "good publicity" for the city's coffee reputation, says von Arx, who jokes, "I got more action on my Twitter feed in the hour surrounding my performance than I have in the entire time I've had my account." What's more, he adds, "If you dedicate time and have the right mindset, it's just about impossible to not leave the [competition] as a better barista."

First-time competitor Oddo was pleasantly surprised that "for an industry that is knocked for being pretentious by some, [the event] was warm, positive and welcoming." 

Despite such events, Johnson says, many people "don't necessarily give coffee the same amount of respect or open-mindedness," as they do food.

At least, not yet. But with plans to develop a training curriculum leading up to next year's competition and future goals for coffee education, Commonplace and its baristas may change that — while cementing their place as innovators in Pittsburgh's growing coffee culture.

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