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Bar(ista) wars 

It was supposed to be fun. A group of likeminded individuals gathered for a little friendly competition--a chance to show off our coffee-making skills. Baristas from all over the Southeast were asked by local roaster Counter Culture Coffee to step up to the plate and represent their coffee shops.

If there's one thing we at Cup-A-Joe like more than making an excellent cup of coffee, it's fun. And for some particular reason still unknown to me, I was disarmed by the proposition of this "fun" event that our manager so nonchalantly encouraged us to enter. So of course, I said yes.

Then it hit me--"competition," "fun"?! Why are these words in the same sentence? Competitions aren't supposed to be fun, in fact they're never fun--they're what most people would call serious business. You compete to win, dammit!

Ahh, but by then it was too late. The competition bug had sunk its teeth in deep, and the bite was itching.

The practices were grueling, and the hours long. We didn't sleep, we didn't eat. All we really needed was coffee. Grind, dose, tamp. I dreamt of espresso.

Little by little, secrets were revealed. Oh, so the competition is open to the public? No big deal. TV screens? I'm photogenic. A microphone? Bring it on. I've always enjoyed the caustic burn of stomach acid.

Game day arrived and we were as ready as we ever would be. Competitors arrived at A Southern Season at 7:30 a.m. for a quick briefing, and the serious business kicked off at 11 a.m. The baristas' task: to make 12 perfect drinks in 15 minutes; four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks of our own devising. Judges' scores took into consideration the taste and appearance of the drinks and the dedication of the baristas. Technical details such as the length of espresso shots and cleanliness of our work stations were also taken into consideration. Perfection was the goal, and all this was to be achieved while explaining the details of the performance to the judges and audience.

As I began the competition, I only prayed that I could prolong an anxiety attack for 15 minutes, and hoped that my shaking hands would not deliver a cappuccino onto the front of one of the judges' shirts.

But things were moving according to plan. My cappuccinos all ended up on the table. I was in the final stretch when... hey, is that smoke? Do the espresso machines usually make that noise? Oh, I see, just mine.

They just don't make 'em like they used to.

But I was moved to a new machine in less than a minute, and the time was restarted. Before I knew it, my signature drink had been presented and it was all over. And as I watched the remaining baristas finish their performances, I took a moment to reflect on all that I had experienced. The first thought to flutter into my mind was that ulcers can and will affect your daily life. I also realized that I had learned a vast amount, and that a lot of hard work and practice paid off in the end. But then the strangest thought occurred to me. Wouldn't it be fun to compete again next year, now that I'm confident and know what to expect?

Wait. Did I just say fun?

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