In back of a plain brick building on bustling Southwest Boulevard, Pete Licata is deep in training to become the best in the world.
His training tools? Coffee beans, a grinder and an espresso machine.
Licata, 34, is a quality assurance manager at Parisi Artisan Coffee in Kansas City. He is also now considered the best barista in the nation after snagging the 2013 U.S. Barista Championship in Boston in mid-April. Licata won a large trophy and an all-expenses-paid trip to the world matchup in Australia later this month. There he will represent the United States against coffee competitors from at least 50 countries.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America, a trade group that lists 9,000 members, including producers, farmers, retailers and baristas, has put on the U.S. championship annually since 2003. In this year’s event, 47 baristas from across the country went coffee cup to coffee cup in the competition. They each gave a 15-minute performance, chatting about their drinks with music playing in the background while preparing four espressos, four cappuccinos and four servings of an original signature drink for the four “sensory” judges. Two “technical” judges and a head judge looked on.
The baristas were judged on their technical expertise, the consistency of their drinks and the presentation, which should come off as a five-star performance, Licata said. And of course there’s the taste of their coffees.
On the last day of the competition, when Licata was selected tops from the final six competitors, it was standing room only in the trade show hall.
“You are giving the biggest speech you ever gave in your life while you are making the best coffee you ever made in your life,” Licata said. “ It’s pretty intensive for the competitor.”
For his specialty drink, Licata created a petite non-alcoholic coffee cocktail. He used chilled palm sugar triple syrup combined with an espresso shot over ice and two-and-a-half droppers of non-alcoholic bitters with orange peel and lemongrass.
“You want to highlight and elevate the flavor of the coffee you are serving,” he said.
Licata has honed his presentation skills through seven competitions. He twice finished second in the national event and then took home the first place trophy in 2011. At the time he was working in Hawaii. He hand-selected his coffee beans, roasted them himself and made his own espresso blend. That year, he came in second place in the world competition in Colombia.
“Because I had produced it myself, I had more knowledge than anyone else could possibly have had,” he said. “I was talking 150 words per minute, putting three hours into 15 minutes. It was a bit overwhelming to the judges.”
As a judge in 2012, he got a taste of the other side and maybe enough of an insight to give him an edge this year. He has learned that the presentation must be easy to follow and easy to judge.
Licata, who is from the Kansas City area, traces his first taste of coffee to a cup he sneaked as a 10-year-old, to which he added a lot of non-dairy creamer. The creamer and caffeine kept him drinking through high school. While taking Japanese classes at Johnson County Community College, he studied at a local specialty coffee shop, and his coffee taste buds began to evolve.
He soon had a part-time job as a barista, making and serving coffee in the shop. Then he took a full-time position managing another cafe by the same company. When the owner of the local Lattéland Espresso & Tea bought a Hawaiian coffee shop chain, he hired Licata as director of coffee quality in January 2009.
Licata moved back to the Kansas City area and joined the Parisi team in November 2012. That’s when he decided to give the championship one more shot. He won the 2013 South Central Regional Barista Competition, held in January in Kansas City, then went to the U.S. championship in Boston.
His Parisi team is backing him all the way, even buying top equipment for his practice sessions.
“We never looked for a lot of publicity, but this is like the neighborhood kid making good,” said Joseph Paris, co-founder of Parisi Artisan Coffee and vice president of its parent company, Paris Brothers Inc. “When he won, it was no different from my kids playing in sports. He is part of the family. And it’s part of the process of our growth as coffee people.”
As quality assurance manager, Licata makes sure Parisi standards are high, from sourcing the beans to roasting them at the Kansas City plant to the drinks served at the two area Parisi cafes. He may retire from competition after the Australian contest and concentrate on mentoring up-and-coming baristas.
“Before, I entered the competitions because I had something to prove — as a great barista or something like that. It was kind of immature reasoning in some ways,” he said. “Now I like the camaraderie, to see people you don’t other than once or twice a year at these events. A bunch of people who really love coffee.”