The latest edition in a widening mini-genre of competition documentaries about the depths of devotion inspired by subcultures few people even know exist (“Spellbound,” “Wordplay,” “Kings of Pastry”), “Barista” introduces the world to the competitive espresso-maker circuit, profiling five enterprising young baristas as they vie for a painstaking national title. Anyone who has ever uttered the word “hipster” as a pejorative is advised to steer far clear, but thanks to director Rock Baijnauth’s playful, nonjudgmental approach to these obsessive characters, the whole enterprise comes across as endearingly — and perhaps even admirably — ridiculous, rather than laughably so.
The film initially spotlights four competitors headed to the 2013 National Barista Championships in Boston: Chicagoan Charlie Habegger and Angelenos Eden-Marie Abramowicz, Ryan Redden and Truman Severson. As the film progresses, it widens to include a fifth: Charles Babinski, a simultaneously low-key and cocky L.A. competitor spoken of in tones of hushed awe by his compatriots. He boasts a pair of flagship coffee shops and an endorsement deal with Krups, even though he’s never managed to finish higher than second in national competitions.
And how, exactly, does one take part in a barista competition? The main event gives each challenger 15 minutes to prepare a trio of beverages for a four-person judging panel — one espresso, one cappuccino, and one specialty drink of their own devising – all the while keeping up a steady patter about the origins of their coffee and their own espresso-pulling philosophies. (Participants seem to be overwhelmingly in their 20s and early 30s, with women favoring tattoos and hairstyles of the 1920s, and men reviving facial hair trends of the 1910s.) Approaches to the performance vary: While Abramowicz reads psychology texts to help her nail the presentation element of the competition, Redden and Severson put all their chips on their specialty beverages, experimenting with liquid nitrogen and moonshine-style coffee distillery.
In truth, the fussy techniques and arcane tasting notes these baristas espouse are no sillier than what goes on in the more self-serious corners of the wine world, though the rules of the competition seem more than a little arbitrary. (And the sight of not one but two solemn competition judges stooping down in unison to closely observe how evenly a barista tamps down on his coffee grounds is more than a little comical.) This is, after all, a film where people use phrases like “border-collie-like focus,” “latte art throwdown” and “a technique which was popular in Japanese warfare … ” to describe the act of serving coffee. It would almost be too easy to compare the whole film to Christopher Guest’s mockumentary “Best in Show,” even if one of the film’s subjects didn’t do so herself.
On the other hand, one certainly can’t fault their dedication, and there’s something to admire in their tireless commitment to learning and perfecting a craft, especially one that pays so little and affords even less social cachet. “Coffee is what I do,” says Habegger, annoyed by the default assumption that he’s simply biding his time at the cafe waiting for a casting callback, while another participant’s wife confesses, “It doesn’t really sound like a grown-up job.” Grown-up job or no, it’s hard to deny the passion that Habegger in particular brings to his testimonials — if only most grown-ups took their jobs so seriously.
Appropriately for a film about coffee, Baijnauth’s direction is zippy, energetic and colorful, and he respects the sincerity of his subjects without necessarily endorsing it. The finale at the Boston championship often resembles one of the many competition shows clogging the Food Network, yet the pic’s editing manages to introduce a degree of suspense all the same.