No jive in this java


Staff writer

Ever wondered what it takes to brew an outstanding cup of coffee? Just ask Federal Way barista Mark Pfaff.

Pfaff, a manager at Espresso Express, placed fifth in the Nascore Western Regional Barista Competition held Sept. 21-22.

Competing against 35 baristas from California, Oregon and Washington was a tall order for Pfaff, who had only one prior competition under his belt.

“I’ve been trying to encourage someone on my staff to enter competitions for a few years,” said Espresso Express owner Dawn Dennis. “It’s very trendy. People are very into that whole Seattle coffee thing.”

With only 15 minutes to prepare 12 drinks, Pfaff had no time to spare as he set out to brew four straight espressos, four cappuccinos and four of his specialty drink: Peppermint swirl cappuccinos.

Pfaff’s inspiration for his specialty -- a cappuccino with creme de cocoa and peppermint syrup blended into the foam -- comes from his customers.

“We do a lot of foam here. People love foam,” he said.

In addition to preparation speed, drinks are judged on color, flavor and foam quality. The texture of the foam -- “It has to be velvety” -- is a prime component of a good cup of java, Pfaff says.

With baristas expected to give presentations explaining their technique as they brew each drink, making a good cup of coffee at a competition is no easy task.

“A lot of people think about it as just whipping out coffee, but there’s a lot more to it,” he said.

Pfaff, who has been a barista at Espresso Express for more than three years, says his customers keep him on his toes and provide the motivation he needs to hone his craft.

Fay, a daily visitor to the coffee shop, is a “foam connoisseur.” Pfaff knows better than to pass her an espresso with bubbles in the foam.

An even more humbling experience for Pfaff was being asked to prepare drinks for a group of Italians.

“That was when I was just learning to do foam,” he said. “It was horrible.”

Despite his fears, Pfaff’s drinks were pronounced “pretty good” by the Italians.

“I was, of course, ecstatic,” he said.

For now, Pfaff is exploring the art of latte foam in preparation for another competition to be held in November. Making designs in latte foam using only steamed milk poured into espresso, Pfaff will go up against baristas nationwide.

With an expansion scheduled to begin next week, Espresso Express will soon include blended drinks and a full-service deli. Pfaff, for one, is eager to focus on honing his craft, not to mention abandoning the daily ritual of hauling water and ice to the cart for the convenience of built-in plumbing.

Espresso Express is located on the first floor of the Virginia Mason South building, across from city hall. Two additional locations are in Seatac.

Staff writer Jody Allard can be reached at 925-5565 and

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