Vancouver’s standout baristas keep passion brewing

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Sammy Piccolo, owner of Prado Café (1938 Commercial Drive), makes the work of a topnotch barista look effortless. He confidently and seamlessly switches between making espressos, pouring drip coffee, mentoring staff, and chatting with customers as he slides their beverages across the counter. The drinks, with their latte art, look beautiful, but also bring out the rich, distinctive flavour notes of whichever coffee Piccolo is showcasing.

Piccolo first broke ground in the profession when he and his brothers opened Caffè Artigiano in 2000, subsequently selling it in 2006. Back then, Vancouver had Starbucks and Frappuccinos, but not much else when it came to high-quality coffee establishments. “We went from a scene with almost nothing to one of the best in North America,” he says. Now, he’s proud to be in the company of many standout baristas who work at cafés that take coffee seriously.

For the last 12 years, Piccolo has been slowly refining his craft, earning numerous accolades, including being a four-time Canadian Barista Champion, a winner of the Coffee Fest Latte Art Championship, and garnering four top-three placements in the World Barista Championship. Each time he’s competed, he’s had the chance to demonstrate his superior hand-eye coordination and sense of timing.

For him, his success boils down to the two Ps: passion and palate. Piccolo is constantly “cupping”, or evaluating, coffee in order to be able to taste its subtleties and improve his palate. He likens himself to a sommelier, and says he must be able to judge the sweetness or acidity of a coffee with a single slurp.

Piccolo insists, though, that he “can only do so well with not so good of a product”. In other words, good coffee is a combination of barista technique and superior beans. He takes pride in using direct-trade, in-season coffee from 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters, in which he has part ownership. He also serves organic, single-origin espressos and offers different single-origin drip coffees every day.

Piccolo’s enthusiasm for the bean led his wife, Andrea Piccolo, to join the head judging committee of the Canadian Barista Championship after he left the competitive circuit. She’s been impressed by the new crop of Vancouver practitioners who prove that being a barista is a combination of skills, in-depth knowledge, and warm customer service. “It’s not just a job for kids going to a college. It’s a profession,” she insists over the phone. She adds that with the emergence of the Barista Guild of America and trade magazines, the profile of the profession is being raised.

Alan Vuong, manager at Caffè Artigiano’s 740 West Hastings Street location, agrees. He started with the company in 2007 as a university student, working part-time to pay his tuition, and then fully committed two years ago to a career as a barista. Vuong has gone from not drinking coffee to placing third in this year’s Western Canadian Regional Barista Championship. Besides the fact that he loves the thrill of competition, he entered because he wanted to improve the fluidity and consistency of his work.

Sitting across the table from Vuong at his Artigiano location, his interest and carefully honed expertise in coffee are readily apparent as he speaks. “A barista is someone who is passionate and knowledgeable about coffee and likes to produce a good coffee for someone who appreciates it,” he explains. He makes it a regular practice to conduct research on subjects such as coffee-growing conditions, to develop his palate, and to actively learn from other people in the industry, in Vancouver and in places like Seattle.

He believes that speed and execution have made him a particularly strong barista. “I’m good because I can multitask. I can run two or three drinks at a time, and can think six drinks ahead of time,” he says with a modest tone. He adds that being a barista is “not just about pushing a button”; it’s about attention to details, such as the temperature or hardness of the water.

Kyle Straw, who hired Vuong at Caffè Artigiano, came first in the same competition this year, and now trains staff as a coffee educator for 49th Parallel Coffee Roasters. Over the phone, he shares the secret to mentoring a good barista, such as Vuong. “With the really good ones, you show them the resources and the tools, and then it’s up to them to explore and get better.” As a past national champion, he learned firsthand that, without formal training programs, baristas have to rely on self-study if they want to excel.

George Giannakos, store manager and co-owner of Revolver Coffee (325 Cambie Street), comes from a family that lives and drinks coffee; they ran the Daily Roast in Sechelt when he was a kid and opened Crema in West Vancouver (1495 Bellevue Avenue) six years ago. In September 2011, the family launched Revolver.

Before managing Revolver, Giannakos thought he was “too cool” for the science of coffeemaking. “I was all about the craft. I wasn’t about measuring and playing with the numbers,” he explains during a chat at the café.

During the course of running the café, he’s been humbled, measuring and timing everything for consistency and even obsessing over the direction of a cup handle when the drink is served. Competing in regional, national, and latte art championships has further upped the precision of his technical skills.

Research trips to places like New York and Japan, and a three-month stint working at Café Myriade in Montreal, have allowed Giannakos to broaden his knowledge of the industry. Replicating what he witnessed in Tokyo, coffee at Revolver is served in glass tumblers instead of the usual cups or mugs. Also, brewing happens with a Chemex (an hourglass-shaped filtering vessel), which they’ve adapted by using a metal Kone filter, in addition to six other options—including AeroPress, siphon, and Clever—that get coffee nerds really excited.

Giannakos sees himself as an ambassador for coffee roasters producing beans that are hard to find in Vancouver, such as San Francisco’s Sightglass and Ritual, Portland’s Heart, and Calgary’s Phil & Sebastian. Sometimes it can be tricky convincing people to try something different, but he perseveres. They’re swayed by his enthusiasm and his unceasing devotion to the craft and science of coffeemaking.

“You’re only as good as your last drink,” he says.

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