Coffee Champion

North Carolina Museum of Art barista
Steph Caronna pours on a competitive level.

Story by Corbie Hill
Photos courtesy of the NCMA

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If you stop by Steph Caronna’s coffee kiosk in the West Building of the North Carolina Museum of Art, you may walk away with a rosetta, a heart, or a tulip in your latte. And if lattes aren’t your scene, there are distinctive cappuccinos, iced coffees, or even tea drinks. And if caffeine isn’t your scene, no matter—locally roasted decaf beans can taste quite good, this barista points out.

Indeed, Caronna knows coffee can be art. She excitedly describes the drinks she’ll be preparing for Art in Bloom, NCMA’s annual festival of flowers occurring this year from March 22nd to 25th. And she does so with the same enthusiasm as an artist discussing a new creation: “We are doing a White Chocolate Orange Blossom Mocha, and we’re doing the Lavender London Fog, which is a tea latte. And then there’s the Violet Mint Latte or a Jasmine Lime Iced Tea. We [plan] to hit every taste.”

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Other times, Caronna takes her coffee talents on the road. Earlier this year, she competed in the U.S. Coffee Championships’ barista competition, as she has for six years. And this year, as in 2017, she cleared the qualifying rounds and will participate in the national competition in Seattle in April.  

The competitions are intense: Competing baristas have ten minutes to make two drinks and present their background information. Caronna seems to enjoy the pressure, and she’s not the only local barista who does.

“The U.S. barista champions who won the world competition in the last two years actually work in Wake Forest,” Caronna says. “They live in Durham, and they’re really good friends of mine.” (Kyle Ramage, the 2017 champion, and Lemuel Butler, 2016 winner, are co-owners of Back Alley Coffee Roasters in Wake Forest.)

When you compete, Caronna explains, you first pick a coffee you want to present in some way. She gets her beans from Raleigh Coffee Company, and this year her variety of choice is a relatively new plant from Ecuador—one with fruity, grape-type notes to it. In her allotted ten minutes, she presents it as espresso, and then she makes a signature beverage that complements her bean of choice. For this year’s coffee, she’s incorporating a local jasmine green tea, a grape and white balsamic shrub, and a lime leaf around the glass. The judges will score on technique, but mostly on sensory elements like flavor.

“The beverages are really small; they’re like an ounce and a half,” Caronna explains. “They’re like really tiny cocktail beverages, but without alcohol in them.”