HOME | IN THE MAGAZINE | BACK ISSUES | MARCH/APRIL 2007
The midday rush is on, the line snakes almost to the door, and Billy Wilson is making music. First, the urgent thunkthunk as he dumps old grounds from a portafilter, then the reassuring rat-a-tat-tat as he raps it against a grinder, then a sharp atonal hiss as he steams a pitcher of milk. Standing behind the gleaming copper bar, he plays his instruments like one of those Hindu avatars with a dozen arms, scrunching the grounds with a steel tamper, rinsing a tiny cup with a blast of steam, coaxing a precious trickle from the La Marzocco, rocking a pitcher of foam into a macchiato, creating a perfect rosette while the air grows thick with the tang of espresso.
His customers—members of an indie-rock band from Anaheim, Calif.—are floored. “It looks like a flower,” says one rocker, taking a photo with his cell phone. “The man’s an artist,” exclaims another. “It’s a shame to drink it.”
Wilson smiles. At 27, he is the epitome of coffeehouse cool. With his slender build, dark curls and piercing green-gray eyes, he looks vaguely like a runaway elf who’s fled Middle Earth for the bohemian carnival of café society. His jeans are frayed at the cuffs and his arms sport a surrealistic gallery of tattoos. He could easily pass among the students, poets and laptop professionals who inhabit the Albina Press, the quirky café where Wilson works and lives (in an upstairs apartment) in Portland, Ore.
But he’s also different from the Albina regulars. For most people, coffee is one of life’s simple pleasures. For Wilson, coffee is an all-consuming passion, a career, a mission. “I finally realized, this is what I want to do with my life,” he says.
With hard work, single-minded intensity and sheer luck, Wilson has climbed his way to the elite guild of America’s celebrity baristas. Coffeehounds troop across town and even from other cities for a taste of his espresso. Trade schools use him as a model in training videos. Women smile at him in restaurants. “He’s very intense, very passionate,” says Julie Beals, editor of Fresh Cup, a coffee trade journal. “He’s fast, agile and fluid—it’s like watching a dance.”
Wilson has done well—he won the Northwest Regional Barista Championship in October—but he wants more. The holy grail of his profession is the national championship, and though he’s competed four times, the ultimate prize has always eluded him. May 4–7 in Long Beach, Calif., he’ll give it another shot—and this time, he has a secret weapon.
The Right Stuff
Wilson’s love affair with espresso started by accident. He grew up in Castle Rock, a two-bit logging town in southern Washington state. His father worked in the Navy; his mother was a waitress. “I was your typical 14-year-old depressed kid with no friends whose home life sucked,” he says, driving his 1965 Plymouth Valiant through the rain-drenched streets of Portland.
Blessed (or cursed) with a curious mind, he sought answers to life’s existential questions, a quest that led him to the evangelical church. After graduating from high school, he joined a group called Youth With a Mission and spent a couple years doing missionary work in Alaska, Russia and Norway.
In 2002, Wilson enrolled in Multnomah Bible School in Portland, studying theology and ancient Greek. To pay the bills, he got a job at a strip-mall coffeehouse named Lava Java in nearby Ridgefield, Wash. “I’d always drunk coffee, but I didn’t know much about it,” he says. “I thought, pouring a soda, pouring a beer—it’s not that much different.”
A few months later, he visited Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Portland, and on a whim ordered an espresso. “I had been trying espresso for a couple of months by my own hand,” he would later write in a posting at coffeegeek.com. “It was bitter most of the time, but I figured that espresso was supposed to taste that way.” But the shot at Stumptown belonged in another league: creamy, chocolatey, no bitterness—and he suddenly realized he had never tasted good coffee before.
Wilson dropped out of college and became a full-time coffee fanatic. He experimented with the equipment, the grind, the blend. He also began to learn more about the people at the beginning of the coffee chain: farmers in Guatemala, Sumatra and Ethiopia. Soon he was flirting with a fascinating possibility. He wanted to start a coffeehouse, roast his own beans and buy sustainably produced coffees at a fair wage to farmers. “I saw there was a way for me to help people through coffee,” he says.
Wilson joined the revolution at just the right time. The so-called “third wave” of specialty coffee was beginning to break. He got a job at Stumptown, where owner Duane Sorenson taught him the art of espresso. Two years later, he joined Albina Press, becoming manager and partowner. He also began to enter barista competitions, in part to make a name for himself, but also to meet “people who are as geeked-out about coffee as I am.”
At the competitions, baristas prepare and serve three drinks: an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature concoction of their own creation. Wilson’s perfectionist tendencies served him well. In 2003, he came in fifth in the national championship, a feat he repeated the following year. In 2005, he came in third.
Wilson always scored high on the espresso and the cappuccino, but he usually lost ground on the signature drink. In the first couple of years, he tried simple but elegant ideas, such as a single-origin shot of espresso (usually espresso is composed of a blend of beans from different origins). The judges shrugged. The key to the signature drink, Wilson realized, is creativity, and his drinks were short on pizzazz. Last year, he tried a different tack. He whipped up an espresso mousse with essence of kumquat and served it in a champagne flute. But it still wasn’t enough: He steamed in at second place.
Pearls of Wisdom
Wilson vowed to create a signature drink the judges would never forget. For inspiration, he looked to Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, one of the progenitors of so-called “molecular gastronomy,” which takes familiar ingredients and presents them in new ways—whisking mushrooms into foam or shaping a gummy algae-extract into edible “pearls” filled with carrot juice, liquid chocolate or espresso.
Wilson wondered if he could do something similar. Could he transform espresso, through some midnight alchemy, into a new shape, without compromising its essence? Through a long series of painstaking experiments involving seaweed extract and ion exchange, he figured out how to make what he calls “caviar”—black pearls of pure espresso, held together by ionic attraction, that dissolve in the mouth and blossom into an intense flavor. “I took it to the next level,” he says. “I went totally crazy.”
It was this concoction—called Crema Loves Crème Fraîche—that won him the Northwest title last October. After serving the judges the traditional espresso and cappuccino, he set the stage for his dramatic signature. He began with a bed of milk foam, then ladled spoonfuls of his espresso caviar, topped with a mix of chocolate and crème fraîche, and drizzled it with grapefruit mist to pick up the hint of citrus in the espresso blend.
The judges were thrilled, awarding him his first gold medal in five years of competitive espresso-making. Whether Wilson’s act is good enough to clinch the national title remains to be seen. He’ll be up against the best baristas in the country, including Jon Lewis of Bumper Crop in Spokane, Wash.; Bronwyn Serna of Seattle; and Phuong Tran of Wilson’s old coffee shop, Lava Java. Outwardly, he seems nonchalant about the title, but his friends say he is determined to win. “He’s extremely competitive,” says Albina Press co-owner Kevin Fuller, who will also compete at nationals. “He’s extremely intense.”
Wilson’s left arm sports a tattoo depicting the story of Jonah—a man who tried to run from his own destiny, only to be shipwrecked, swallowed by a whale, and spit up on dry land, just where God wanted him to be. To Wilson, the tattoo symbolizes the importance of staying true to his ideals. In the meantime, he trains for the contest the only way he knows how—standing behind the bar at the Albina Press, obsessing about the grind, the blend, the temperature and searching for the perfect shot.