Ian Marquez has been very serious about coffee for a long time. Now he’s got a trophy to prove it.
The manager of the Off the Leaf Coffee Bar at 819 Grand Ave. placed third in the Mountain Regional Barista Competition last month in Loveland, Colo., and he will compete at the nationals next month in Anaheim, Calif. One person will go on from there to the world championship in London in June.
Marquez and Kyle Hutch, also an Off the Leaf employee, were the first Montanans ever to take part in the competition, which is sponsored by the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
“Some people get disqualified their first year,” Marquez said Thursday, sitting in Off the Leaf. “They’re really picky about milk waste and stuff like that. We were just hoping to go and learn and have fun and not get disqualified. That I placed was just awesome for me and for us here.”
Hutch was disqualified for flavoring one coffee drink with anise. The flavoring contains a tiny bit of alcohol, which is strictly forbidden. But Marquez, 25, sees a bright future for Hutch.
“In seven years, when he’s my age, he’ll be tearing it up,” he said.
Marquez moved to Billings from California in January 2009. He had five years of experience as a barista — a coffee server trained in making espresso-based drinks — and he wanted to work somewhere worthy of his talents.
Off the Leaf hadn’t opened yet when he started looking online, but Marquez could tell from the Web site that the owners were serious about coffee.
Co-owner Brian Carpenter had already hired two experienced baristas from Portland, Ore., to help get the business off the ground. They have since moved back to Portland, leaving Marquez as the resident expert.
“He definitely brought a passion for coffee that just spills over to the other baristas,” Carpenter said.
At the regional tournament, contestants had to make three different drinks for a panel of four judges — a single shot of straight espresso, a small cappuccino and a signature drink. The signature drink, besides having no alcohol, had to include espresso and had to be drinkable, meaning it couldn’t be just a work of art.
“Other than that, you’re free to do what you want,” Marquez said.
His signature drink, “Coffee vs. Cheesecake,” was developed with co-worker David Swalley. Marquez chopped mint leaves over a bowl of blackberries and added some vanilla, then crushed it all up and let it sit before squeezing some juice out of the mix.
Then he made a thin cheesecake mixture using mascarpone cheese, heavy cream and vanilla. He added some of that to a half-ounce of blackberry juice, topped off with espresso.
In addition to the four tasters, three other judges closely watched every step of the process. Baristas had to tamp down the ground espresso so it sat perfectly level in the filter cup, and points were deducted for the slightest bit of mess.
“I definitely got nailed for leaving fingerprints on the machine,” Marquez said.
But the coffee won out.
“Even though my presentation wasn’t what I thought was up to par, my coffee made up for it.”
Marquez also gave some credit to Mark Theisen, the owner of Hometown Coffee and Tea, a kiosk in the parking lot of Shipton’s Big R on Gabel Road. Marquez bought specialty green coffee beans and had Theisen roast them at his kiosk.
The best coffee stands on its own, Marquez said, because different regions produce beans with different flavors — African varieties with hints of berries or citrus, Brazilian with a spicy, chocolaty taste.
“It’s the flavor that coffee has before you drown it in the sugar,” he said.