If I were to say the words, “The Coffee Underbelly,” it might conjure images of pork fat and coffee grounds; strange textures and smells. (I shouldn’t invite you inside my mind). However, the secret world of coffee is not a dark, dingy thing; it’s a stylish, innovative, and forward-thinking thing. Members of this coffee cult may be a little jittery because, yes, they are addicted to the caffeine running through their veins. But much like chefs, artisanal cheese makers, and probably goddamned florists, there are those in the coffee world who are committed to their craft; those whose hearts surge with the heat of a steam wand, and who understand that they are more than baristas. They are, in fact, artists.

Chico’s own Erica Koenig competed recently in the Southwestern Regional Barista Competition as a representative of Six Degrees Coffee Distribution and Thanksgiving Coffee Roasters.

Erica has been making coffee for ten years. She’s a great barista with a great personality, who loves connecting with her customers.

When I was her customer, I’d order my ridiculous drink (some half-caf, half-sweet, soy, caramel latte). She’d shake off my terrible taste in coffee, make me laugh, and serve me with a smile. I instantly wanted to be her friend. I mean, duh, she dances behind the coffee bar.

Through nerves and anticipation, Erica Koenig danced her way (literally) to the regional competition with an espresso blend she developed with help from Thanksgiving Coffee Roasters. While most baristas pulled single origin espressos, Erica wanted to make a name for herself by bringing a well-balanced blend carrying notes of blueberry, stone fruit, brown sugar, and cedar. The blend is called “The Contender” and it is absolutely delicious.

During her 15-minute presentation, Erica pulled espresso for four judges, then served them each a cappuccino, and followed with a signature drink. As a farm kid herself, Erica’s presentation focused on the farmers who grew the coffee beans, the importance of supporting fair trade and organic growers, and the roasters who purchase those beans at fair prices.

Her signature drink was farm-inspired. Apricot jam, from fruit grown in her family’s orchard, made up the first layer of the drink. The jam was topped with coconut cream infused with cardamom and local honey, and a double shot of The Contender was poured over that. I loved the balance of flavors, the way the jam complimented the existing stone fruit notes in the espresso, and the little kick of cardamom against the creamy coconut.

After spending a weekend with the coffee elite, I look at our daily dose of caffeine a little differently. I’m a better-informed consumer, and I absolutely appreciate the artistry behind the craft. Those baristas are crazy dreamers (just like those of us who play with food for a living) who deserve credit for elevating the expectation for excellence in their craft. Industries are propelled by those who choose to dream.

Tip your barista.

Jen Cartier misses Chico! However, she has taken to the great beyond (er...The Bay Area) to be some kind of chocolate maven while simultaneously figuring out how the hell to navigate her long-ass work commute, and still kick ass at raising three munchkins, loving one soon-to-be husband, and keeping one rascally Brittany Spaniel in the damned yard. She loves Nutella, red wine, and American Spirits. She takes her dog along on runs to wear him out (sometimes he shits in someone else's yard - bonus!) and also to balance her own general consumption of all the fine tasty things life offers, ciggys included. Follow her blog at riceflourmemoirs.com