SANTA CRUZ -- What exactly goes into producing a perfect cup of Joe?
It's not simply organically-grown and roasted coffee beans, though those count for a whole lot.
At the 11th annual South West Regional Barista Competition at Santa Cruz's Top of the Ritt on Saturday, 35 coffee connoisseurs from seven states put their creative best into a contest to decide who can whip up the tastiest cup around.
Each barista had 15 minutes to make 12 drinks -- four espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty drinks. Contestants were also judged on how well they cleaned up the shiny silver machines after the rush of pumping out dark brown drinks.
"The job of a barista is to paint a picture of what each individual roast tastes like," said Miguel Vicuna, owner of Metropolis Coffee in Denver, who served as head judge of the contest. "There should be a harmonious balance between sweet, sour and bitter. We're looking for a nice lively and engaging cup of coffee."
The daily cup of coffee has evolved in recent years from a morning chore done in your home kitchen to an artisanal craft sold at boutique and corporate cafes that can quickly empty a caffeine addict's wallet.
Straight black coffee served hot is still hugely popular with purists, however, cappuccinos and frothy lattes with pillowy textures and sweet syrups have helped move the industry from a basic commodity to an art form, contestgoers said.
Brandon Paul Weaver is a founding
He said some of the best beans are grown in Panama and Honduras.
Weaver attended the barista contest to watch friend Nicolas Lawson show off his expertise with an espresso machine.
Weaver said he believes coffee brings people together like no other food or drink.
It is, he says, a drink more powerful than wine or other alcohol.
"Coffee could never be better than it is right now," Weaver said. "Chemically, it's one of the most complex things we consume. It's three times more complex than wine."
Lawson, a San Francisco resident who recently worked at Front Coffee Roasters, was sweating when his time was up.
Crafting an espresso drink is serious business, especially when the clock is ticking and a panel of judges is watching every move, he said.
"It's a lot about the timing," Lawson said. "You don't realize how fast that clock goes.
"It all starts with the fundamentals, and that's the espresso, the coffee you put into it."
A winner will be chosen on Sunday, and six finalists will advance to the national championship April 11-14 in Boston.
The winner in Boston will go to the international contest in Melbourne, Australia in May.
The finals run 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.
Follow Sentinel reporter Shanna McCord on Twitter at Twitter.com/scnewsmom