Of all the competitors at Panther Coffee on a recent Friday night, Jed Baxter slurps the loudest. It's a sharp noise, like a vacuum sucking up a spilled drink. The rules of the game are simple. Before him sit 12 cups of coffee, arranged in sets of three. In each group, two brews are the same; one is different. Baxter must identify the odd cup out.
Wearing cuffed camouflage jeans and dark oxfords, he turns to his skittish rival. Does she stand a chance? Not likely. Baxter has tattoos. And his slurps intimidate.
Quickly, the 25-year-old professional coffee taster dunks a silver spoon into one cup, slurps, and moves on to the next. He pushes the final cup past the finish line. The four-minute mark soon arrives. Hands up! He gets four out of four correct and whisks on to the second round.
But not everyone in the crowd is a pro. At this inaugural event called Tridays, there are tourists, a giggly kid in sandals, and New Times staff writers Terrence McCoy and Michael E. Miller. Even I signed up -- mostly for research -- but also because I was under the notion I knew a thing or two about coffee. (I was wrong.)
With 19 contestants buying in, there's nearly $200 at stake. All of that just for drinking some coffee. The slurping was sure to get serious.
Which is exactly how Panther Coffee's business prospects look these days. A few years ago, even this rather innocuous tasting competition would have seemed out of place in Miami. The specialty coffee scene here was minute. But in 2011, a coffee-roasting triumvirate made its Magic City debut: Panther Coffee, Alaska Coffee Roasting, and Eternity Coffee Roasters.
Since then, Panther Coffee -- which soon emerged as the cadre's strongest -- has earned mad street cred. The New York Times has extolled it three times. American Express featured the coffee shop in a commercial during the 2012 Academy Awards. Finally, earlier this year, Panther Coffee won the prestigious Good Food Award, a national prize for responsibly produced foods.
But now the coffee shop wants more. Going beyond roasting and brewing, its owners strive to educate the local community on specialty coffee.