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.
Back when owners Joel and Leticia Pollock met, that hadn't been the original plan. The two first crossed paths at a Specialty Coffee Association of America exposition in Minneapolis. At the event, Leticia, who was a barista trainer in Brazil at the time, received a job offer from a small coffee-roasting company in Portland, Oregon. Joel was a roaster at a spot nearby. Leticia accepted the position, and soon they dreamed of opening a shop of their own.
"We agreed on everything coffee, so we realized we should totally do something together," says Leticia, a native of Brazil who speaks with a Portuguese twang. "We attached a giant map of the United States by our kitchen table and started pointing at places."
They considered many spots before visiting Miami. When they arrived, they were shocked to find the city devoid of even one coffee roaster. "We were like, 'Wow! It's either Starbucks or Cuban coffee here,'" she recalls.
So they packed up their belongings -- including a pre-World War II German Probat coffee roaster -- and drove 3,000 miles from their house in Portland to South Florida.
But building a coffee empire isn't without nettlesome details. The couple signed a lease for their current Wynwood space but soon became ensnared in financial struggles. Before Panther's launch, they didn't have enough money for rent. Salvation came through their landlord, the late Tony Goldman, who revitalized New York's SoHo, South Beach, and Wynwood. He told them they didn't need to pay right away.
Next came the barista dilemma. Rather than hire employees from outside Miami, they taught and trained locals -- many of whom had no experience. "There aren't baristas falling off trees in Miami, you know. We hired them because we thought that would be cool. And we also didn't have another option," says Leticia, chuckling. "Now we have 30 baristas, and the vast majority were trained exclusively by us."
Today, at national trade shows and competitions, these newly minted baristas represent Panther. Miami local Camila Ramos was one of the Pollocks' first hires. Now she's the manager at Panther Coffee's new Sunset Harbour store, which opened last month. She also participates in contests, such as the United States Barista Championship. There's also Ryan Hall, a national competitor and one of the brand's educators. He created Tridays, modeled off the World Cup Tasters Championship.
Similar contests abound across the nation. Coffee shops participate in Thursday Night Throwdown -- a latte art competition that's streamed online. But these games aren't for education: They're made by baristas, for baristas. So Hall and the Pollocks wanted to create a different event, one in which the public could compete and also learn more about coffee.
Old-school coffee drinkers might label this type of crusade arrogant. And true, Panther's clientele can be a tad aloof. Some critics scoff at the house's more expensive brews -- $4.50 for 16 ounces of a cold-brewed coffee or $19 for a pound of whole beans -- preferring to stick to their corner's ventanita instead. The Pollocks shake off the haters. They don't think Cuban coffee is inferior to their single-origin espressos.
"We're on different sides of the coin," Joel says. "Instead of being elitists or snobs, it's more like, listen, we are all coffee people. We just know where our coffee comes from."
Indeed, sourcing is what takes Panther to an elite level. The Pollocks often visit their producers, such as Grupo las Cuchillas in Nicaragua. The coffee shop showcases information sheets about growers. Panther wants the journey from farm to cup to be entirely transparent.
Despite the critics, the Pollocks claim they're well grounded. "We've changed a lot of people's minds about what coffee really is and what it can be," Joel says. "We're kind of like stewards. It's important to keep a realistic view of what we do. We're not changing the world; we're making coffee."
At the Tridays competition, however, making coffee is fine. But slurping coffee is what really matters.
The night's tastings include a West Coast espresso blend -- characterized by a "tangerine sparkle" and "biscuit-y finish" -- and a Rwanda single-origin that's described as "crystal-clear." All are far from the smoky, burnt aromas of a neighborhood Bustelo. But spotting the odd cup out is a serious challenge. Even seasoned baristas fail.
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Baxter's loud slurps propel him to round three. McCoy loses in the first. A tourist beats Panther's store manager. (I tied with some dude named Danny, but he finished faster. He advanced. I didn't.)
After six long hours of strenuous -- possibly drunken -- competition, my freckled colleague, Miller, won the $200 pot. The victor tipped the baristas and spent the rest of the cash on a new mattress. Now he owes me a drink. Let's make it a double espresso at Panther. But please, no slurping.
Follow Emily on Twitter @EmilyCodik.