ATLANTA -- Heather Perry probably can brew an espresso faster than she can describe what motivates her to make a perfect drink.
"This is an art," Perry begins, before correcting herself to say "It's a craft."
Finally, Perry concludes: "It's a passion."
Perry's passion brought her from San Dimas, Calif., to Atlanta to defend her 2003 title in the United States Barista Championships. The event promotes the skill of espresso beverage preparation, and each of the 33 baristi in the event won qualifying competitions to reach Atlanta.
Twelve semifinalists, including Perry, advanced to Sunday's round, and the finals are scheduled for Monday.
So why all the fuss about a cup of coffee?
For 8,000 coffee professionals from more than 40 countries attending the Specialty Coffee Association of America's conference at the Georgia World Congress Center, the U.S. Barista Championships are a way to recognize the top brewmasters in the business and promote the craft.
Anyone who laughs at latte is apt to get creamed by this crowd. Specialty coffee is big business - $8.4 billion in the U.S. in 2002, according to the SCAA - and no one is more serious about the business than a barista.
For all the proper care that may be taken in growing, processing, roasting and packaging the coffee product, the barista determines the fate of the drink.
"A barista is a chef of coffee," said Sherri Johns, a judge in the competition.
"You can do everything right along the way, but the barista can make or break it."
In the United States, the average barista is young and, like Perry, a college student.
For Perry, who is close to achieving her degree in international business from California State Polytechnic in Pomona, brewing coffee is more than a college job.
"I love what I do and I love competing," Perry said.
In the U.S. Barista Championships, each contestant prepares and serves 12 coffee creations - four espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty drinks - in 15 minutes.
Johns says there are very few limitations in the specialty drink category.
"They can't use alcohol, it has to have a strong presence of espresso and it has to be a drink, not a dessert," Johns said. "It can be hot or cold."
Perry is preparing a "Triple Punch Prickly Blue Perry" for her specialty drink. She said she had to drive eight hours to Arizona to find the prickly ingredient - from pear cactus.
That kind of commitment to the craft might more likely be found in Italy, where a barista can devote a full career - instead of just a few years in college - to his passion.
"America has a short history of espresso and even a shorter history of professional baristi," Johns said. "We're trying to raise the bar for what a barista is or that they even exist."
Ted Lingle, executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, says there is a big difference between the crafted specialty drink as prepared by a barista and the drink purchased at a drive-through window of a chain coffee house.
"It's a standardized food product compared to a customized food product," Lingle said, adding that's not necessarily a bad statement on the standardized drink at the chain stores.
"The advantage is it's the same throughout the chain, no matter who pushes the button," Lingle said. "The limitation is it's never any better than the standard. A barista can outperform a machine."
On the other hand, a poorly trained barista can ruin a quality coffee bean, said Lingle, who comes from the third generation of a family of coffee roasters in Los Angeles.
Lingle said almost 75 percent of Americans were coffee drinkers in the 1960s, but he said that figure has dropped to about 50 percent.
"The more they focus on making it cheap, the fewer people they have drinking it," Lingle said. "You have to build market share by making it better."
For Perry, better means "velvety foam."
"Have you ever had a cappuccino with big bubbles, just dry and nasty, that just sits on top?" Perry asked. "That's not what you're looking for. Once you've had a really smooth, velvety foam, where when you pour the drink it's almost like it's all cream, you'll see the difference."
Added Perry: "And you'll never go back to that other drink."