Amid the Philadelphia coffee wars that have been brewing to ego-scalding temperatures, it was a moment of high latte drama.
Steam wands in hand and milk pitchers at the ready, 32 baristas were battling cup-to-cup for foam-art supremacy at Shot Tower cafe in Queen Village, where the Lamborghiniesque machine zoomed into espresso high gear.
A well-caffeinated crowd of 80 jostled as competitors met in round-robin pairs to feather cups with foamy white-on-brown hearts and fernlike rosettas.
"Who's next?" A duo stepped to the machine. "That kid's serious," muttered someone in the crowd, at a stranger's signature look. "He always wears vests."
This was the Thursday Night Throwdown, a monthly gathering of cafe pros, mostly 20- to 30-year-olds in knit caps, body art, and various stages of scruff vying for a grinder-bit "medal" and a pot of cash and beans.
They're also building a tight community among the region's fast-growing roster of independent cafes that are part of a post-Starbucks generation known nationally as the Third Wave. With single-origin beans and meticulous techniques, including brewed-to-order "pour-overs" that can cost more than $3 a cup, they've launched a new Golden Age for coffeeholics, upgrading quality, cost, and variety, in much the same way that craft beer has taken hold.
Coincidentally (or not), one of the best newcomers, Ultimo Coffee in South Philadelphia, is located inside a craft beer store. At least 10 other such cafes have opened across the region in the last year or two, and they are threatening La Colombe's long monopoly as Philly's gourmet joe. Not surprisingly, the relationship between the new indies and the city's dominant player, which is 17 years old and poised to launch a major cafe expansion, has been uneasy, to say the least.
La Colombe co-owner Todd Carmichael has stoked the ire of Third Wavers across the country in a series of controversial columns as "coffee correspondent" for Esquire's "Eat Like a Man" food blog.
In the post "7 Steps to Survive the Horrible Hipster Coffee Trend," he lashed out at "super-geek roasters" and "rock star baristas" who look like "angry bike messengers," and at overdosed espressos that resemble crude oil.
He reserves a special disdain for the now-ubiquitous pour-over, which he contends is a gimmick that serves to slow the line and justify a higher charge for a cup.
"If all you want to do is make a beautiful coffee slowly, then fine," he said, "do it at home!"
Local coffee upstarts, meanwhile, like Shot Tower co-owner Mariel Freeman, dismiss La Colombe's darker roasts, less-intense espresso shots, and blend-centric philosophy as being part of the old-hat Second Wave.
"They raised the bar here years ago," said Freeman. "But the bar has been raised a lot since then."
Accordingly, few if any of the top new cafes in Philadelphia are using La Colombe's blends. They are opting instead for predominantly lighter roasts and single-origin flavors, and opening the door to an onrush of major national roasters such as Counter Culture, PT's, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown, which are eager to crack this previously one-bean town.
"Philadelphia is right on the tip of everyone's tongue," says Matt Lounsbury, director of operations for Stumptown Coffee, which roasts in Brooklyn, Seattle, and Portland, Ore. Apart from New York, he says, "the energy in Philadelphia is as progressive or more than any other city east of the Mississippi."
Durham, N.C.-based Counter Culture, which sponsors the Thursday Night Throwdowns, has deals with several more soon-to-open cafes, and plans to open a Philadelphia training center within eight months.
Carmichael's partner at La Colombe, Jean-Philippe Iberti, says he understands the wanderlust of the new guard.
"When something's in your backyard, you need to go out and find what else is out there - it's just natural," he said. "But people will come back to us, especially with Atelier."
Atelier is a new series of single-origin beans typically used in La Colombe's blends, roasted on antique machines at its otherwise high-tech plant in Port Richmond, and now being sold separately in limited quantities. On Friday, at La Colombe's cafe on 19th Street, they'll be giving away samples of "Blue Forest" beans brought back from Carmichael's explorations in Haiti. It's a distinct concession, considering Carmichael's published tirades against the "propaganda" of coffees from "single-origin Valhalla."
"La Colombe has said no to a lot of things," Iberti said. "But I'm having fun roasting, so let's create another line of coffees and stop saying no."
La Colombe, lately, has been saying yes. The largely wholesale-driven business is preparing for a major national push in April, with three La Colombe-branded cafes debuting in Chicago, New York (which already has two), and Philadelphia, on 15th Street across from City Hall. Another cafe is in the works for Seoul, South Korea, Carmichael said.
"Korea is very intense about our coffee," he said.
Their original 19th Street cafe, currently their only named location in the city, remains perhaps Philly's busiest coffee shop, brewing 2.5 tons of beans a month. But opening a new branch here is important, Carmichael said, "because I want them to know we're still very much alive, this is still my home."
Carmichael's Esquire rantings, though, have left a lingering bitterness between La Colombe and its younger competition.
"They are truly hurtful to me," said Aaron Ultimo. "Those articles paint people like me as liars to our customers in a business where I have worked so hard to generate a trust."
The heated dialogue, of course, is as much about the natural cycle of generations and identity as it is about taste, says Bryant Simon, a Temple University American Studies professor whose book Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks was published in paperback in February.
"Fifteen years ago, other companies began to out-coffee Starbucks, and La Colombe became the first one here in Philly to do it," he said. "Now you get a bunch of places that are out-La Colombe-ing La Colombe."
The ground-to-order pour-overs, he said, are "a way to reintroduce the theater and the smell of coffee."
"I agree it's partly about taste - coffee in Philadelphia is better than it's ever been," he said. "But it's also about creating a certain image of myself by going to Lovers and Madmen" in West Philadelphia "and telling people about it. We're constantly paying for things that shape the way we look to others. It's about cultural performance."
Back at the Feb. 17 Thursday Night Throwdown, meanwhile, the performance of latte art was hitting its steamy climax.
The white-bearded judge, David Waldman of Rojo's Roastery, pondered each pair of finished cups with the inscrutable gaze of a Westminster Dog Show judge - until his finger suddenly shot out to anoint a winner. A phalanx of iPhones captured its glory, while the loser was unceremoniously dumped into a bucket.
In the championship foam-off, Dave Ulrich of Ultimo fell to the mysterious "vested kid," whose last, intricate rosetta was swirled with a swagger, guitar-solo style, right at the judge's table.
The kid? Sam Lewontin, of the World Bean coffee stand at LaGuardia Airport, a bearded New Yorker who'd taken the Chinatown bus down to compete.
"I just love Philly!" he said, still shaking from the buzz. "The coffee scene here is so warm and welcoming!"