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Local Barista headed for national competition in Vancouver

by Archives September 29, 2009

Anthony Benda exudes calm as he takes his time carving an intricate leaf shape into an extra foamy latté. This is surprising considering there is a line-up of mostly university students anxiously waiting for him to hand them their daily caffeine fix.
A self-proclaimed coffee addict, Benda is the chief barista and co-owner of Café Myriad. It was less than a year ago that he and his business partner, and author of “The Professional Barista’s Handbook,” Scott Rao, opened the popular café located in the heart of the Concordia Ghetto on Mackay St. between St. Catherine St., and de Maisonneuve Blvd.
Always full of customers, Café Myriad has proved it can stand out amidst its high profile neighbours: Starbucks, Second Cup and Tim Hortons. Perhaps this is because Myriad serves direct trade coffee and is the only café in Canada to use the prestigious Mirage coffee machine. Or maybe it’s because clients have the option of having their java brewed using a siphon pot, cafesolo or French press, which pull out different flavours from the beans. Another guess is the inviting atmosphere created by the friendly staff and small space with red brick walls and dark wood furniture.
However, their success most likely stems from the fact these guys, unlike the unpleasant and bored looking employees at the nearby coffee chains, really seem to know – and love – coffee.
In fact, the passion and confidence they have for their art is taking Benda, and fellow Myriad barista, Alex Scott, to the National Barista Championships in Vancouver this October. It will be Benda’s third trip to Nationals – last year he placed sixth in the finals after tying for first place in the preliminary round. The year before he came in third. Not bad for a Concordia Creative Writing alumni.
“Competing for me is a chance to see peers I don’t often get to spend time with like café owners and baristas in other cities who care deeply for their craft,” said Benda. “It’s also a chance to sharpen my technical approach and maybe learn something new.”
This year, he will be representing both Café Myriad, and Myriad’s coffee supplier, 49th Parallel. The competition entails presenting numerous high-quality espresso beverages within a short time frame. There’s also an artistic component where the barista must create his or her own drink with espresso as the focal point.
Competition aside, Benda shares some of Myriad’s business strategies.
“Our philosophy is to first and foremost welcome people as guests and to make sure they enjoy themselves in the café.” For him and Rao, this means offering not only top-notch service, but providing premium coffee. 49th Parallel purchases their beans directly from coffee farmers. This approach, called direct trade, cuts out the middle man giving more money to the growers.
“No money is wasted on intermediaries, and the best coffee is rewarded appropriately,” said Benda.
The partners have invested both time and money ensuring the technology they work with is up to par, employees are given intensive training and the few products shipped from the outside (beans from 49th Parallel, chocolate from Soma in Toronto) are top of the line.
“All baristas are subject to spot-quizzes about the temperature of the drinks they’re about to serve, the length of time their espresso shot is extracted for and the peak temperature of that extraction,” said Benda. “It’s not an easy job, and everyone who works with me is more committed than most people realize. I owe a lot to them.”
Despite their almost obsessive adherence to quality and the direct-trade affiliations they have, a coffee from Cafe Myriad costs only a few cents more than a medium size Grande Paradiso from the Starbucks around the corner. According to Benda, coffee is currently the “foodie bargain of the world,” particularly on this continent (for some reason, a $3 latté in North America would cost you roughly 4.50 Euros in France; the equivalent of about $7). Who knows for how long, but right now, at least, you can enjoy a cup of coffee at Myriad for just $2.
After all, if it were much more, Brenda and his group wouldn’t have chosen to set up shop in the Concordia community. It also helps that Benda loves his alma mater.
“There’s an amazing cross-section of personalities at the university,” he said. “The Guy-Concordia area is blossoming with new culinary offerings that have significantly raised the standard of fare since I graduated, and I’m grateful to feel a part of that.”
On this unusually warm September afternoon, hordes of Concordia students have dropped their stone-faced classroom demeanours and gather on Myriad’s terrace to indulge their caffeine cravings before the next class. Seemingly unaffected by the crowds, Benda carefully checks each drink to confirm it’s measured to the perfect temperature and topped with the signature heart or leaf shape design.
“We refuse to serve anybody what we wouldn’t be pleased with ourselves, and that effort is rare to find in coffeehouses in Montreal, I think.”

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