THE crowd is transfixed, the judges are scribbling furiously on clipboards and the air in the auditorium is rife with nerves and the aroma of coffee.
But instead of the chemical tang of Mercadona’s stock instant powder, this is unequivocally the best coffee in the country.
I’m at the café con leche equivalent of the Copa del Rey, a two-day coffee-making championship, with the 17 best baristas from Spain battling it out to be crowned the nation’s finest.
The Olive Press sent me down to drink in the atmosphere, sniff out the winners and sip on the tension.
So far so good, except for one tiny, unimportant titbit of information: I don’t drink coffee.
“Do you have anything descafeinado?” I ask tentatively at the hectic, free-sample corner, where I daren’t mention tea.
The baffled barista points at a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries.
“Fine, you’ve forced me into this. Forget the fact I am pretty much a medical danger to myself under the influence of caffeine. I’ll have a cappuccino.”
And it was sumptuous. Frothy, hearty, smooth… the Cristiano Ronaldo of cappuccinos, a 50- goals-a-season sort of coffee.
Wired, ready and with a chocolate strawberry in my hand, I headed to the auditorium to watch the finals play out.
Each contestant had 16 minutes to prepare two pairs of coffees, one pair of cappuccinos, one non-alcoholic combination and one alcoholic combination.
Sounds tough? Not for these pros.
There were fancy splashes of alien liquids, sticks of cinnamon, grated nutmeg, syrupy syrups, chemical contraptions straight from Frankenstein’s lab and – last but not least – some actual coffee beans.
But the baristas also had to talk the 300-strong audience through the entire process, and what’s more, they even had to choose their own backing music.
However, it appeared the dj might have had one too many caramel macchiatos, with the erratic volume increase on an Ed Sheeran hit drowning out all other noise in the arena.
Angry gesticulations from the entire left-hand side of the audience soon had him sheepishly turning the volume way back down, so we could once again hear exactly what coffee-tastic surprise was being brewed in a particular test-tube.
Around 200 professionals competed in nationwide events to earn a place at this final, held in the impressive Palacio de Congresos, so they have a right to be annoyed if the music’s too loud.
But by this point, there are just six remaining, fighting to be crowned winner of the 10th edition of the event hosted by the Forum Cultural del Café.
Forum’s former president, Josep Casayas Puig, tells me: “This event is all about promoting coffee culture.
“Last year’s winner, who came from Asturias, was sent to Uganda on holiday to learn how they produce coffee beans. This year the prize is a week in Colombia.”
The judges are all experts from around Spain, many of whom have previously competed in the event.
One from Barcelona, Isaac Sancho, also runs a coffee blog. “Every year there are more people at this event; Spain is getting more and more excited about coffee,” he reveals.
“It’s the second most consumed drink after water after all!”
He’s right. The nation does appear to have woken up and smelt the coffee when it comes to, err, coffee. There is a surprising amount of 16-18-year-olds who are study catering at college, and are desperate to see how the experts do it, taking photos, notes and a lot of free samples.
The event ends with a bang as Damian Seijas, again from Asturias, wins the FA cup of coffee thanks to some stunning concoctions. (If only I’d got to try one…)
Andalucia’s own Rani Aouam came a respectable third, with the man from Valencia, Javier Carrion, bagging second spot.
Seijas also received special prizes for the best artistic latte and the best ‘special drink’. On this evidence, coffee-lovers need to pack their bags and head north to Asturias for their morning brew!
Now where can I get a decent cup of tea…?