Two time Australian Coffee in Good Spirits Champion, Danny Wilson shares his tips about creating a memorable coffee cocktail experience and talks about the journey to the world stage.
You have competed several times in barista competitions, even making the finals of the ASCA national competition. What made you start to compete in CiGS?
For me, taking part in Coffee in Good Spirits [CiGS] was a really refreshing new direction. I learnt so much competing in the barista championship and it helped me to hone my coffee skills, improve my barista technique and learn to control coffee flavour. CiGS really opened up what I could do with these skills, creating new and exciting coffee drinks and combining my ideas with the world of cocktails and bartending.
How does the CiGS competition differ from other coffee competitions? What is your favourite part?
My favourite thing about CiGS is that it doesn’t have the rigid structure of the other competitions. A CiGS performance will include espresso drinks, filter brewing, bar skills, flair and so many different ingredients. The performances and cocktails served will be wildly different from competitor to competitor and at the World championship each day of competition features a new set of rules and challenges. To be competitive in CiGS you need to be able to change and adapt quickly and have confidence in the choices you are making.
How does your work as a coffee roaster influence you as a competitor in barista and CiGS competitions?
My background as roaster is fundamentally linked to how I think about creating drinks. Initially in selecting and preparing coffee for the barista championships it helped me to understand the impact of coffee origin and process in the cup. As I became more experienced I realised I could transfer my skills in creating coffee blends to mixing together ingredients in a cocktail. I think the cocktail and coffee worlds have more in common than many people realise and by drawing on the knowledge of two industries we can really learn a lot.
You travelled to Gothenburg in 2015 with the Australian CiGS champion, Lucas Woods. What changes have you noticed in the competition between then and now?
The competition in 2015 was a lot of fun, it was the first time Lucas and I had ever been at a world championship and looking back there were so many amazing baristas and bartenders competing. The biggest difference now, however, is you can’t just specialise in one of these fields. The top competitors now in CiGS need to have an expert grasp of both barista and bar skills.
What was the most valuable lesson you learned when you were training last year (for both nationals and worlds)?
It really pays to practice your techniques early. Last year I was drawing of a vast amount of experience in barista competition and this reflected in my performance. Even though I had a great concept and tasty drinks many of the bartending techniques were quite foreign to me. I was lucky to spend time with previous WCiGS champion Martin Hudak who has worked some of the world’s best bars and he corrected some of my poor techniques. This year though, I’ve focused on honing these skills and practicing for longer on the fundamentals of bar craft so when the time came for competition I could rely on my experience.
How would you explain the relationship between coffee and alcohol when constructing a drink (ie is balance most important, presence/expression of coffee etc)?
Balance is crucial for any drink, especially when you are combining complex tasting ingredients like coffee and spirits. Beyond that it’s good to this about what kind of drink you are creating and matching with how you prepare the coffee. For example a long, tropical soda drink will probably work best with a more acidity driven coffee and shorter drinks require a more richer more chocolatey coffee. There’s no one clear time for this but always look at the coffee as an ingredient in the drink and find what is most appropriate for your cocktail.
What is your favourite ingredient or alcohol to use when constructing coffee-based cocktails?
Dark spirits are my go-to option for coffee cocktails, depending on the drink, usually rum or bourbon. Not only do these spirits have an element of sweetness to offset the bitterness of the coffee but I find the oak character really compliments the coffee and adds contrast to other fruity ingredients.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about competing in the CiGS competition?
Start simple. It’s very easy to build an idea in your head of a choice cocktail with heaps of ingredients all balancing together but I my experience it’s never that easy. Instead start with 2 or 3 ingredients that work well and taste great and build on your drink from there. Then have fun with your performance and enjoy the experience! CiGS competitions have a great atmosphere and are super fun to be a part of so don’t forget to have a good time doing it.
Danny will compete at the World Coffee in Good Spirits Championships at the World of Coffee expo between June 6-8 in Berlin, Germany.