My journey to the World Barista Championships in Seoul was very inspiring and a lot of fun - however, it was also an incredibly difficult experience.
My journey to the World Barista Championships in Seoul was very inspiring and a lot of fun – however, it was also an incredibly difficult experience. Having gained my second shot at this competition in two years, I knew that I needed to learn from my mistakes from the previous year to give me any chance of being competitive.
In the Australian Barista Championships I served a beautiful washed Geisha from Morgan Estate in Panama, produced by Jamison Savage. I met Jamison the previous year in Dublin and I was instantly drawn to him because we shared similar views around coffee flavour and the way this should represent varietal and terroir and that there is a lot more that can be done to improve this.
We initially talked about refining the natural process for espresso because I love the flavour potential that comes from a coffee cherry, but the structure, acidity and elegance of his washed coffees were hard to go past for espresso. For the last two years I’ve wanted to try different ways of extracting flavour from coffee cherries before pulping and washing the coffee for clarity and refinement. Given Sasa had worked with Jamison to successfully create incredible washed carbonic maceration coffee, it only made sense to take this further and place whole cherries in the tanks – so we did.
Creating a coffee
Having a sixth sense for fermentation, combined with his skills in scientific measurements, Jamison managed to make this first experiment a success. After a few days of maceration the tank smelled like cherry creaming soda, so we pulped and washed the coffee to maintain the elegance I had loved in his washed coffees. This coffee was absolutely exceptional – it had a broad colour spectrum of flavours with berries and blackcurrants, ranging through to yellow stone fruits and citrus. I have tasted these flavours in a coffee before but never built into such a refined and elegant structure. This showed me that coffee is not only about finding new flavours, but about expressing these flavours in new and improved ways.
Given this coffee was all about re-thinking what coffee can be from the farm, I knew I couldn’t simply build a routine that talked about the coffee. I had to try and take this further and add to the experience. I have to show great gratitude to Sasa [Sestic] and Hidenori Izaki (2014 World Barista Champion) for helping me realise I needed to open up my mind and try many different approaches I hadn’t tried before.
So my first step was experimenting with extraction, based on feedback I had gained in the Australian competition. I started freezing my coffee before grinding to give more consistent sized grinds and had the coffee roasted less to allow me to really explore the range and potential of this coffee. This was especially important because I didn’t know what this coffee could be and had to explore and decide for myself.
After a few months of experimentation, I found two very different approaches to this coffee to suit espresso and milk based coffees. For the espresso I used less coffee in the basket, went for a very consistent grind profile from freezing the coffee in dry ice before grinding and I ran longer, less concentrated extractions. I found this highlighted the elegant structure and acidity quality I love in Jamison’s washed coffee. I also found the lower dose gave a broad and complex spectrum of flavours ranging from citrus and stone fruit when hot, to more berry characters particularly strawberry when cool. The longer extractions also highlighted more explosive and complex florals from the coffee which was something I explored further in the signature drink.
For the milk coffee I’ve often found stonefruit or delicate citrus qualities soften and turn into basic caramels through milk and the body and the intensity of flavour can get lost in the fats and sugars that milk can bring. So in order to ensure that my washed coffee could show its potential through milk and to highlight the impact of the whole cherry in the carbonic maceration, I needed to concentrate fruit flavour from the coffee above all else.
Concentration comes from reducing water content and I did this through two ways. The first was extraction – I put more coffee in the basket and pulled shorter espressos that were more concentrated. This gave more intense strawberry characters from the espresso and hid some of the more delicate citrus notes that can get lost in milk.
Secondly, I was lucky enough to work with my training partner, Angus Mackie and Breville on the ‘milk cloud’, a steamless texturing machine that allows preparation of milk for coffee without adding the usual 9-14% of water that usually comes from steam. The milk was more concentrated, it had no distracting astringency from the steam boiler and allowed the concentrated flavours in the espresso to come through with more intensity and body than before.
There was a lot going on in the signature drink with fairy floss machines, pots and pans, sifted grinds and extractions. What people didn’t see was the work behind stage to prepare for this. To make the blackcurrant reduction, I had to maintain a very low temperature for quality and aroma of flavour, but for the intensity and concentration I needed I had to cook kilograms of the ingredient for multiple days at a time. The end result was so viscous it would stand up in the container. This made measuring the ingredient impossible unless heated up just before rolling out.
Next was the floss machine. I can now say I am basically an expert in making fairy floss, so much so that half the ONA Coffee roastery called me ‘floss boss’ for nearly a year. The ingredients were relatively stable but this obnoxious pink machine blew a wire off on day one in practise. Over 6 months I replaced nearly every electrical component of the floss machine. I spent days and days working on not scorching the ingredients and achieving the right consistency of floss. It was hard and took time, but it was worth it because it was fun and tasted delicious.
Bringing it together
Finally with all this work done, then came the task of communicating everything in 15 minutes. My first presentations were done for Hidenori and Sasa and each time, they were 16 minutes or longer. The ideas were very hard to understand clearly, trying to cram so much into one presentation. After a few weeks, I managed cut time down to 15 minutes. However, a big issue with competition is the same routine can take anywhere from 14:40-15:20 minutes, depending on your speed of movements, efficiency of speech, how awake you are, etc. So, I had to continue cutting it back.
Sometimes after breaking down so much information and trying to deliver it in a shorter timeframe, it can stop making sense – so begins the thousands of re-writes. Some days I would have to re-write a whole section of my speech, learn it, get used to saying this while being efficient with movements and be able to present it for complete strangers by the afternoon. The idea of this was not just to improve the speech but make it more difficult to create a comfortable situation for judges.
Getting to Seoul
Fortunately, I was very lucky to have an amazing team with me to help organise the 200+ kg of gear, run errands, order dry ice in a non-English speaking country and much more. Sam Corra, our Head Roaster was amazing to work with in refining coffees; Sasa Sestic was extremely important in helping me mentally and to stay on track; Angus Mackie my training parter was my right hand man for that spark and inspiration that really helped bring out new ideas. There were many members of the ONA coffee family who travelled and helped in any way possible. To all my sponsors, I want to give a huge thank you for all the support in making this an unforgettable campaign.
To any baristas who aspire to compete in and win competitions – there will be difficult days, where the coffee doesn’t work, you can’t think or it seems like the routine you’ve prepared just doesn’t work. There will also be great days, where the coffee tastes amazing, you feel ecstatic and it all seems to come together. The greatest value in competitions is that they push us and others to be better, try new things and to explore the boundaries of what coffee can be.
Research and Development, ONA Coffee