I was asked a couple of months ago to write an article for fresh cup magazine on barista competition. Its been a couple of months now, and desperate to get back blogging, I thought I would share.
As a roaster, writing an article about barista competitions is a somewhat unusual task. But I ask you to stay with me as we embark on this story—I promise it has a happy ending.
When I first got involved with coffee (in 2003), I remembering hearing about the strange world of barista competitions. But those events had little crossover with the demographic I was working with at the time—particularly, home users. We are a coffee roaster with a very different model to most: selling over the Internet, mostly directly to home baristas. I know many roasters sell their coffee to home baristas, but for most of them, the home barista is not their main focus and market. It is for us.
While barista competitions couldn’t be further removed from our target market, I was nonetheless approached by a young barista who hung around on the very forums that many of our customers did. Although a professional barista, he was also incredibly keen to learn from the home user and also share his knowledge and experiences. This barista was James Hoffmann, and the year was 2006.
James asked if I would work with him to build a blend for the U.K. Barista Championship. I agreed rather tentatively, not quite sure what was in it for us, but he was quite charming, and I just wanted to help him. What happened over the following months was one of the biggest surprises I have had in coffee. We sent coffee to James, and he fed us back all sorts of data that I had never had before (for instance, what temperature of the espresso machines was doing to the coffee, how small changes in the profile would highlight, or mask particular flavour components within the blend ). If something was awful, he would tell us. It’s rare to receive this kind of brutal-but-valuable feedback, but I credit James’ input with helping to solidify the foundation of our business. We roasted the coffee for James’ U.K. competition and World Barista Championship that year, and as you likely know, he came away with the big win.
To our surprise, it mattered to home users that James had used our coffee, and they were eager to try it. Although we didn’t have the exact blend available for purchase, we saw an increased interest in our coffees in general. But the real value in this process was we learned so much information about espresso, particularly what worked and what did not. As a roaster, espresso is something I enjoy preparing, but I certainly wouldn’t say I’m a competition-standard barista. By working with James, we shared our knowledge and both got better at what we did.
After this experience, Has Bean began working locally with up-and-coming baristas in the U.K. competition, continuing to learn our craft. We were (and still are) a very young roasting company, and today we still know so little about our craft. But working with baristas pushed us to learn more.
In 2009, Irish barista champion Colin Harmon approached us about using our coffee for competition, and we put together blends for him for both that year and the next one. In that second competition—the 2010 WBC in London—we used two coffees from different crops (2009 and 2010) from the same farmer. The farm was in El Salvador, and in search of more information on the farmer, I visited Team El Salvador. There I came across Federico Bolanos, owner of San Salvador’s Viva Espresso, and the trainer of El Salvador barista champion Alejandro Mendez. It turns out I had met Federico a couple years earlier while on a buying trip to El Salvador when, in need of coffee, I went to a shop located inside a shopping mall across the street from my hotel. Intrigued by the barista trophy and certificate on the shop’s counter, I began talking to Federico and his wife, Lily, and they asked if my traveling partner and I would do a run-through with them (The run through was a complete performance including drinks and the performance within the time constraints of 15 minuets we did with Federico and Lily we also talked about things that can go wrong in competition.) Of course we agreed, and we have kept in touch ever since.
But on this day in London, Federico and I became re-acquainted. It turns out the farmer was Ernesto Menéndez (from Finca La Ilusión), and he and Federico were friends. Federico also introduced me to his competitor, Alejandro Mendez, and when Alejandro made the semi-finals, we loudly cheered him on.
Following that competition, Federico and I kept in touch via email. I had already planned a trip to El Salvador for February, so I decided to add a visit to Team El Salvador to the itinerary. When I found out that I would be there two days before El Salvador’s national barista competition, I asked Federico if I could do another run-through with the team when I got there, as they had three baristas competing. Frederico’s reply: “Well, only if you send us some coffee for Alejandro,” (the other team were using the shops coffee and their own blends, but because of our relationship and friendship, Alejandro liked the idea of using an international roaster, showing the chain of coffee, and how much El Salvador coffee reaches outside of their small country) as he had wanted to try our coffee after our conversation in London.
Honored and excited, I sent him some coffee to try in anticipation of that visit, and I opted for one he knew well: Ernesto Menendez’s La Ilusión. We sent the coffee using a parcel firm (so that Alejandro would have some coffee to use and be happy with before the national competition. We found out that to send coffee to El Salvador you need all sorts of permits and imports and in most cases, customs will not allow it through.). Federico had to get import licenses and all sorts, and by the his team received the coffee, it was a few weeks old. I never for a moment thought that he would use it in his national competition, but he enjoyed our interpretation of it so much that he asked me if I could bring some when I visited for them to use in the competition.
I agreed, of course … and the rest, as they say, is history. Alejandro won his national competition, and then preparation began for the WBC at Bogota. We had a couple more attempts at importing coffee into El Salvador for practice, and for feedback at altitude (, the Viva espresso team went outside the city to practice working with the coffee at altitude and fed this information back to us.) This helped enormously with the four other people who used our coffee in Bogota (in rest time for coffee and potential roast profiles to get the best out of the coffee at altitude), but also taught me something new about my coffee and the effects of altitude.
For Bogota, I brought 50 pounds worth of coffee in my luggage—some of which was for Alejandro. He did rather well using the natural and the washed coffee from La Ilusión that I roasted. And Ernesto himself was there to help, as he made the trip to be part of the back-room team. At one point during the day of the finals, the barista, producer and roaster polished and cleaned together at one of the back tables. It was a very special moment that will stay with me forever.
So what does the roaster get out of barista competitions? Experience and knowledge from the practitioners at the very top of their game. It’s so valuable to me as a roaster learning my craft. It has given me very special moments like the one with Alejandro and Ernesto that will always stay with me. But the best part is that I have a raft of friends all around the world—even in San Salvador.