World Barista Championships 2010 wrap up

So, the WBC came and went last week, and huge congratulations to Mike Philips who deservedly won (and did an awesome job so I am told) and of course all the baristas. A special well done to Colin harmon and to John Gordon who I know did a good job, as they were the only two baristas I watched all week.

Much has been written since that competition, much will continue to be written, a very special week that will stay with me forever as one of the most fun, most stressful at times most frustrating, and other times most fulfilling. This is why competition is amazing, addictive and thoroughly engrossing.

One thing that I owe competition is the friends it has bought to me. The obvious Colin, and John but also David Walsh, Paul Stack, James Hoffmann to name just a very small amount of great people I have meet and have the pleasure of calling my friends. I don’t know if I would be even known by these great coffee folks were it not for the competition. Coming home from the barista party to find Reg Barber, Sammy Piccalo and Heather Perry in your living room is kind of weird but strangely funny at the same time, and being in the competition circle has meant I have got to know so many of the cool kids, who I don’t think would have given me the time of day before my involvement with Colin and John.

But I decided before this competition this was the last time I would be so involved and so invested in the process, and I left London even more determined that this was the right course of action.I have learnt so much from competition, I have become a far better roaster because of my involvement. I liken it to putting a man on the moon. Seems a crazy thing to do but so many good things that we use in everyday life came from the lunar missions. I know I have become a better roaster for competition and that the every day roasting has improved because of the feed back from the amazing baristas I have worked with and the drive to work harder and harder to create tailored challenging blends for each competitor we have worked with and trying to give them what they want when they often don’t know themselves.

Competition is expensive, its been said on many a blog, but its just as expensive (if not more) for the roaster. I can not begin to quantify the amount of coffee time energy and incidental costs (traveling accommodation, shipping the list goes on), but this is not just finically. I have woken up every morning since Atlanta last year and normally the first but at worst the second though in my head has been barista competition.

I see the role of a roaster like the team behind an F1 team. You have the driver (barista) team manager (baristas partner), tyre manufacture (glassware cups etc) you have the mechanics (set up team, coaches, customers) and the engine manufacture (roaster). I say engine manufacture as without the others in place then the team can not do anything (F1 fans will know what I mean when I say Force India and McLaren). But like F1 WBC is an expensive big boy game to be involved in.

Last year I came away from Atlanta with a very different feeling to what I have now. I left that competition that I had something to prove, that both Colin and I could do more, that he hadn’t proved the top top barista he was and I hadn’t proved what I was capable of as a roaster. I shouldered some of the negatives from Colin’s Score sheet last year, I think we both didn’t prove ourselves as well as we could have done.

There was not just one thing, there was a whole heap of things I could have done better and I know Colin shared the same thoughts (otherwise why re compete), but I don’t believe I was the roaster or the blender I am now. The fact even with lots of blends as options for WBC 2009 and IBC 2010 we ended up on a single origin proved that. They were great coffees but the elusive balanced and complete and complex blend was something missing.

This years Blend for John I was involved but obviously a collaboration makes life very much easier and shares the burden. Also I think John took lots of this on board and he developed that blend from two coffees he loved and it worked well.

Colin’s coffee was much much harder. We talked about the blend for 2 years, I learnt what his tastes and preferences were, to the point I could tell from 15 different options which one he would choose. To pinch a line from his presentation this was a huge affirmation for our work together and how much effort and time we put into it. I remember the phone call from Brazil just after I had left the farm of Ingalterra so excited I had found his Irish Barista Championships coffee, without him even trying it or trying it in espresso. True to form from 12 different options he chose the one I had tasted in a cupping bowl on the other side of the world with jet lag.

But for WBC this had to be right, it had to be huge, this was it. For 12 months I had had the idea of the El Salvador La Ilussion. I do not know why, as for espresso its the biggest pig in the range. The first rule of competition is to make a blend/single origin that is predictable and that is consistent. Two words rarely used with La Ilusion. But something happened to this coffee a couple of months ago, it started to change. Its now just revolving into 12 months from processing, so it isn’t past crop but it a hairs breath away. Its been vac packed, and this was the vac wasn’t broken (another post for another day), but new crop it was too crazy 11 months on it was amazingly smooth, sweet rich. It shouldn’t have worked but when you constantly taste your coffee you can see these changes and take full advantage of them.

The second component is from the same area, same volcano, same producer different farm and different year. The long missed and loved El salvador Alaska.This was on the trees 6/7 weeks by rights should need some rest, processed specially for us as a 90kg lot, airfreighted and a special export licence raised for just this lot. When I cupped it at my importers about 8 weeks ago they had harvested a small amount for samples, it was lively it was vibrant, but I knew just like in Brazil this was the one. I straight away got thinking about the Ilusion with it, the calming influence of the former bad boy on this super fresh and alive coffee.

No time to work this out it arrived two weeks ago, just enough time to get a sample to Colin for his approval, and get a profile nailed. Seat of the pants, but also incredibly considered. Don’t ask me for the blend, all the Ilusion went with competition so we wont be offering it (which I kind of like, one off never to be seen again and not tainted by making money on it). But the comments I had from people who tried it were amazing, and I hold it as some of my best work. You will have to believe me on this but I think it was too.

Any how I have digressed, back to the competition. I said earlier I came away from Atlanta with very different feeling to what I have now. I loved the Machacarmarca (and still do) but I felt I could do a better job (I’d love to present it to judges now I know the coffee so well, I think I could squeeze an extra 1 / 1.5 points now that I didn’t have in me 13 months ago (for the espressos), but still one of the best caps I have ever had and all down to CH.

This time I don’t think I could have done anymore with those coffees, I wouldn’t want another shot. I also don’t think that I would suggest to Colin to change anything. The most perfect performance I have ever witnessed, the most amazing signature drink I have ever tasted (and I mean this). I’m a sig drink hater of the highest order. They leave me feeling sad, simple as. But this one I wanted to drink but it left me excited and questioning everything I thought I knew, and made me want to reach for my TDS metre and measure water that I cup with.

I would not change one thing that I did in preparation for this competition and I would not ask either John or Colin to change anything they did. I said at the start of this Competition if I can not roast a WBC winning coffee with “the goats” (sorry in joke) in the stable, with the talents of these two guys then I was never going to be involved in a win.

I feel like i’ve starting to chase shadows I will never catch up with. I’ve think competing two times is admirable and well worthy of doing. I think more than twice then you really need to sit down and evaluate why you are doing that, roaster and barista. Maybe I will feel different in the future, but for now I’m done.

Also there is the reward element for the roaster. Its very obvious for the barista I think what they get out of the competition. I must admit I have got a whole heap out of too, much of what I have talked about here, but there comes a time where the rewards have been achieved. I would have loved to have gone out on a WBC winning roast, it would have felt more of a full stop. But I throw in my cards with the very very best I believe I could have done, with the Baristas doing the very very best they could. What else is there to achieve? So I am calling it a day from competition for at least a year. Customers I will help to use there shop blend’s and I am happy to sell from the website coffees people want to use, but the unique blends and the investment of time and development I am unable to give. Hopefully some other roasters can enjoy the experiences I have been able to enjoy.

There is another blog post inside about the competition that i’m trying to get straight in my mind, and I’m sure will see the light of day soon, but for now, thank you’s to John Gordon, your an inspiration, you do it your way, and for that I love you, for Jess who is an amazing person, if you ever get chance to sit down with the pair of these people you should and don’t talk, just listen, amazing folk that are so caring wonderful and beautiful people. To Jose from Mercanta for breaking his backside to get the Alaska too me even though it was a huge ask it was never a problem for the nicest man in coffee, a true gentleman. Thank you to Ernesto Mendernez who is one of the most amazing farmers I have ever come across and grows some of the most amazing coffee. I wish all farmers cupped their own coffees like he does, the coffee we all drink would be so much better. To Yvonne who has put up with my calls at 11pm at night to Colin who had to live with me during competition and has always opened her house for me to stop on the Ireland trips, for which she deserves some kind of prize. And a very special thank you to my wife Sarah who lets me do these crazy competitions and has to deal with the tantrums, the sulks the euphoria and the lows. She ran the good ship has bean last week while I gadded around London village playing coffee, without her I would not be able ot do any of this.

But yes the elephant in the Room Mr Harmon is missing. He is my best friend, he is the most amazing and loyal person I have ever met, funny, intelligent and all round good stick. He has taught me so much about coffee, by letting me be part of his journey I have become so much better at my trade than I was before. He makes me question everything I do and start again, we have both grown so much in the past couple of years. There are exciting times ahead for me and the giant one, this is not the end at all but the beginning. Take a look at last years performance and this years, it looks like a primary school boy against a university graduate. He has grown so much.

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  1. It was one of the best competition espresso blends I’ve ever tasted, and I wouldn’t say that without meaning it. Undoubtedly, superior to the previous years in many ways. Enormously sweet, beautiful body, finish, elegant, complex. The first thing I did when I finished judging Colin’s practice run, was to ask for a double shot of it.

  2. The amount of work you take on, both professionally and emotionally is huge. And your F1 analogy is completely on the money. Without you there is no team and a bad roast can skupper a team completely.

    Your feedback and investment is priceless and cannot thank you enough for the help you gave me this year, and I’m sure the same is true of Colin and John.

    p.s. Is there going to be a chance for us to get a taste of the blends?

  3. Colin Harmon, practice time thursday morning. Best espresso I ever tasted….period.

  4. Life isn’t about championships. Steven Gerrard has none, Phil Neville has several, which says it all.

    Life is about being a quality person. If they gave out medals for that, you and the guys would have a cupboard full.

    Forget the hype of competition, just look at how much people love what you do and what the whole team has achieved over the past couple of years. That is the true measure of success.

    Top job. Tob coffee. Top people. Bad shirts ……

  5. thanks for sharing your thoughts in such detail. A real eye-opener to the process.

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