Image from SCA UK
At the start of the year, I signed up for the UK Barista Championship - commonly referred to as UKBC - a coffee competition involving a 15 minute presentation to 4 judges while preparing and serving 12 drinks - 4 espressos, 4 milk drinks, and 4 signature drinks (espresso based, non-alcoholic beverages).
This is the first in a three part series on my experience of the competition this year.
After signing up, I quickly decided that my main objective, (at least when it came to my final score), would be to avoid being disqualified.
I knew that whether I put in a little work, or a lot, I'd be really disappointed if I didn't manage to post a score on the leaderboard.
Of course, I had other goals too - I wanted to ensure that I spoke in a way that was meaningful, and truthful, about the coffee that I was using, and do it justice, to whatever extent possible.
So, while I have big aspirations for my competition performance in the long term, I viewed this year's competition as an opportunity to grow accustomed to the competition format, the rules, and the impact of having judges watch my every move on stage.
With my objectives in place, I set to planning and rehearsing my routine.
Picking my theme
While I had originally intended to use this competition to speak on a fairly complex issue, (which I'll keep to myself for now, as I'm still convinced that this might make a good routine...one day), I soon settled on presenting on customer service.
Spending most of my week behind the bar, this felt like a natural, and relevant topic to present on. I wanted to speak a little bit about how I think about my customer's coffee journeys, and how I attempt to influence them to view coffee differently - (more on that in part 2 of this series).
Having jotted down a few ideas, and creating a rough framework for my presentation, I went about ordering the equipment I knew I'd need, creating mental checklists, and ensuring that, while on bar, I was working on rehearsing the physical actions I knew would be necessary on stage.
I made sure to examine, each day, all the actions which had become second nature on bar- from the way I wiped the steam-wand to my distribution and tamping technique.
All this kept me busy for the first few weeks while I finalised my coffee choice.
My coffee choice
I was fairly convinced that I wanted to use an African coffee, (preferably a Rwandan or Burundian, as I have a particular interest in the socio-economic impact of specialty coffee in these countries).
I'd picked a couple of roasters that I'd like to work with, but ended up settling on a natural processed Rwandan Coffee (Kilimbi Lot 171), roasted by Colonna.
Unfortunately, due to a couple of logistical issues with the other roasters I was considering, this decision came a little later than I'd hoped, meaning that I received my coffee just 2 weeks before competition.
However, this delay paled into insignificance, when I poured the first kilo into the hopper, and pulled my first shot, I knew I'd made a good choice.
Getting to know Kilimbi
The cup was bursting full of fruit and florals, and this was the kind of coffee I loved to work with. Even with that first espresso, there was a long-lasting earl grey aftertaste, which would be a highlight of every practise session.
Over the next week, as I dialled in the Kilimbi, I grew confident, and satisfied that I could produce high scoring drinks during the heats. As espresso, it tasted clearly of blood orange peel, stewed fruits, and earl grey tea - my kind of coffee.
The coffee itself has a fantastic story. The Kilimbi washing station, found in the Nyamasheke region, was one of the first two Rwandan washing stations to be granted approval for the production of natural processed coffees back in 2016.
It's pretty tricky to produce high quality natural Rwandans due to the tropical climate, but Kilimbi's approach and location lend well to this difficult task.
The washing station sits about 1600 metres above sea level, where hand picked red bourbon cherries are dried on well maintained African drying beds for 35-45 days. During the drying period, cherries were turned every hour during the day, and constantly hand sorted to remove damaged cherries.
Meanwhile, cool air from the nearby lake Kivu regulated temperatures - from 12 degrees to 30 degrees across day and night. This range of temperatures is perfect for the slow and gradual drying of coffee cherries, and the Kilimbi team have found that this is ideal for producing high quality naturals.
Rushing my signature drink
Unfortunately, I ended up leaving my signature drink design fairly late. One of my experiments lead me to producing an earl-grey & blood orange iced-tea like drink, and while this was exhibiting a little too much bitterness for my liking, I knew I was getting somewhere.
A few hours experimentation led me to choosing to combine my espressos with chilled earl grey tea and an orange-blossom honey that had been infused with the peel of a blood orange. This resulted in a fairly tasty, balanced drink that complemented the coffee pretty well.
In all my practise time though, I never really properly practised my signature drink prep as part of my 15-minute routine, and this fact lingered in my mind.
In the week running up to my heat, I had spent a few hours running through my routine with a few friends - including Diana, and Kasjan - who were able to provide some helpful feedback, and reassure me that I wasn't going to completely crash and burn...
Diana had let me know that she'd be travelling to Bristol for the heat and would give me a hand with my setup and practice - I knew this would be a great help, as she's been excelling on the competition circuit for years.
While I'd hoped to do 35-50 full run throughs, I ended up doing just 23 partial run-throughs, (just preparing my espressos, milk drinks, and espresso for signature drinks - about the first 10 minutes), and 3 full runs throughs.
However, while I knew that I could've used more preparation, I was happy enough that I'd be able to accomplish my main goal of not getting disqualified...
Check back next week for part 2