Following four fierce days of Coffee Masters action—the biggest field of competitors in tournament history—a stirring final two emerged: Wise, who ended up taking home the gold, and Nick Mabey, Wise's coach and colleague representing Assembly Coffee, also based in London. As a great Jedi once said: “The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner. Now, I am the master.”
James Wise will spend his 5000 prize purse embarking on some once in a lifetime travel to Thailand, with perhaps a bit left over with which to “hit the slopes.” To learn more about the big win, and what it means, Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman caught up with James Wise digitally from London.
This interview has been edited & condensed for clarity.
Hey James! Huge congrats from all of us at Sprudge for your big Coffee Masters win. Please introduce yourself to our readers, and tell us a bit about your background in coffee.
I’m James Wise. I’m a lanky, tattooed guy from South London. I have been working in the coffee industry for three years, but it has been a hobby for a long time. I picked up an Australian accent somewhere along the way, and am almost sick of being asked whether or not I am from Melbourne or Sydney.
I have developed two of my own cafes: China Plate Espresso & Silkies, both of which are unfortunately no longer with us. There is a running joke that every time one of my cafes starts to show its potential, external factors close it. Actually, it isn’t a very funny joke.
You’ve won £5000 USD for winning the Coffee Masters. How will you be spending your prize?
Come out of the red. Nah. Yeah. Nah.
Hopefully I'll be visiting Thailand, and then maybe have enough left over to hit the slopes later this year.
Talk us through your signature drink creation for the Coffee Masters. What did you do?
I wanted to use the signature drink as an opportunity to express my knowledge of extraction and maceration. The drink is based on a classic cocktail “The Americano”, which is vermouth-centric. I made a vermouth and learned what a vermouth is at the same time (highly recommend).
After searching for a wine that was perfect for the base of the vermouth, I found a red wine from Asti, in the Piedmonte region of Italy, that has been traditionally used to make vermouths. I have been experimenting with my recipe for six months, and have finally landed on something that I love and enjoy drinking.
I also made chocolate bitters to bolster the rich, complex profile of the cocktail. This was another learning curve, but I created something I’m really proud of.
The drink is primarily composed of bitter ingredients which balance each other creating a complex and rounded flavour profile, that alludes to an exceptional coffee. I called it “Lo Svizzero”, which means “The Swiss” in Italian. The name is inspired by its original source. This drink is very balanced, and maybe it's fun to think about how that plays off how Switzerland is historically balanced (or neutral). Bob’s your uncle. Have a free filter coffee at Treves & Hyde if you tell me this story and pretend it makes sense.
I know Nick Mabey, whom you faced in the Final round, is a colleague of yours through his work at Assembly. What did it mean for you to be squaring off against Nick in the finals?
Nick took me under his wing when I was just getting into coffee. In my first month as a barista I was doing sensory analysis training alongside Nick, as he prepared for his Q Grading exams.
Nick was actually my trainer for the Coffee Masters this year, and “I was his”. I was scrounging around backstage sourcing jiggers, just before we went on, as we had been sharing my cocktail tools. We joked around about getting into the final together, but it definitely didn’t feel serious until the Sunday. I only prepared for the first round.
Is this a major moment in your career thus far?
I have been in the coffee industry for three years—I started in coffee because I needed a second job to support myself while doing my tattoo apprenticeship. I have always been fascinated by coffee and wanted to learn more about it, so I decided to work with it professionally. It quickly turned into my main passion, and this is definitely a major moment in my career. It feels like the culmination of all of the learning and practice that I do everyday, while working on the bar, sitting on the bus, talking with industry friends…no matter what, I approach coffee with an attitude of learning.
For someone who has never seen a Coffee Masters tournament, how would you describe it?
From the outside, looking in, I can imagine it looks like none of us actually know what we are doing, let alone be the industry professionals at the height of their game, representing the coffee industry. But that's definitely what's going on, despite the latte art and drinks flying everywhere–spillage village.
What’s the one thing about Coffee Masters you’ve enjoyed the most?
Coffee Masters has been a great way to get to know all of the industry professionals that I look up to, and it’s a great excuse for how hard I train day in day out.
Describe the moment of victory in your own words.
I was eating ice-cream and drinking a beer simultaneously. When the winner was announced I just looked at Nick with shock. You don’t go up against someone as talented as he is and have any expectations to win. I still am in shock and still feel elated.
Can you tell us a bit more about your work with Treves & Hyde? What is T&H all about?
I am currently the Head of Coffee for HYDE. Everything we do is approached with the same level of dedication and perfection that I apply to my coffee. At the moment you can find me at Treves & Hyde, manning our Mavam and Curtis G4, while planning the experiences at our next sites. In July we open in Edinburgh, with the world to come.
As a final question, is there anyone special you would like to thank? Take a moment for shout-outs if you'd like.
Vilte is pretty special. We’ve come out the other side of the Coffee Masters and I think she still likes me. She helped me the whole way through.
Nick for training with me, this year and last year.
Thank you Sam for making my entry video. Also, thank you for answering these questions on my behalf. I am not great at talking about myself. Follow him on Instagram @john.and.smith (I let him put that in for a little shameless self promotion).
Cheers James, and congrats again.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.
Photos by Zachary Carlsen and Zac Cadwalader for Sprudge.
Sprudge Media Network is proudly partnered with the global Coffee Masters Tournament, coming next to the New York Coffee Festival in September 2017.