The 2015 Coffee Masters tournament at New York Coffee Festival has come and gone, with Australia’s Ben Morrow taking home top honors and a generous cash prize of $5000 USD. Morrow joins Workshop Coffee’s James Bailey as just the second Coffee Masters tournament winner.
The Coffee Masters is a multidisciplinary coffee competition that pits the professional barista’s skill set against a series of challenges, a ticking time clock, and distinguished judges. The competition was co-created by Allegra Events and DunneFrankowski, and was co-hosted in New York by Victor Frankowski and Sprudge.com’s own Jordan Michelman.
We caught up with Ben Morrow digitally to talk about his big win in New York.
Hello Ben Morrow, and congratulations on becoming a bona fide Coffee Master. Please introduce yourself to our readers, and tell us a bit about your background in coffee.
My name is Ben Morrow. I’ve been making coffee for 6 years now for the most part of which has been with the company St. Ali (four years or so on and off). I’ve worked at several other venues in Melbourne in the past—Degraves Espresso and Outpost were of the more notable—but like most, I started out making coffee in a little cafe that roasted their own, Convent Bakery. I’ve been an avid coffee competitor for the last four years, and some of my titles include second place finishes at the 2012, 2013, and 2015 Australian Latte Art Championships. I’m the back to back latte art champion of Victoria, my home state, the winner of the Veneziano Legends Smackdown 2015, 1st place at the Breville Oracle Smackdown and a few other awards. At the moment, I’m both on bar and running master classes in the evening on latte art.
You’ve won $5000 USD for winning the Coffee Masters—how will you purpose this bounty?
I’m seeded for the Portland Coffee Fest Latte Art Championship. So I think a portion of that money will be spent there. That also means I’ll be back in the States in late October.
Talk us through your signature drink creation for the Coffee Masters.
So the drink was called “Cafe du Cask”. I wanted to draw on elements of flavours of cask aging without directly using whiskey. So Pedro Ximinez sherry was my sweetening agent. I used a sherry called Barbadillo, which was sweet and rich like a raisin but with a medium oak finish, so it wasn’t crazy sweet like PX can sometimes be. This was paired with a 21-year-old sherry cask-aged brandy by St. Agnes, which is an Australian company, actually. The brandy itself is softer than something like cognac but has the beautiful luscious cherry and cask elements you would find in a sherry cask whiskey.
So I paired these up with a microlot coffee from Colombia called San Augustin, which had a really nice medium vinous acid as well as notes of toffee and chocolate. The drink was prepared in a capped whiskey sniffer, which I then offered to the judges with the option of adding a smoked element. For the smoke, I used port cask chips, which I had soaked in PX for about 3 weeks and dried for a really sweet winey aroma.
And that’s about it, on the nose you smell vanillin and sweet Spanish wine. The drink is rich, sweet, and raisin-like, opening up to cherry and grapes with a lingering wine finish.
It’s clear that you’re passionate for spirits, and not just coffee. Is this a hobby or part of your professional work—or both? What are some of your favorite spirits and why?
For now it’s just a hobby but perhaps one day I could tie it in professionally. I’m an extremely keen fan of Scotch whiskey but also have a fond love of most spirits. Some of my favourites this year for Scotch include but are not limited to:
- Pretty much anything bottled by Adelphi or the company Maison Du Whiskey or the Scotch Malt Whisky Society
- Ichiro’s Malt—the 2015 cask strength releases, and in particular the peated bottling
- Glenturret 23yo or similar bottlings by Gordon & Macphail
- Teeling single-cask 21yo, which is probably the best Irish whiskey I’ve ever tasted.
Other than Scotch I’m a big fan of vermouth and if you’re mixing drinks, you can’t go past Cocchi. I love the complex tart tones of the americano as well as the light aromatic of their French vermouth. Also, who could turn down Antica Formula…ever. Chartreuse is a big favourite for the herbal and floral notes.
You specialize in teaching latte art, and have taught the discipline around the world. What’s the #1 tip you give people for pouring beautiful lattes?
Texture your milk correctly. A 20%-aerated volume increase is the correct amount for the perfect latte, and will greatly ease your process of learning how to make latte art.
For someone who has never seen a Coffee Masters tournament, how would you describe it?
It’s like running a triathlon but for coffee. Several categories, lots of coffee preparation and consumption. This game is so tough on the competitors both physically and mentally.
What’s the one thing about Coffee Masters you’ve enjoyed the most?
Probably getting to make my signature drink. I was worried the smoke would be a little too much for the judges. In the end, I got really good feedback for it, which was extremely satisfying.
What’s been the most challenging part of participating twice now in Coffee Masters?
Obviously, it’s hard to get up there after having maybe 20 or so coffee’s in total and have to do another round. But to keep the attention to detail up and explain everything in a clear manner is hard when you want to move fast. Also, you want to take your time and engage with the judges.
Describe that final round in your own words. The thrill of victory? The agony of decaf?
I don’t think I’ve ever thought ‘I really could go for a decaf,’ ever in my life—let’s hope that day never comes.
It was awesome to hold the trophy up. I’ve come in second a few times at other competitions, so I was still braced and ready for second if it happened. But when my name was called, it was so gratifying. It’s hard to compare it to anything else. The work in the comp itself, the distance I had to travel, I’d also just recovered from a cold as well. It all amounted to that victory. Nothing compares.
Photos by John Letoto for Sprudge.com.