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The international specialty coffee competition season is on in full force, with national champions being declared in far-flung countries all around the world. A few short weeks ago Canada – a country with a robust specialty coffee culture and proud competition history – crowned their national champion for the 2014 season, a Mr. Benjamin Put, representing Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters in Calgary. He’ll compete next at the 2014 World Barista Championship in Rimini. caught up with Mr. Put digitally for the following candid interview. Look for more Sprudge interviews with national champions leading up to WBC 2014.  

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Ben Put, how long have you been putting time in at Phil & Sebastian?

I’ve been with Phil and Sebastian for almost 6 years. I started as a barista and I now split my time between cafe work, training, and espresso roasting.

Can you tell us a little bit about how Phil & Sebastian distinguishes itself as a company? When did P&S start? How many locations do you have?

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I think that the thing that distinguishes P&S is a desire to understand and improve every step in the coffee chain, from origin to brewing. Phil Robertson and Sebastian Sztabzyb are both engineers by trade and they have applied that analytical mindset to coffee. They always have a number of experiments on the go. Some recent examples are fermentation experiments in Guatemala, probe placement experiments on the roaster, and a whack load of brew method tests. All of this makes P&S a very exciting company to work for. Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters opened their first cafe in a farmers’ market in Calgary in 2007. Since then they have opened 2 full size cafes and a roasterie, with a third cafe opening at the end of November.

You’ve competed a number of times and placed second last year nationally – can you tell us your secret to putting this routine 100 points above and beyond the others you competed against? Was it the coffee? The signature beverage? The practice you put in?

There are many factors that contributed to my score:

I have placed second in Canada three times in a row. Losing this many times has taught me that you have to be mindful of every single point on the score sheet because those few points could be the difference between first and second. Losing this many times also means I have competed a lot. This was my 14th barista competition and being able to draw on the experiences of past competitions was extremely helpful.

This year I tried to break down and analyze every course I served to find out if I could serve it differently or better. I ended up serving my espressos differently than I normally do, pouring new (to me) latte art for my cappuccinos, and creating a signature drink that had a concept behind it and tasted pretty good (I find that most signature drinks only hit one of these targets).

I had a great coffee this year. I used a Grade 1, ECX lot from the village of Gedeb in Worka, Ethiopia. As with many ECX lots, it is hard to get much specific information about the coffee, but once I tasted it I knew that I wanted to compete with it. It is one of those special coffees that tastes good at a variety of ratios and temperatures.

I also had an incredible group of people coaching and helping me. I had last year’s champ, Jeremy Ho as my coach and a great team of people helping me at every stage along the way. If you want to do well in competitions, you cannot be the only one invested.

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How will you prepare for Rimini? Will you be putting any extra time in sourcing new coffees?

Because our National competition occurs so early in the year I have a good amount of time to prepare. I’m going to analyze my current presentation to see if I can modify and improve it to make it WBC caliber, but I am also going to explore some other presentation ideas. Canada has several high level judges and seasoned competitors and I fully intend on utilizing their wealth of knowledge and experience as a prepare for competition. While I might take a trip to origin, I don’t think that I will source my coffee personally. Phil and Sebastian have a green buyer, Justin Eyford, who knows much more about cupping and buying than I do and I am going to leave it to the professional.

Put yourself in our shoes – what would you ask Ben Put?

As a home-schooled celiac this is definitely the coolest thing I’ve ever done.

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Photos in this feature are courtesy of Reg Barber. Many more photos from the Canadian Barista Championship are available here.

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