As we march towards the 2014 World Barista Championship, let’s take a moment to remember one of the competition year’s most astounding achievements: the clean sweep staged by Colonna & Small’s throughout the 2014 UKBC weekend. An outstanding story and a righteous coup, these upstart brewers from Bath (a solid 2 hours outside of London) achieved victory at the UK Barista Championship, UK Brewers Cup, and the UK Cup Tasters Championship, presented by the Specialty Coffee Association of the United Kingdom.
Co-owner Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood clutched the golden trophy of barista champion once more this year; it’ll be his second time heading to the WBCs, where he placed 6th in the world in 2012. Jason Gonzalez won for the second year in a row as UK Cup Tasters Champion, and while he was unable to advance at the World Cup Tasters Championship in Melbourne (an event won by Pang-Yu Liu of Taiwan), his nationals win did add a nice bit of hardware to the growing C&S trophy case. And competition newcomer Sebastian Stephenson stormed through his first ever competition by beating experienced opposition in the Brewers Cup.
Three extremely skilled baristas, one highly revered British coffee company–and no, they’re not from London. This is a testament to the ongoing work Maxwell and his team put in, producing the absolute best in speciality coffee for the people of Bath daily.
There’s a lot of intentionality behind this success story. Colonna and Smalls was founded in 2009 , and in the years since, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood has developed strong views on how to nourish speciality coffee baristas. In a series of interviews I conducted with Mr. Colonna-Dashwood and his staff, he described the barista’s role in his shop as “immersive…a place where the staff get an opportunity to indulge and develop their own passion and experience with coffee.” Sounds dreamy? It looks to be, as Jason Gonzalez explains frankly how his skills were refined: “It comes from where I work. We work with our coffees closely every day.”
Seb Stephenson started at C&S almost two years ago, from a background in coffee and hospitality. The learning curve was immense, but “just working there is good practice,” he told me. “It’s a really exciting place to be.” Mr. Stephenson’s entry to Brewers Cup was supported financially by Colonna & Small’s, as was the Cup Tasters bid by Mr. Gonzalez. This sounds like a small thing–of course a shop should sponsor their competing baristas–but inside the world of barista competitions, this seemingly obvious way of conducting business is sadly not the case. Having the support of one’s own home shop is invaluable and should not be underestimated; going all in on supporting their competitors is a large part of why Colonna & Small’s achieved success this year at home.
Amid the regular cuppings in preparation for competition, the team found a gem of a coffee roasted by Ben Presland at Tate Coffee Roasting: Finca El Mirador, sourced by Café Imports. Tasting, tasting and tasting again in an environment where it was paramount, cushioned by the knowledge of multiple brew techniques, helped guide both Mr. Stephenson and Mr. Colonna-Dashwood to victory. The fact that they won both competitions using the same coffee is simply extraordinary, and places their sweep at this year’s UK event in an even more rarified context. These things do not happen often in the world of competitive coffee–the same shop winning multiple competitions using the same coffee–and yet, it happened here.
Mr. Colonna-Dashwood has garnered notice as of late for his work with the scientific community, particularly regarding water science. Information garnered from a study on water science conducted at the University of Bath played a central role in his UKBC winning routine, and Colonna-Dashwood himself directly contributed to and participated in this research. But in our interviews, he cautioned not to get too caught up with science as the foremost concern for a coffee drinker. “The palate is one of, if not the major tool for a barista in my opinion,” Colonna-Dashwood told me. “Coffee is a flavour product, not a car engine, and the science is always driven by this.”
Following a London-centric phase in the UK coffee industry, Colonna & Small’s holds a strong position in the increasingly decentralized British coffee scene. It’s no accident that so many semi-finalists at UKBC were from companies in Scotland, or Devon, or Newcastle; it’s no fluke that Has Bean, a prominent English coffee roasting company that is located well outside of London (both geographically and culturally), continues to be a major player in the competition coffee scene not just here in the UK, but across Europe.
The team of course wants to replicate success on the world stage, and for Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood in particular, his 6th place finish at the 2012 World Barista Championship carries with it the weight of expectation. But on the home front, sweeping your country’s major coffee competitions is no small feat, and especially not here in coffee-mad Britain, home to an elite group of top flight competition baristas. You get the sense in talking to the Colonna & Small’s team that success has helped inspire them, but not necessarily in the way you might think.
“We always had goals for Colonna and Small’s and I’m proud to say we feel we have achieved them,” Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood told me. “But we also never had a five year plan. We have some projects on the horizon that are linked to Colonna and Smalls but the store itself in its guise will most likely remain a one off, somewhere we can pursue perfection in coffee.”