It’s a typical winter day in Tehran. The trees on Valiasr Street—one of the Middle East's longest streets—are enjoying a snowy dusting, while the weather outside is some degrees below freezing. But in a shopping center in uptown Tehran, a number of baristas and coffee enthusiasts have been gathering for three days, their coffee cups offering protection against the cold.
Iran is a tea-focused country; the question “tea or coffee?” has, up until recently, been an absurd one. But now, the first ever Islamic Republic Of Iran National Barista Championship (IRIBC) is hosting 36 professional baristas to compete during a three-day competition to name Iran's first representative to the World Barista Championships. Some Iranians might still consider these competitors “ghahvechi“—a term designated to people who used to make coffee in traditional tea houses and in memorial services—but these competitors approach coffee service and professionalism in a way that could hardly be called traditional.
You can consider this event in Tehran to be a huge sign of progress for Iran's coffee scene. Recently the nation was awarded certification from World Coffee Events, becoming only the second Middle Eastern nation behind the UAE to field a contestant at the World Barista Championship in Seattle this April. The process behind the certification began in September 2014, after the Iranian Barista Guild was officially authorized by WCE to hold barista championships in Iran. The IBG is a nonprofit organization that includes Cherry Street Coffee owner Ali Ghambari and his Iranian-American daughter (and 2014 US Barista Champion) Laila Ghambari as board members.
Two years ago Laila Ghambari paid a visit to her family's homeland, and met with a group of Iranian baristas while touring Tehran cafés. The idea of dispatching a contestant from Iran to the World Barista Championship was sparked in one of those meetings, where Ghambari promised the baristas to do her best to help make their dream come true. These baristas were many of the same Iranians who anxiously supported Ghambari in her US Barista Championship bids following along by video feed from Tehran. When she finally won the trophy in 2014 and embraced her father, the Iranian baristas who cheered her embraced each other, celebrating her victory from the opposite side of the hemisphere. This source of inspiration helped pave the way for Iran to join the international championship.
Back to that snowy day in Tehran, where Laila Ghambari has returned to help cheer on the first-ever contestants in the Iranian Barista Championship. Danilo Lodi, co-founder of LAB Tostadores de Cafe in Buenos Aires, is the WBC-certified head judge on hand to supervise judges' training and scoring throughout the event. The competitors have been practicing and training for months now, committed to watching hours of footage from the previous world championships, consulting with the internationally acclaimed experts in the field, and of course making hundreds of espressos and cappuccinos, searching for the perfect cup.
Various corporations in the coffee industry like Sunich, Dallacorte, Mahlkönig, d'Ancap, Motta, Miscela d'oro, Caffe River and Puly Caff have sponsored the event. The suggested brand of coffee for the championship was Miscela d'oro, but many competitors preferred to use their own coffees from specialty coffee roasters and importers around the world.
After that chilly scene in Tehran, the final rounds of the IRIBC took place this past weekend at tropical Kish Island as part of the Cafe Expo trade show. Thirteen baristas who made it to the semi-finals competed for the six finalist spots, and then for the national championship. Despite the traditional male dominance of Iranian society, this championship welcomed female participants; two of home advanced to the semi-finals. For many of the competitors, being a part of this exhilarating event itself was a thrilling sort of victory, but in the end, one competitor stood alone: Mehran Mohammad Nejad, the first-ever Iranian Barista Champion, who will go on to represent his country this year at the World Barista Championships in Seattle.
Watch this space for more on Mehran Mohammad Nejad's winning 2015 IRIBC routine.
Safa Haratian is a Tehran-based journalist and the founder of iCoff.ee, a leading Iranian coffee publication. This is his first feature for Sprudge.com.
Photos courtesy of Mani Lotfizadeh / iCoff.ee