Our industry-leading UKBC coverage from Elyse Bouvier concludes with her interview of Isa Verschraegen, your 2013 UK Aeropress Champion! Ms. Verschraegen will compete at the 2013 World Aeropress Championship in Melbourne on Friday, May 24th, hosted by Five Senses Coffee and the Australian Barista Academy.
Isa Verschraegen, the 2013 UK Aeropress Champ, started working in coffee merely four years ago. In just four short years she’s competed in two Belgian Barista Competitions, started a very cool avant-garde popup café in her former home of Antwerp, completed her Q-Grade certification, moved to London to manage Talkhouse Coffee, and now, has won her first UK Aeropress Championship. Is there anything this girl can’t do?
That pop-up I mentioned in Antwerp was called Zwart – check out this Flickr for photos – which Isa ran with a fellow named Roeland Lanaerts from December of 2011 to July 2012. When Zwart concluded, Isa was looking to move on from Belgium and try her hand at working in a new coffee town. She’s now been in London for a few months and is running one of the up-and-coming cafes in the city, Talkhouse Coffee, for whom I happen to work as a barista. Does this make me a less-than-impartial reporter? Yes, of course! But mostly it just makes me proud, and I’m even more biased by the fact that Isa is my favourite fellow expat drinking buddy in lonely London Town.
I caught Isa on her day off, a few streets from her house, in a sunny corner of Tina, We Salute You, one of our favourite London cafes (and a 2010 Sprudgie Award winner). Isa had perfectly poached eggs. I ate a super tasty salted caramel cake. All was right with the world.
Since you’re the UK Aeropress champion, is the Aeropress your favourite brew method? And if so, why?
I think it probably is my favourite method just because I’ve been using it for a long time. It was the first filter method I started playing around with when I got into coffee four years ago. It’s just a bit easier and more forgiving than a pour-over, for example. For a single cup brew, Aeropress is my favourite. But I would use a Chemex for more cups when I’m brewing for more people. It just brews a good cup of coffee! Oh, and you can travel with it and it doesn’t break!
You made the move from Belgium to London a few months ago. Can you tell me what you’ve noticed about the London coffee scene? What’s your favourite part?
The easiest way to answer that is for us to go back a few months, to when I was first visiting London with the intention of moving there. I was touring around the coffee shops with a more focused approach, and I remember being disappointed. There are so many coffee places in London, but most of them are quite similar. Not a lot of them dare to go out of that box of decent espresso based drinks and filter coffee. too.
I mean, compared to Belgium, there are certainly more coffee places in London, but in terms of variety, it’s all very similar. And I think in Belgium, people try to be different more than they do here. In London, there’s a coffee place around the corner for everyone, and there’s enough people in the city to do that, to open a similar place just a few streets down and there will still be people that will go to the closest one. As an example, I live a few streets away from Tina, We Salute You and many other good cafes, but I can’t find filter coffee in any of them. They are great cafes and I like to go them, but most of them don’t make good filter coffee. That’s one thing, for me, that’s really weird, why no one offers it, because it can be really simple.
It’s the same for community. It’s so big, but there’s not much more going on. I think, in Belgium, we even did more informal cuppings. There seems to be more of a boundary here; you do things in your own café, but it’s weird to invite other cafes and other baristas in. I think, in that regard, Prufrock might be the only place that does some events that are open to the barista community of London. I hope we can add to that with Talkhouse!
What was your winning Aeropress recipe?
It was a combination of what I’ve always been doing. A simple, classic, non-inverted method, with some technique guidance by Jeff Verellen, Belgian and former World Aeropress Champ. A couple things I took from him were: picking out the beans, discarding any defects or larger beans; not pushing all the liquid through the Aeropress, by far, but leaving quite a lot in the chamber; and using really, really soft water. I used a brand of bottled water called Spa, which is what I always used to make coffee at home in Belgium. And I found it at the shop around the corner from my house here in London! Apparently the judges really liked it.
My brew parameters were 17g coffee to 265g of water, non-inverted, with a steep of about 1 min. Maybe not the most precise method, but I think it just produces a really clean cup because you don’t press through any fines or any oil at all, and I think that makes a big difference. Oh, and a cooler temp, about 83ºC.
Tell us about your competition experiences prior to your UKAC win.
I have! I competed twice in the Belgian Barista Competition. The first time, back in 2010, was only five months after I started as a barista. I saw the competitions before I started working as a barista – I really wanted to be a barista, and I wanted to do the competition, so the two things went hand in hand for me. I just went for it that first time, without a lot of support or a lot of knowledge.
Well, I came 7th and I was really unhappy with that. A lot of mistakes happened on stage, of course, because I had never done any performances whatsoever before that. But I learned a lot, so I competed again the next year, and then I came 2nd. Which was fine, I mean… obviously I wanted to win.
I went through a whole tough love/hate relationship with it, building up to the competition, but I had a lot of fun on stage the second time. Right before the competition, I promised I would never compete again, but then right after, when I came second, I was like, “oh, that was so much fun so maybe I will do that again!”
Last year it was just impossible to compete again because of Zwart and there was too much work. I wanted to do the cupping competition then, but I had to cancel last minute because we couldn’t really close our coffee shop! And then I moved to London. And this year, the only competition I could do was the Aeropress, so that’s what I did, and I won!
Last question. What are you most looking forward to in Australia? Barista babes or beach babes?
Oh god! I think I would say ‘barista babes’. By percentages I think there’s more baristas that I would like than there are beach babes I would like. It’s hard to tell! I’ve never been to Australia, I don’t know a lot of Australians, and I don’t like their accent, but if they’re really good looking, and have a beard, and could teach me how to surf, then maybe!
Can it be both?! I’m just not a beach person, that would be hard for me. I’ll go for the ‘barista babes’… but specifically the ‘bearded barista babes’!
Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Elyse Bouvier is a writer, photographer, and working barista at Talkhouse Coffee in London. Follow her on Twitter @ElyseBouvier