Kalle Freese, founder of the now-shuttered Freese Coffee and steward of the Freese Coffee at Forum pop-up in Helsinki, won the 2015 Finnish Barista Championship held during the first annual Helsinki Coffee Festival this March. Freese stood down eight other talented Finnish baristas to take the first place prize on the final day of competition, reassuming a national title he won in 2013.
For Freese, this championship was not about the win itself, but rather, a show of participation within Helskini's tightly knit coffee community. “We’re not really seeing each other as competitors,” says Freese, “It’s not like [we're] battling for customers.” (Indeed, Freese closed his eponymous cafe permanently this winter.) This community spirit was obvious throughout the competition, with all performers seeing densely packed crowds. Additionally, there were rockstar-like receptions for both Freese and eventual runner-up Ia Hyttinen from Kaffa Roastery when each approached the stage for their performances. Freese fed on this energy from the crowd and his peers to deliver a stunning show.
For the entrepreneur-barista, the Finnish Barista Championship was about delivering the message of better coffee. It's a message—and a hashtag—Freese has delivered many times before, as an alternative to the potentially alienating title of “specialty” coffee. The idea of #forbettercoffee is what Freese wants to take to the inveterate speciality coffee industry: that there’s more to good coffee than industry terminology and adventurous tastes, and that there is room to accommodate many.
Freese used a Bolivian Caturra sourced from David Vilca’s farm grown at 1,600 meters. His cappuccino was designed to reflect tastes of liquorice and butterscotch, but was most importantly meant to be comforting. Freese's signature drink bridged the intensity gap between cappuccinos and espresso by utilizing a rhubarb infusion for positive acidity, homegrown honey and hot water, homemade non-alcoholic bitters to round out the profile and add complexity, and finally, to add a soothing mouthfeel, a dark chocolate walnut oil. Finally, it was time for the adventurous espresso, full of bright orange acidity, dark chocolate sweetness and a pleasant walnut bitterness.
The competition for this week's World Barista Championship is going to be tight, as Freese will have had only ten days to practice. But luckily, the dream of better coffee doesn’t begin and end with one man, as Freese willingly admits.
“There’s no way I could’ve done this without [2014 Irish Barista Champion] Pete [Williams]”, said Freese of his friend and competition coach. Williams and Freese spent their weeks leading up to the challenge locked in Freese’s grandmother’s flat in downtown Helsinki, perfecting his performance with up to five practice runs every two hours. Their efforts obviously paid off for nationals; Williams cancelled his return flights to Dublin and they’ve been concentrating on the World’s stage since.
Freese will keep his focus on what he sees as the biggest issue facing speciality coffee right now: how the industry communicates with its customers. He’s hoping that the world stage will provide him with the platform to deliver this message and convince his peers that it’s a vital step for the success of good coffee. It’s ambitious, but thus far, well-executed. And as Freese says, “When you have the prerequisites for better coffee, other good stuff comes through as well.” We’re excited to see what other good stuff Freese will serve up this weekend in Seattle.