Our London correspondent Elyse Bouvier continues her 2013 United Kingdom Barista Championship coverage with this in-depth look at John Gordon, your 2013 UKBC Champ!
John Gordon is your new 2013 United Kingdom Barista Champion! This is John's third UKBC win, and yet only his 4th time competing nationally. That makes him 3 for 4 – I’d say those are pretty good odds. I spent a glorious few days watching the best-of-the-best perform at this year’s UKBC, and was overwhelmed by the skill and professionalism on display, but it was no surprise that John Gordon's passion, dedication, and experience stood out from the rest. John is meticulous, knowledgeable, confident, and creative and stage, and his presentation reflected that.
The first thing I noticed about John’s setup this year was the electronic kit on stage with him. In fact, his entire set up, from his slick denim apron to the colour coordinated cups, was just so effortlessly cool. (There’s perhaps a bit of magic in that beard of his, too.) With an opening stage setting that included multi-coloured test tubes and a bell jar cauldron simmering in his staging area, John did a great job creating a certain air of mystery and suspense. It felt a little like walking into Frankenstein’s laboratory.
“DJ Gordon” started by explaining that “today is about creating a complete sensory experience using not just coffee but the full range of our senses.” All the judges were instructed to wear headphones throughout the entire presentation. During evaluation, there was no music playing so they could focus completely on the coffee. Between drinks, the judges heard classical music – chosen for specific emotional reactions.
When I asked John about the concept, he explained that it started out “more about depriving than enhancing the senses.” Having the judges wearing headphones, he told me, was intended to minimize the harmful effects of distraction. With the understanding that barista competitions are inherently not a spectator sport, John's routine was explicitly meant for the judges, and not the audience. Even watching from the press pit, I know I did not get the full experience.
John Gordon competed and won the UKBC using Square Mile‘s roast of a Colombian coffee from the Huila region, La Serrania. It’s a blend of Caturra and Colombian varietals grown at 1800masl. John started off by explaining to the judges how, after we are born, we first develop a preference for sweetness, then a recognition of bitterness, and finally, an acceptance of sourness and acidity. Each round of drinks highlighted this biological progression through the characteristics of the coffee in taste, sound, and colour. I personally thought this was really cool…and it also kind of made me wish I studied a little harder for biology class.
John Gordon colour-coated each course he served to the judges. In red cups, his espresso was all about sweetness; in grey cups, his cappuccinos represented bitternes and complexity, notes not usually found in your average capp; and finally, his signature drink was presented with green boards to highlight acidity. John’s signature drink was layered, and included sweetness from peach and vanilla, bitterness from 100% Peruvian cacao, a concentrated aroma of raspberries, and of course, espresso. John had his judges smell the raspberry aroma before adding the espresso into the port sipper and tasting the complete drink.
Talking with John after the competition, I was not only impressed with the amount of care and thought and detail that went into his final presentation – the idea first came to him back in 2011 at a WBC judges calibration session – but also his genuine curiosity towards how things work and how we understand the intersection of coffee and taste. In my interview with him after his victory, John told me a story from his 8th birthday, wherein his mum gave him a toy robot and within hours, he'd taken it apart to try and understand how it works. In his own words, John told me he likes “seeing problems and finding new ways to fix them.”
John went on to say that he's “really looking toward to the future of how we evaluate coffee, and not how it’s been done in the past.” I asked him how he felt competing this time versus years past, and he confessed how nervous he'd been. “This is the first year I really wanted to win,” he told me. The concept behind his 15 minutes on stage was no walk in the park; “I felt there’s a fear it could be misread,” he told me, and I believed him.
But you can believe this: John Gordon's UKBC winning performance was a stroke of mad genius. Complex and challenging, and still beguiling days later as I consider what I've witnessed. This was a really special routine, and I’m not the only one to think so. John Gordon is headed back to the world's biggest stage, to once again compete on behalf of the United Kingdom. Congrats, John, and behalf of my fellow UK baristas, we’re all so excited to see how your competition concept progresses in Melbourne. I, for one, cannot wait to watch this routine again.
Original photography by Elyse Bouvier for Sprudge.com.