This past week saw the United Kingdom Barista Competition’s newly formed Superheat, a preliminary round of competition fielding baristas from across the UK, all set in the starkly modern Millennium Point venue in Birmingham. The competition continues on this coming April at the London Coffee Festival; these are the preliminaries to determine 20 eligible baristas for the big event to come.
For a snapshot of the event, I travelled out to Birmingham for the final day of UKBC competition. Wednesday handily gave me the chance to observe three of the top scoring competitors overall, plus a touch of rumbling dramatics from the apocalyptic storms stomping on the roof above.
The morning kicked off with Has Bean’s Dale Harris, whose routine highlighted what the industry can achieve from working closely with and supporting farmers. Dale spent 7 months in regular conversation with Alejandro Martinez of Finca Argentina in El Salvador, the mutual intention being to see what would occur if they “babysat” coffee plants and analysed natural variables during growth. Together they produced a fully-washed bourbon of enviably high quality.
Dale strictly directed the experience for his judges. Speaking with Mr. Harris after his routine, he told me, “You have to own that space. They want to have an experience and they want you to guide them.” His routine was sharp and neatly performed, opening with espressos provided for reference only (not to taste), information tumbling forth while he moved on to prepare his competition espressos (for tasting) with a “higher sweetness and a honey-like body.” Next, he served a round of cappuccinos with a sweetly soft brown sugar flavour, and then finally, a signature drink mixing unrefined cane sugar syrup balanced with an emulsion of Venezuelan cacao to reinforce the chocolate note in the finish, topped off with a jelly of concentrated grape fruit juice. This won best signature drink of the day from machine sponsors Sanremo; Mr. Harris would go on to place second overall at the Superheats.
Reigning UKBC champion John Gordon (of Square Mile Coffee) is known for taking chances on stage; carefully considered chances, like last year's use of dedicated headphone soundtracks for each judge, but chances all the same. This year Mr. Gordon asked his judges to play a game of consequences with a “story book theme,” referencing his primary school years, his path travelled as a coffee professional, and “the choices we all make” in life. For the judges table he setup adapted wooden school desks, accessorized by a textbook and a Harry Potter novel. Judges rolled dice, then flipped to the relevant pages in their “adventure books” to find out the coffees. Thus each espresso, cappuccino, signature drink was chosen in the moment. A brave move, organised with Square Mile coffee dosed out in advance to drop into John’s modified Mahlkonig EK43 grinder for each drink.
First up was a washed Costa Rican espresso for toffee apple, raisin sweetness and a “super silky” mouthfeel. The cappuccino throw landed on Bolivia, a coffee roasted typically for a filter profile at Square Mile HQ. I snagged a sip after the judges had their way and it was exactly as described: a chocolate raisin flavour and a gentle shortbread sweetness. The final chapter was a signature drink inspired by a kids’ fave: cherry cola. Carbonated water, citric acid, ginger, zest and juice from cherries steeped and drained went in to provide a fruity and fizzy beverage, sucked up with a straw.
Afterwards, when asked onstage if UKBC gets any easier, John Gordon replied, “I progressively make it more difficult for myself. This platform pushes you forward.” Mr. Gordon placed joint third overall at the Superheats, tied with Darryl Docherty of Artisan Roast.
Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood of Colonna and Smalls was the top scorer at UKBC Superheats. Like Mr. Gordon, he too is a past champion, having represented the United Kingdom at the 2012 World Barista Championship in Vienna, where he finished 6th in the world.
This year, Mr. Colonna-Dashwood took up the position of teacher for his Superheat routine, replete with diagrams and a booklet. Examples of the same coffee brewed with different waters were set before judges to demonstrate the impact of differing waters and their composition. Heavy stuff, you might think, but MCD is one of many people in the coffee world whose honest wish is to get the absolute best from their product by using the most suitable water. As he told the judges: “Science in coffee can be overwhelming but at its best it is revelatory.”
For espresso service, Mr. Colonna-Dashwood pulled shots of the Yukro, a fully washed bean from the Jimma Zone, Ethiopia, roasted by Workshop Coffee. This coffee was chosen for its notes of ripe apricot and fresh American hops. For cappuccinos, MCD used another Ethiopian coffee, albeit one of a very different provenance: the Kebel Kercha, a naturally processed Ethiopian coffee from that country's Guji Zone and roasted by Has Bean. As a cappuccino it yielded flavors of blueberry, pannacotta and fudge, enhancing the drink’s inherently sweet cappuccino notes.
For his signature drink, MCD prepared separate infusions to balance against the Yukro: one hot, of oven-roasted apricots, and one cold, made with aromatic Calypso hops. He used specific water for each: one to highlight hop aromatics, the other to stifle acidity from the apricots. An EK43 grinder was used throughout this signature drink service for the purpose of consistency.
This has been a in-depth look at some of the top competitors at UKBC, but there were many more highlights. By Wednesday’s finish, an impressive number of first-timers had placed comfortably in the top 20 overall, which means they'll be moving to compete at the 2014 UK Barista Championship main event in London. New kids on the block include Imogen Ludman of 6/8 Kafe in Birmingham, an extremely confident and skilled barista of only 8 months who placed 13th, and Heidi Beeton of Prufrock Coffee in London, who made 9th.
This trend towards new blood and a healthy competition culture has been echoed at United States regionals across the pond, where impressive first-time competitors have been a dominant narrative this year. It's also worth noting that some competitors at the UKBC Superheat reached dizzying new heights by scoring above 600 points in their routines – almost unheard of in regionals.
We can't wait to see what they bring to the final in London.
Nico Halliday manages Workshop Coffee's Marylebone coffeebar. This is her first feature for Sprudge.com.
All photos by Kate Beard. Her previous work on Sprudge includes photography for features on the La Marzocco and Mazzer factories, our coverage of the 2013 Nordic Barista Cup, and this essential primer on the 2014 UKBC.