And so it was that on the evening of April 15th, 2015, Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman attended an event in Calgary, Alberta hosted by our partners at Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters. Dubbed Cherry, the evening functioned on a wildly engaging premise:
“What if we flew up some real-live coffee cherry for folks in Calgary to taste? What if the coffee producers came along? And what if it was the same coffee that Hidenori Izaki used to win the World Barista Championship, and he came too, and performed his winning routine for the crowd?”
Seems ambitious? Good, that’s the point. Here’s an inside look at Cherry, a one-of-a-kind specialty coffee event in Calgary from Phil & Sebastian.
“Welcome to Cherry! (giggle)”. So quoth the team of greeters stationed outside the parking lot entrance to The HQ YYC, a warehouse in an up-and-coming industrial part of Calgary. I’m right on time but the event is already packed, mobbed, full of people by 7:20 PM Mountain Time, which implies a unique blend of Calgarian enthusiasm paired with polite promptness. It may also be due to some outside factors: tonight is Game One of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with the Calgary Flames back in the mix for the first time in a half-decade, and up against the hated Vancouver Canucks no less. Folks are here early; several are wearing Flames jerseys or more subtle throwback Flames t-shirts, and surely a few devil’s bargains have been struck: “We’ll go to this thing til 8:30, 8:45 at the latest, then be home for the third period.”
But the vast majority of the crowd is dressed fashionably, a mix of contemporary street styles mingling with fleece vests and zip-ups. Here’s a gentleman in brand new Kanye kicks. Here’s another gentleman with an eye patch and dreadlocks. Top buns abound. The age range varies wildly, from a high school coffee enthusiast with her big sister standing guard to multiple sets of retired couples, out for an exciting evening. Before the event begins, two little old ladies have plunked themselves down on the judges’ dais, feeling quite at home. Checking IDs at the door for this kind of event is both necessary and extremely not necessary. The only things everyone can agree upon are the giant boards of Charbar charcuterie occupying a place of reverence along the back wall.
The space is impressively enormous, that kind of warehouse gallery thing you find so readily available in cities like Calgary, where not yet has every inch of post-industrial infrastructure been claimed in the name of loftification or turned into a small-plates-shared-table-concept-bistro. The ceilings must be at least 20 feet high, bedazzled with a series of dangly glass chandeliers, framed up by an enormous industrial window grid and what feels like hectares of poured concrete underfoot.
We mingle, and then a round of introductions are made courtesy of Sebastian Sztabzyb and Phil Robertson, the Phil & Sebastian for whom Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters is named. Enormous applause is given for the evening’s featured players: World Barista Champion Hidenori Izaki, Costa Rican micromill svengali Francisco Mena of Exclusive Coffees, and Enrique Navarro Jr., the young producer wunderkind whose Monte Copey farm in Tarrazu won the 2014 Costa Rica Cup of Excellence. We’re also intro’d to Taryn Meyers of the non-profit Centre for Affordable Water And Sanitation Technology (CAWST), a Calgary-based group “that provides training and consulting to organizations that work directly with populations in developing countries who lack access to clean water and basic sanitation,” as per their website. CAWST works with more than 800 different organizations around the world, providing knowledge and skills to help people make decisions about clean water capacity. All proceeds earned from beer & wine sales, as well as the door raffle, were donated by Phil & Sebastian to CAWST.
Following introductions there is a prompt queue for coffee, with multiple cambros deployed full of washed and honey-processed coffees from Monte Copey, as well as a Panama Geisha from the Hartmann Estates (because Geisha). Chill beats bump from the team at Kinfolk DJs. These are appropriate beats, an under-respected type of beat. Then it’s Hidenori time.
This has been a whirlwind year for Hidenori Izaki, who, at just 26 years old, took home Japan’s first-ever World Barista Championship win at the 2014 tournament in Rimini, Italy. Talking to Hidenori Izaki it feels like he’s scarcely been home since then, splitting time between Tokyo and Nagano, Japan, where Maruyama Coffee, the company he represents, is based. One week it’s a consulting gig in Malaysia, the next an event series in the United States or Dubai, or an origin trip with Cafe Imports in Ecuador. World Barista Champions don’t “win a cash prize”, per se, but they do get the opportunity for global travel and consultation, and Hidenori Izaki seems particularly cut out to make the most of those opportunities.
Which is to say that Hidenori Izaki is a showman, a character, an absolute delight to watch on stage or share a beer with at a farm or talk to late at night in a rented Calgary Airbnb. Young and gregarious, fluent in several languages, there’s a contemporary edge to Hidenori Izaki that makes him so appealing as a World Champion, and has undoubtedly helped him fit in across a wide spectrum of social and business situations in the last year. He was certainly a perfect fit for an event like this one.
It sounds pretty simple: pull a barista competition routine out of its traditional context, and replicate it at a warehouse gallery event. But in practice the result was something more…subversive, is the word I’m looking for. The stage set-up looked mostly the same, with an espresso machine and grinder, a panel of judges, a prep table for signature drink concoctions. But there the similarities end. Hidenori Izaki’s stage setting was in the middle of the warehouse floor, with literally hundreds of people packed in, around, and on stairs up above him. 250+ people and you could hear a pin drop every time he spoke, delivering a replica of his WBC winning routine with perhaps a few added gestures and acknowledgements to the crowd.
As part of Sprudge’s competition coverage team, I’ve livetweeted, oh God, like thousands of individual barista competition routines over the last five years, including four consecutive WBC events, but I’ve never seen anything quite like what happened with Hidenori Izaki on this night. Removed from the controlled setting of a formal barista competition, his routine became something more like performance art. Away from the stage management and the sponsors and us sitting there on Twitter, the format itself—four espressos, four cappuccinos, four signature drinks—was liberated, made free and weird and subversive, inverted into something that felt more like punk rock.
The crowd exploded in catharsis as every course was served, then fell into a hush as Hidenori Izaki spoke, only to erupt again with the next set of drinks. The room shushed and policed itself to maintain rapt attention throughout. There was no timer, no scoresheets, and no competition, but whatever: Hidenori Izaki wins again.
If you can somehow imagine it, the best was still to come. After a few more moments of mingling, Sebastian Sztabzyb and his partner, Phil Robertson, gathered the crowd together along the room’s far wall. This is where the real mind-boggling stuff would happen tonight: a live demonstration of coffee cherry processing, happening for the very first time in Canada. “Bringing coffee cherry here is difficult,” Sztabzyb told the crowd in a masterful bit of understatement. “It’s never been done before and only in the last week and a half did I realize why.”
Bringing fruit across multiple international borders is no easy feat, and this isn’t some hearty bunch of bananas we’re talking about: coffee cherries are finicky, delicate, precious little pieces of fruit, and so proper preservation was a huge part of this story. For logistics, the team at Phil & Sebastian relied on two main actors: Francisco Mena of Exclusive Coffees in Costa Rica and FedEx Custom Critical, a division of the global parcel experts that specialize in expedited, temperature controlled shipping options. It’s the same service one might use to, say, ship a live human heart to a transplant candidate on the other side of the planet. As Sztabzyb quipped, “This isn’t saving anyone’s life tonight, but at least it’s making a few people’s day.”
The cherry we’re looking at now in Calgary was picked 48 hours prior in Tarrazu, Costa Rica by Enrique Navarro Jr. Before it could ship, a veritable ton of paperwork had to be navigated by Francisco Mena, including multiple sanitary receipts, inspection sign-offs, and travel certificates. “The odds were that this cherry wouldn’t arrive,” Sztabzyb told the crowd. “When it did, I started screaming, I couldn’t control myself.” With several pounds of cherry before us, Mena and Navarro set about giving a brief demonstration of how coffee is depulped, as the crowd looked on.
Coffee depulping isn’t a particularly sexy activity. It’s pretty mundane, actually, and is just a normal kind of daily task for coffee producers like Navarro. But now it’s 9pm and I’m listening to cheers and applause for depulping in a warehouse in Calgary. Watching members of the crowd feed cherry through a little wooden depulper, the whole activity becomes normalized, demystified, and better understood by a room full of people for whom the process of turning fruit into roasted product heretofore seemed more like a dark art. Depulping a bag of coffee cherries is a very normal thing for Mena and Navarro and other producers around the world. It’s only not normal for us, the crowd, the Northern Hemispherians who are perhaps a bit too used to products magically appearing at the ready for our consumption.
Local baristas line up for a chance to use the depulper, and to taste a ripe, fresh coffee cherry, many for the first time. I am standing next to an ad hoc “African raised bed”, where the freshly processed seeds will be placed to dry above whirring fans. Next to me someone leans in: “Could you grab me a coffee cherry? I want to taste!” It’s like asking me to pass them a Coke or something, no big deal. I pass a cherry over, and try one myself. Sweet, piquant, utterly singular…like that artificial banana flavor you get in “Runts” candy, but not artificial tasting at all. Going to a party and putting stuff in your mouth is a very normal thing, but this is not a normal party or a normal snack.
At the end, there’s like 30 of us left, and Hidenori Izaki is still working for the crowd, making drinks and cappuccinos and posing for photographs like a pro. I sit down at the judges’ dais—something I’ve never actually done before, come to think of it—and everyone’s passing around signature drinks, shared with a “thank you” and a “sorry” (because Canada). Hidenori Izaki’s signature drink is delicious, of course, a blend of espresso with apple syrup and Japanese peach nectar. The mallic apple acidity bites into a sweet fruit note from the peach, mellowing to cocoa in the finish from the coffee.
Then a few moments later we’re passing around coffee cherries, as one does in Western Canada now, apparently, and because it’s late enough and folks have had a Toolshed Brewing IPA or three, I start getting questions about Sprudge (yes, that is how you pronounce it) and my time in Calgary (great so far!) and if I care about hockey (sure, of course). And because maybe I’ve had an IPA or two myself, I lose quote attribution in my notes, but some nice Calgarian at some point tells me:
“People in Calgary are just really nice. That’s what this city is about. So if you’re going to write about it, I think you should mention that.”
Later, another nice Calgarian asks if they’ll be reading about Cherry on Sprudge. I answer in the affirmative, because yes, that’s my job sometimes, somehow, to go to stuff and write about it; but internally the question makes me feel something, because really in fact actually yes, you will be reading about this event on Sprudge, with my name on it, because I am here and present in this moment, and grateful for it.
All in all a pretty dang good night in Calgary. Oh, and the Flames won, 2-1.
Photos courtesy of Blair Inkster and Blair Marie Photography with many thanks.