The Coffee Masters—a coffee tournament unlike any other—just completed its inaugural run at the 2015 London Coffee Festival. It was my pleasure to not just attend the event as a journalist, but to actively take part in helping present the contest to the audience as one of the show’s MCs, giving me a front row seat to a new contest being born. Sprudge didn’t create this event—Coffee Masters was developed by Allegra Events in partnership with Rob Dunne and Vic Frankowski of London’s DunneFrankowksi coffee consultancy—but we were brought in on the ground floor to take part in its first public exhibition. It’s my privilege to tell you about it now, but this won’t be the last time you hear us talking about it. This tournament makes me feel inspired and hopeful for what’s coming next in the world of coffee sports.
Wildly multidisciplinary and honestly, no-nonsensely fun, the Coffee Masters format is equal parts game show and parlour game, taking essential elements of the coffee professional’s tool kit and gussying them up into a spectator sport. Tasks like brewing, cupping, latte art and high-speed drink production are put under the big lights, governed by a ticking time clock and a ruling sovereign of judges. Some truly esoteric tasks were demanded of the competitors, such as creating a signature espresso blend using a set menu of coffees, or crafting a show-stopping signature drink (with booze most definitely allowed, indeed encouraged). All of it was tarted up for the cameras and packed crowd of London Coffee Festival goers, some 25,000 in total over the long weekend.
The winner earned £5000 pounds (close to $8000 USD), the single largest cash prize of any reputable coffee tournament in the world; Sprudge readers may be surprised to learn, by point of comparison, that there is no cash prize for winning the World Barista Championship. Entry into the Coffee Masters tournament was free, and based on a video submission selection process featuring competitors hailing from around the world. This too is uncommon, as most coffee competitions require an entry fee and filter only by volume.
Some elements of the competition took familiar coffee sports tropes—cupping battles, latte art jams—and flipped them on their heads. For the cupping portion, competitors had to cup a slate of coffees ordered 1-6, and make mental notes on each cup and the order in which it appeared. They were then sent outside and made to wait while the event crew jumbled up the cups, before being brought back in (“Bring me back my girls!“) and asked to place their cups in the original running order. No easy feat.
For the latte art portion, a randomizer was in play, in the form of an elegant lazer-cut latte art dice. Roll the dice and a pour is displayed; you’ve then got just 3 minutes to present your pour to the judges.
Brewing challenges took 20 minutes, and involved intense discussion with the judging panel (more on them in a moment). In all, competitors were on stage for an average of one hour per round, a grueling slog that tested a variety of individual skills, from cupping to lattes to signature drinks. Original video content was created to help give the event a current, multimedia feel. Crowds packed in for each round, with many in the audience staying for multiple rounds in a single day. Cheering sections came from around the world.
Vic Frankowski, one of the competition’s architects, shared with me that his vision for the tournament was something like the darts competitions televised in the UK. Full of jokes and audience banter, lively commentary and piss-takes, but ultimately elevating a skill set that might look easy into a place of deserved reverence and respect. Laughs came easy throughout the Coffee Masters, and I was often laughing myself, playing something of an Ed McMahon sidekick MC role to Frankowski’s ringmaster Johnny Carson.
But it’s not a joke, this tournament, and to that end, one of the real master strokes of the Coffee Masters launch was in its pool of judges. It was my pleasure to interact all weekend with a judging corps that included World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies, Koppi co-founder Anne Lunnell, Square Mile Coffee co-founder Anette Moldvaer, St. Ali Family don Salvatore Malatesta, and Taylor Street Baristas co-founder Andrew Tolley. It was a pleasure to watch them work through the event weekend, actively making the tournament better with their input and feedback.
I was similarly in awe of the competitors, a group featuring multiple national barista champions and some of Europe & Asia’s most forward-thinking coffee professionals. Matt Perger and Craig Simon are both huge names in Australian competitive coffee, and both have made WBC Finals Sunday appearances; they were part of this event. Patrik Rolf Karlsson’s Five Elephant Coffee in Berlin is one of Europe’s best cafe / roasteries, and he was here as well. Pete Garcia of Square Mile Coffee and James Bailey of Workshop Coffee helped represent London brands, with Bailey ultimately taking home the £5000 prize (in-depth feature coming soon!) and an all-expenses paid trip to the Faema factory in Milan.
The vibe on stage shifted throughout the weekend from intense competition to giggly chats, with an outright shindig atmosphere emerging by the final round on Sunday. Competitors frequently took time following their routines to make drinks for the crowd; I was given free interview access to Gwilym Davies, Anette Moldvaer, Andrew Tolley, Sal Malatesta and Anne Lunnell for an entire weekend. It was coffee journalist heaven.
What a pleasure, then, to be a part of a new coffee tournament, something so openly disruptive and ambitious, and yet entirely unafraid to have fun and not take itself too seriously. This won’t be the last time you hear about the Coffee Masters on Sprudge, nor will the event only ever take place in London. Call it a successful pilot and a damn good time, and rest assured, this first Coffee Masters event is merely prologue for what comes next. Stay tuned.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge.com. Read more JM on Sprudge.
Photos by Gary Handley for Coffee Masters & Allegra, used with permission.