Here's Ewan Osprey-Allen to tell us about his 2014 UKBC experience - find Ewan on Twitter @GlasgowBarista As some of you may have noticed on Brew Lab's Twitter and Facebook feeds, I’ve been competing in this year's UK Barista Championship. It has been months of hard work, late nights and practice sessions to hardened groups of friends who have been "judging" my presentations. After the initial heat in Birmingham in January, I made it through to the semi-final at the London Coffee Festival in early April. The UK has one of the best coffee competition cultures in the world, so the standards were very high. In the end I finished tenth in the UK and second in Scotland.
The competition takes the format of a fifteen minute presentation. Each competitor serves four judges an espresso, cappuccino and a "Signature Beverage" which is a non-alcoholic cocktail designed to enhance the flavour of the espresso. You are judged on a variety of factors ranging from your presentation skills to your tidiness, cleanliness and the taste of your coffee. Your coffee needs to taste exactly the way you have described it. My coffee tasted of malt, toffee and Reese's peanut butter cups. In theory, you don't need to serve something tasty - if your espresso tastes of rotten eggs and battery acid and you describe that flavour accurately, you will do very well!
When it comes to the sensory side of things, the judges are looking to score the competitors on three categories - taste, flavour and tactile. Taste and flavour are quite different things and so the challenge is to be able to differentiate between those and communicate them appropriately in order to maximise points. Taste is the balance between sweetness, acidity and bitterness. My coffee had a caramel sweetness, a slight cocoa powder bitterness and a tangerine and green grape acidity. As previously mentioned, it had toffee, peanut butter cup and malt flavours. Nearly half of your points are scored in tactile. There are a lot of words bandied around to help make tactile descriptions easier, words like smooth and round. I looked back on previous year’s winners for an example of what descriptors have been used in the past. James Hoffmann, who won the World Championship in 2007, described his espresso as feeling like hot buttered toast with plum jam. That seemed a bit far-fetched to me but I spoke to one of the judges who sat during his presentation and he said it felt exactly like that! My tactile descriptions were that it coated your teeth like olive oil, was light like and Aero bar and stuck to the roof of your mouth like peanut butter. In both rounds I scored well on tactile so it must have worked!
Finding a good competition coffee is hard. It needs to have some clear flavours but it also needs to be flexible. What I mean by this is that it should taste of your descriptions if you serve it with a slight change in any given variable. For example, if you want to serve an espresso that extracted in 25 seconds but on the day you accidentally serve one that took a little longer (trust me - it is hard to focus on every little detail on the day!) your coffee should be able to deal with that slight adjustment in recipe. I tasted a lot of samples that our main roasters - Has Bean - sent us at Brew Lab. I settled on a coffee from a farm in Bolivia called Canton Uyunese. It was of the Typica variety so was bound to be very sweet. It had at least three clear flavours and tasted wonderful with milk. I’m not much of a milk drinker but I found myself finishing the Cappuccino every time I tasted it!
The next challenge was coming up with a signature drink. I wanted to focus on the coffee's acidity for my drink - it was complex but very soft. My plan was to exaggerate what acids I tasted in the cup and so I diluted 0.33g malic, 0.33g tannic and 0.1g citric acid in water and then a few teaspoonfuls of a sweet liquid malt extract in order to firstly balance the acid out, but also to serve as a nod to the sweetness of the Typica variety. I poured a dash of that solution onto the coffee and served it in a small whisky snifter that I got ahold of at Highland Park in Orkney (as well as coffee, whisky is a weakness of mine!).
As for the presentation - it is normally my strong suit and I scored very well at this in the first round. For whatever reason, I let the pressure get to me a little for the semi-final and I was a bit nervous. Normally I can bluff my way through it but my shaky hands gave the game away to the judges! It’s very hard to stay focused with cameras, a big crowd and very hot stage lights and in the end, I gave a presentation that felt a little under par.
My goal at the start of the process was to reach the semi-finals, which I managed to do. My revised goal for the next round was to reach the final, which sadly I didn’t quite manage on the day. Tenth in the UK is still a good effort and I’m very happy to have been able to represent Brew Lab and Scotland in such a good light. The eventual winner was Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood from Colonna and Smalls in Bath. He is one of the most passionate baristas I have ever met and an ideal representative for the UK coffee community when he goes to the World Championships in Rimini later this year.
Photos and video from the semi-final will go up online in the near future and I will post them on my Twitter feed when they do.