UK Brewers Cup

So yesterday was the UK Brewers Cup – and I think it was a great event, and irrespective of the result I am extremely glad that it happened.

Initially there wasn’t going to be a UK Brewers Cup.  With the World Brewers Cup being relatively new, countries had the option to nominate someone to compete, and the SCAE UK asked me.  I’ll be completely honest – I did want to compete in the Worlds because I really like this competition.  However, it seemed a little unfair and I thought that it would be a fun competition to put on.  I made a deal that I would go and represent if I failed to organise the UK competition myself.  Because I had wanted to compete I planned to enter into the competition – competitions have always proven to be great learning experiences and I thought this one would be especially fun.

With WBC and all that goes into it, this was perhaps a foolish proposition but I was lucky enough to be able to drag Andrew Tolley from Taylor Street Baristas and Gwilym Davies into the mix to help organise.  As this was outside of the remit of the SCAE we also had to find funding and sponsorship and I have to say thank you to Paul and all at Marco for water boilers, Ed and Steve at Mahlkoenig UK for grinders, Paul at Coffee Hit for prizes and Peter from James Gourmet for roasting the round 1 coffee.

I was delighted with the response – we filled all 20 places very quickly (more seemed a little ambitious as we planned to hold both round 1 and round 2 on the same day, at Prufrock Cafe on a Saturday.)  There was a great cross section of shops and roasters in the running, and we just needed a few judges.

Those judges ended up giving a heroic effort.  They’d judge around 25 cups of coffee over a 9 hour period.  I was impressed.  Thank you to Grant Rattray from Cup of Excellence, Lynsey from United Coffee and Joanna Lawson from Twin Trading.  (Unlike the other two, Grant isn’t a Q-Grader, but he has some substantial cupping credentials….)

The day was fun – a lot more people showed up to hang out, drink coffee and support than we hoped.  The vibe in the place was lovely, and great coffee felt oddly accessible compared to so many other coffee competitions.

I made a little video – I tried to capture everyone during the day but in between organising, competing and just running around like an idiot I maybe didn’t do the best job.  It should show everyone and the brew method they used.  We’ll try and get some recipes up on the tumblr soon.  I am annoyed I didn’t get good footage of Andrew running things, doing the scoring, organising judges and competitors and generally being awesome – thank you again for your help! He should have been in the video, so my apologies there.

So, I ended up winning.  I have to say that I would have felt awkward enough about this, even without the mixture of cheers and groans that met the announcement.  Nonetheless I am very pleased this event happened – I hope all competitors had fun.  I shall do my best in Maastricht later in the month.

A big thank you to Jess for roasting some delicious coffee, it shouldn’t have tasted that good the day after roasting!  For those who want the details I brewed a Kangunu AA lot, from Nyeri, at a ratio of 60g/l.  The method was basically a filtered french press.  (I like simple brewing).  4 minute steep time.

WBC 2011 Wrapup

It is done and dusted – the 12th World Barista Championship has a new champion, and a lot of fun was had in the process. I’m not particularly good at these wrap up style posts, because it sometimes feels that there is too much to cover. Nevertheless – I shall try!

John Gordon made everyone at SQM incredibly proud. He took completely the right approach to competition – using it as a vehicle to learn, and I think because of that attitude has come away with a huge amount from it. His coffee was delicious (credit to Jess), and it was cool for everyone in the company to be involved in some way. I’m glad I overcame the nerves to watch him in the finals – he was great. Also – his signature drink is so tasty, shockingly so for something containing grape juice, hops, lime and espresso. Balanced, complex goodness and one of the few signature drinks that I could drink several of out of choice.

Making finals these days is a great achievement, a huge achievement. Making semifinals has become a challenge – the average standard of performances these days being much, much higher. Chatting to Matt Perger backstage he made the comment that every single barista was dialling in during their practice hour with a set of scales. (Essential for the weird atmospheric conditions). Speaking to a number of judges the average espresso was significantly better than ever before too. (Not that I am saying that they are linked…..) 1

The competition itself was also pretty incredible. Not since Japan in 2007 has there been a stage like that, and never before has there been an audience that much fun, that noisy and that supportive. Those who got to perform on that stage got an experience that was truly unique. I am not disparaging Vienna next year, but I think this one is going to be tough to top, the way that Tokyo was tough to top. 2

For the finals I really enjoyed doing the commentary with Peter Giuliano on the live stream. Took a while for me to get into, but I hope it was at least a little entertaining for the folks watching online (and there were a lot more of you than I thought!). Feedback on that obviously welcome, and I think it is likely to be something that becomes increasingly common. Thoughts on that welcome, as I am obviously completely biased.

Having the WBC in a producing country was definitely a good thing. The farm tour that the baristas went on seemed extremely well received and the vibe behind the competition was great too. I’m absolutely gutted for Lina from Colombia, clearly so strong in the first round and then a tough semifinals performance that knocked her out. In fact (going back to how big an achievement making semis and finals are) if you look at who didn’t make it through you get as clear an idea of how tough it is, as if you were to just look at who did make it.

We have, without a doubt, a great champion this year. He’s lovely, genuine, passionate, talented and will make a superb ambassador for coffee. I hope producing countries in Central and South America take full advantage of a champion who understands coffee culture in a producing country, and who speaks both Spanish and English.

His performance was clearly exceptional – he was the one to watch from day one. Despite missing the first day, when I asked around a lot of people were pretty excited by what he was doing. If you haven’t seen it then you should watch it online.

On twitter afterwards I saw a number of people describe this performance as a game changer. In many ways I think that is a fair description, but perhaps I see it differently to other people.

Alejandro’s routine was a near perfect demonstration of the possible connection between a barista and origin. (It should be noted that Pete’s stellar performance was incredibly well executed along those lines too). In some ways the theoretical barrier that stopped producing countries winning has been lifted, but at the same time I think some of their advantage has gone as well. The winning performance next year cannot be along the same lines as the one this year. There must be change, there must be evolution. The card has been played to perfection, and now competitors much take a different direction. Pete picked, pulped, roasted and brewed his coffee. Hard to top. Alejandro’s signature drink contained everything the coffee tree producers, and as he performed both the producer and roaster watched from the crowd. I loved it all! I think Alejandro’s win is the start of something exciting.

I think that for the first time everyone is back to a level playing field – regardless of whether your home country produces coffee or not. I hope this means that next year we see more risk taking, more innovation and bigger ideas than ever before.

So. Best WBC ever. Seriously. An exciting year for a new champion, and I hope a lot of people went away reinvigorated about competition. 3 Congratulations to Alejandro, Federico and all at Viva Espresso (Federico is somehow even more passionate about coffee than when I first met him 5 years ago – which is saying something!), and to all who competed. (edit) Also huge congrats to Steve Leighton of HasBean for consistently roasting awesome coffee – I tasted Alejandro’s espresso backstage and it was seriously delicious. Congratulations to the WCE and Cafe de Colombia on an incredible event. I’m missing loads of stuff out, but I figure this post is long enough.

Thoughts and comments on this very welcome and there’s a flickr gallery of iphone shots here.

  1. Actually, I might be saying that they are linked.  ↩︎
  2. No matter how much chocolate is involved  ↩︎
  3. I still plan on taking next year off and having nothing whatsoever to do with any competitor!  ↩︎

Brewing Espresso at Altitude

There has long been discussion about what happens when you brew espresso somewhere at relatively high altitude. This has become, and will become even more, relevant as the WBC is taking place in Bogota this year. Bogota is the third highest capital city in the world, some 2625 metres above sea level (approx 8,600ft).

At this altitude water will boil at 91.2°C/196.2°F – below the 93.5°C/200°F that the Aurelias will be set to. What follows is mostly personal opinion 1, coupled with a possible experiment that might answer some questions.

When we’re brewing espresso the system is under pressure (9 bars mostly), rather than the much lower atmospheric pressure. One of the unique aspects of brewing under pressure is that water is able to dissolve a lot more CO2 than it usually can at atmospheric pressure. When the coffee liquid leaves the basket we see that it is unable to retain that CO2 which forms bubbles that get trapped by various surfactants as a foam: crema.

People will often remark that at altitude the coffee acts like it hasn’t had a chance to rest/degas. The espresso tends to have very large bubbles, and lacks strength – often disappearing very quickly. This is, of course, similar to brewing very fresh coffee (up to 48-96hrs post roast) at sea level.

What doesn’t make sense to me is that surely CO2 would be more likely to be drawn from the coffee bean when stored at low pressure than at higher pressure?

My guess (and it is a guess) is that the pressure change from the bottom of the basket to atmosphere is much larger than normal when brewing at altitude. I would guess that the saturation point for CO2 in water at 2625m is significantly lower than the saturation point at sea level. The liquid loses more gas, and we see this as bigger bubbles. With foams in liquid the strength is dependent on bubble size (the smaller the stronger – think good milk foam), so these larger bubbles of crema will disappear faster.

What does this mean for competitors? Here is my advice:

Bring scales. I know a lot of people don’t like it (though I don’t really understand why), but your espresso volume is going to be radically different for an identical flow rate at sea level. Know your brew recipe before you come, and before you start freaking out about how things taste, check whether you are brewing on spec. Espresso is a recipe that is based on weights and flow rates. Going by eye is tough. I’ve tried, when I was there in 2007, and it took a while before things made sense!

Pulling shots in Bogota

Another question remains – should espresso be aged longer for brewing at altitude?

This is a good question, and one I think we need to do a few experiments on. Ageing espresso will certainly reduce the amount of CO2 left in the coffee beans, but surely at the expense of some loss of pleasing aromas and the potential development of negative flavours. I’d like to run a two way experiment, but it needs participants who have access to coffee machines at different altitudes.

Take two bags of espresso from the same roasts/blending batch. Store one at sea level, store the other at high altitude. Ideally in similar temperatures. After 10 days bring both back down to sea level and observe variations in volume for a fixed weight of coffee, liquid and brew time. Based on my amateur theorising above – there should be no detectable differences, or – if anything – the coffee stored at altitude might have less crema/volume when brewed.

Then take two bags of identical espresso and store both for 10 days at sea level. Then brew one at sea level and one at altitude. Record variations in volume for fixed weight of coffee, liquid and brew time.

This way we’ll know whether the issue is ageing of brewing. I would predict that when brewed identically the high altitude espresso should be just as delicious as the low altitude one – but I am very happy to be proven wrong.

One aspect to consider is when the brewing liquid might reach boiling point. If someone is pulling very fast shots, where the brew water doesn’t lose much heat to the coffee – then I’d expect to see some issues towards the end of the shot as the exit liquid from the basket will be very close to boiling, if not boiling at high altitude. Properly brewed espressos shouldn’t (in theory) see the same problem. Anyone have video of a naked portafilter at high altitude?

Comments, thoughts, accurate science and brutal critiques of the above welcome!  Thanks to Brent Fortune for setting my brain off!

  1. Warning: Amateur Science Alert!  ↩︎

Brewers Cup Competition

Those of you who follow way to many coffee people on Twitter will probably be aware of the WCE (World Coffee Events) meeting in Dublin last week.  The WCE is a new banner organisation under which the current competitions now fall (WBC, Latte art, Cupping, Coffee in Good Spirits and Ibrik Comps).  There were a couple of new competitions announced, including the World Brewers Cup Competition.  Finally, many of us are thinking, a brewing competition!  I’m pretty excited about it, looking forward to hearing about the feedback and response from the upcoming US regionals.

I am not sure if there are plans to run it in the UK this year, if there are I will post the details.  (And probably enter too!)  If you want a quick video introduction to the competition then check out this video 1:

I’m sure it will generate some criticism for its format, but before people hate on it too much – can we at least try it first to see how it works? 2 Skepticism is fine (and to be encouraged to a point), but this is still being put together by the hard work of volunteers so if you have a better competition and are willing to give up your time then I am sure they’d be very pleased to hear from you.

I’m positive we’ll be seeing more details (rules, regs, scoresheets etc etc) coming out in the next few weeks, including information about the other competition which is the Roasting Competition!  Interesting stuff indeed!

UPDATE: Thanks to Oscar – the rules, regs and downloadables are to be found here.

UKBC Starts!

Talking of competition – the UK regionals kick off next week in the South East, which is being held on Monday and Tuesday in London.  (Details here).  Hopefully people will be coming down to hang out and support some entrants who’ve done the wise thing and made the effort to compete!  There are heats around the UK so come on out to support your friends/favourite baristas!  (I’m not judging this year, so won’t be at any of the other heats sadly.)

  1. Yes, I do seem to be in the video, but no – I had nothing to do with it  ↩︎
  2. This is not because I think the format is bad – more the reaction people often have to competition formats in general.  ↩︎

WBC Scoresheets and Transparency

Those of you following Colin Harmon’s blog – and if you don’t you should, as it’s excellent – will have noticed that Colin has uploaded his WBC scoresheets for all to see online.

While we were travelling together earlier in the month Colin, Gwilym and I chatted about uploading our scoresheets. I said that I’d upload mine if he uploaded his – and I think Gwilym is up for it too.
Continue reading “WBC Scoresheets and Transparency”

WBC Blogging

Despite the backlog of other posts I can never find the time to visit, I suspect blogging for the next week will probably be devoted to the WBC.

Having said that I don’t know that I will have time to create the kind of coverage you will see on the unofficial WBC blog over here, which is already chock full o’content.

People are arriving into town, as I type this team Japan are at the roastery plying us with delicious things.  Other barista champions are visiting or arriving later today and I hope people get a chance to enjoy both London’s coffee scene – as well as the city itself.

Having done these before I’m coming to terms with the frustrating idea that I just won’t have time to properly chat to everyone I want, that there will be a lot of half finished conversations but I am excited to see lots of people again who I haven’t seen for a while.

I’ll try and update flickr, twitter and here too!

UPDATE:  Another WBC Blog.

UBF 6 Video

I think the most exciting thing about Christmas for me has been time off.  Part of that has been having a little spare time to look through the bits of video I shot at the last UBF that Gwilym hosted at Columbia Road.  We were all a bit gutted when that morning’s snowfall turned into heavy rain.  Cold, cold, heavy rain.

The footage was shot inbetween me making coffee and trying to run things so isn’t very cohesive.  I thought I’d add a noisy, messy soundtrack and just leave it quite silly.  Thanks again to all who get involved!

UBF 6 – Let’s take it outside Santa from James Hoffmann.

Hope you all have a great Christmas.

WBC Scoresheets – a few thoughts

I am aware there is some potential for me seeming like an arrogant so and so in this post, but it really is just about having a bit of a discussion.

It is no surprise that I am a big fan of barista competitions, but having recently gone through the UK judges workshop there are a couple of things I would like to post about and get some discussion going on.  First off an issue that both Anette and I find very frustrating: Continue reading “WBC Scoresheets – a few thoughts”


Much fun was had at the UBF last night. I was pulling shots all night, but had my camera with me so shot a bit of video as we went along which I’ve cut into a fun little thing:

The challenge was head to head pour again, in UBF Branded 1 2oz espresso cups, with 16 entrants battling down to one winner (congrats Brett!). There will be a post on the UBF blog very soon, detailing the results from the night as well as photos too I hope.

  1. I should add a massive thanks to Gwilym here.  ACF offered him some custom cups as a prize for winning the WBC, so he sent them the UBF logo so now we have UBF espresso and capp cups.  The man is awesome!!  ↩︎