(This is a very very long post, and seems to be all about me, so I apologise in advance) First of all, I’d like to say thanks for all the kind words people have left in the comments, texts and voice-mails from Vancouver. It was lovely to wake up this morning and read through them as I assimilated the events of the last few days and indeed weeks. It seems so long ago now when I decided I’d enter this year, and though I did say it here in November, I remember making the decision back in Tokyo.
Working with James and Anette in preparation for the UKBC and subsequently Tokyo gave me a sense of what competition could be; something different to the template performances often seen. I never felt there was enough room for variety in the comp format and whilst always believing it was a great thing for promoting quality coffee, I had more or less figured it wasn’t something I needed to get into. Needless to say Tokyo changed that perception.
Watching how James managed innovation in unlikely areas and managed to tick the boxes without conforming, made me take a second look at the whole thing and find new enjoyment in it. To clarify, the standard of the competitors in Tokyo was outstanding, and it was clear just how much work and effort went into so many of the performances. I’d never suggest otherwise. My point is more that before working with James and seeing him perform, I didn’t think it was possibly to bring something new or truly fresh to such a rigid format.
So following Tokyo, I had the opportunity to judges the Canadian Finals in Toronto. This kind of terrified and further inspired me at the same time. Watching Mike Yung deliver such a polished, controlled and indeed tasty performance made me realise again how much work competing would require. Yet at the same time, I remember loving the simplicity of some drinks, especially Nick Brown’s cookie macchiato. But more importantly, judging gave great insight on what sort of things judges respond to in a competitor, both in a positive and negative sense.
Around this same time I was helping a friend develop a routine for competition that due to work commitments and an untimely cold, he never got to see through. This was the first time I heard about the idea of malt being used in a signature drink. I won’t give too much details about it, but it involved an infusion of crystal malt, an incredibly aromatic and caramel like grain that worked wonderfully with coffee. It appealed to me immediately as I’ve never liked the idea of using flavours too crazy for signature drinks, and malt was a character I’ve often found in cupping. By this time I was also involved in Square Mile and hoped to use our coffee in the Irish but with travel commitments and the roastery location proving a little elusive in those early days, I looked to other avenues for some great coffee; I looked north in a sort of nordic way.
The second I thought of using Coffee Collective’s coffee, the more obvious an idea it seemed. I knew the guys already, particularly Klaus, and James had great things to say about their espresso blend, so without even tasting the stuff, I rang Klaus and asked would he help me out. At first he swore loudly and hung up the phone, but when I rang back a few moments later, he seemed keen and what followed was a giddy 20 minutes of how we’d discuss the logistics of getting it to me and providing me with green samples, and separate bags of the blend. It was a few weeks later when I finally got to taste the coffee off our synesso in the roastery, and was thrilled to find it so tasty. If you recall, I’m a little bit of a sceptic when it comes to espresso, as usually its rubbish. I had said that I’d only truly enjoyed around 7 shots. Well since playing around extensively with Coffee Collective’s House Blend, I can honestly say I’ve had around 15 more beautiful shots. I never thought so much acidity could be articulated in an espresso without ever being sour or too snappy. It was clean, it was round, and practice became less tormenting every time I’d grind a shot and smell the tropical fruit from the adado. I don’t think any other coffee would have worked so well for me or helped win it for me.
I was working on a few different ideas for the signature drink over Christmas, one I won’t mention yet as I’m hoping to go back to it for the Worlds and another with oats which just wasn’t working. I remembered the malt idea and approached my friend to see if it was ok to use it. He had no problem with it, but when I finally found someone who could provide me with the stuff, (seems there are feck all breweries in Dublin that answer the phone, and despite one of the biggest malt suppliers in the World, none of the big companies seemed keen on sending a couple of hundred grams of malt to some guy in a coffee competition), I ended up using a different type of grain, chocolate malt. I forget where, but I read this was used in making Guinness and when I started playing with it, we found it infused faster than the crystal malt and gave good body and aromatics which enhanced the warmer, toastier notes in the coffee and complimented the fruit from the yirgacheffe.Further inspiration came from a tiny cafe in New York called Abraco. Some of you will already know of this place, as a certain Dan Griffin used to work there before he got all big and famous with el beit. Well, besides the tasty bites, and charming interior, the thing that stuck with me at Abraco was the almond milk cortado. Jenny ordered one as Dan explained what it was. It was nice to see Jamie the owner pour art with it, and the taste and texture sorta stuck in my mind.
So by the end of January, I had a number of things sorted, I knew what coffee I was using, had two interesting ingredients to design a signature drink around, had sourced cups and stuff, and despite a few small bits, had decided to use most of James’ WBC table settings (more out a money saving motive than an attempt to standardise Square Mile Competition gear). I spent many hours looking at what grinder would work best, but two weeks before the competition, I realised I’d gotten very used to James’ WBC Spec Compak k 10, and really couldn’t fault it. I really enjoy it, its fast and the dosing action is lovely, though perhaps not as clean as the anfims if I remember correctly.February was a busy month with some work in Spain and then a busy week at Hotelympia where I gave some talks and we hosted a party for the competitors for the UKBC at our roastery. Immeaditely after that, I got stuck into full time practice for the competition. It was around this time that I asked Tim Styles to come on board and be my coach for the competition. This would turn out to be a master stroke as I have doubt that without his help I would have not been successful. It was interesting too as Tim had very little experience in competition, so James and I were able to tell him how he should criticise me, what he should look for, and every trick we knew about competition. James and Anette’s schedule was such that they couldn’t help me prepare as much as we’d have liked but the few hours I did spend with them proved priceless, especially one day in particular with me getting defensive and snappy with James about the very same things I gave him crap for in training for Tokyo.
Tim has become a great friend, his tireless support and quick understanding of what I needed from him were a key part in my good fortune in the competition. The other rock in all this was of course Jenny. I’m not sure if I can ever repay her for all the weekends and mornings abroad shes given up for coffee, or more importantly my romance with it. She is selflessness defined and I’d be lost without her. Thank you hun, for letting me do what I want to do and always supporting me.
I’ve already posted about the semis, so I guess I’ll just tell you how I made the sig drink and how the finals went. I start off the performance by making the almond milk on the judges table, basically hot water and almonds, left to steep in an ibrik (ibrik not essential just a nice touch I thought). After serving the capps, I brewed 4 espressos which went into a cream whipper. Next step was straining the almond milk; I did this through some muslin into a chemex, but not before adding 7 grams of the chocolate malt, and 6 grams of soft brown sugar. Once strained, I removed the muslin, and poured the infusion in with the espressos and charged her up. The more I think about it the more I feel a foam was a boring idea, but it did fuse the flavours together and it did taste good, which I’ve always felt should rate higher. I have no problem with accusations of simplicity if it was tasty and balanced. That said, I hope to use elements of this drink for the WBC and accept it needs to be ‘more’ in lots of ways. OK, still with me? The finals went a lot better for me, I felt more relaxed, and felt my prep went a lot better than the day before. I didn’t get to see to much of the other competitors as James said it was a bad idea, and I was more concerned with double checking my equipment off three different lists for the third time.
So again, I apologise if this seems a little self centered but I didn’t see enough of anyone else to really comment. Oh but again, Fan from Insomnia was so lovely and charming,(from what I could hear on the intercom at least) and clearly competition savvy that it was no surprise he came such a close 2nd place.My performance started off well till about 40 seconds in when the lid of the eva solo I was pouring water from fell into the first judges water glass. Now not only did I not have a glass for the head judge, I also didn’t have any spares. Panic set in for a moment, I thought of the points I’d lose for each drink I’d serve her without accompanying water so i just grabbed the glass, served the other judges, told her I’d look after her in a moment, poured it into the drip tray, and brought it back clean with the espressos and topped it up. I didn’t like how I disposed of the water but I hadn’t much choice and I think the judges liked how my routine wasn’t thrown wayward by the accident.My shots were a little fast all day, but I think the blend handles that ok. I knew it didn’t like being pulled anyway tight which was what happened in the finals so I was quite happy to have an average shot time of 23, but not happy that I cut my second capp shots at 19. I found it very difficult adjusting to the fb70s after weeks of training off the synesso with the slower flow rate. I hated that moment where I’d engage the pump and rush to get the cups under in time, as opposed to the relaxed wipe of the drip tray I’d rehearsed.The delay with the water glass seemed to stick with me right till the end where I was pouring the last sig drink on the table with 10 seconds to go.I remember feeling good about it afterwards but at the same time I was convinced the tech judges noticed how the strength of my settling knock of the pf changed throughout.
Silly suspicions like that plagued my mind right up until they announced the winner.I am honored to have the opportunity to represent my country in three different competitions. It wasn’t the goal to win all three, and I’m slightly daunted by the prospect especially as I hear some will be on the same day. Again, and I’m sorry to labour this point, but if it wasn’t for the coffee, the ideas I picked up from friends and cafes, the training with and from James and Anette, the support of friends and family, the experience of Tokyo, watching so many great baristas, Tim Styles and my girlfriend Jen, I wouldn’t even have competed never mind win. Thank you so much.