UK barista championships – best yet?

UKBC 2014 Maxwell Colonna Dashwood, winner, at TV studios for interview - pic by BBC

Champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood waiting for a TV interview

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The latest series of the UK barista awards has been completed, and a national champ has been crowned – it is Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood of Colonna and Small’s in Bath, who won the title two years ago, and who will now go on to compete for the UK in the world finals.  However, the more fascinating aspects of this year’s contest are the lessons which have been learned and the achievements which have been made – which include such eyebrow-raising matters as a complete lack of any complaints about the judging.

This year’s contest was the one which nearly did not happen. The organisation of the UKBC had been left in disarray, until the roaster Steve Leighton of Has Bean in Stafford very unwillingly stepped in to mastermind a recovery.  This involved the quite radical idea of abandoning the old idea of regional heats, in favour of one week-long ‘superheat’ in the midlands which fed twenty semi-finalists into the weekend final in London in early April.

It all worked – and indeed, the crowds at the final were evidence that it did so.

“This has been the toughest five days of my life – it is a crazy, ridiculous voluntary role to take on, but I knew that when I started.  In the end, everybody was positive. but it all worked out OK,” Steve Leighton told us after the event, before going on to detail the areas in which the contest had become a success.

“Front-of-house, it was all wonderful. Back of house, there were some problems to resolve, which was draining.

“The thing that made me most proud was – the judges made the right decision, a correct decision, and everybody knew it. The judging was absolutely impeccable. Not one competitor has said anything against the judges… and that’s an achievement to be proud of!”

This may sound an odd thing to claim as an achievement, but as in many contests, in many fields of sport and business, the standard of barista contest judging has long come in for criticism. There have been allegations of favouritism, of nods and winks between judges and entrants, and inconsistencies in scoring.

This year, said Leighton firmly, the judging was clearly of a high and consistent standard, which all entrants observed and respected.

“And several of the judges didn’t even claim their expenses. Why?  Because they knew our financial situation, but also because they enjoyed being a part of what we all did.”

The standard of this year’s finals was extremely high, although overall the number of entrants nationally was down, probably because of the concept of the ‘superheat’ and the delay in getting the contest organised and under way.

“As I had expected, the quality of entrant was good, and five of the top six would have made the semi-finals at world level, it was that good,” Leighton told us. “We may have lost out on some of the new blood this year, but we can address that.”

One of the most notable performances was the appearance of a contract caterer barista in the top six – Don Altizo, of Baxter Storey, was only half a point away from fifth place. It was an unprecedented achievement for the contract catering industry, and Baxter Storey have pointed to the position as justification of their decision to invest in coffee quality in the same way that they do in food standards.

“Baxter Storey should be incredibly proud,” agreed Steve Leighton. “Nobody works harder than Don at a contest, and he really puts the hours in… you can tell.  Baxter Storey spend a lot of time in preparation…  you can see the competitors who don’t prepare, because they’re like watching a slow-motion train crash!”

One of the most entertaining aspects of a barista contest  (some people say it is the single most crowd-pleasing element) is the signature drink, a preparation of the entrant’s own devising. There has been a distinct move in recent years towards ‘education’, in which entrants use this part of the contest to argue the cause of the way they are working… indeed, many competitors have begun to lecture the judges, and in the heat, one had the judges sit at school desks!

In the case of this year’s champion, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood entertained the crowd by putting on a white lab coat and giving the judges a lesson on water quality, a subject on which he has recently become a devoted student himself.

Organiser Steve Leighton is in favour of this, he told us.

“We have been in danger of competitions getting boring, if we ‘just make drinks’. I recall that in 2010, Colin Harmon made the judges  several versions of a drink, each using different waters, to show the different tastes which resulted – as a roaster, that stopped me in my tracks and made me think.

“These things push us all… and competitions should do that.”

Sponsorship has been a big matter for debate this year, not least because of the continuing argument over what the backers actually get for their money. Incredible as it sounds, but it has been confirmed many times, there have been no formal agreements between the UKBC organisers and the sponsors over what the backers will get in return for their money. As a result, some sponsors have been aggrieved that they see nothing in return for their support but a logo on a backing board and a token verbal ‘thank you’, while others are alleged to have attempted to virtually take the event over.

It will change next year, with entirely new sponsors, says Steve Leighton.

“All the sponsor agreements have now run out.  Next time, I do not want people who will just give money – I want sponsors who want to make things better.

“This year, the cleanser company Puly Caff said to us that they would offer a lot of money to be the cleanser sponsor – we said no, can we have a little less money, but can we have two people to clean the machines between contestants?

“So they did – they cleaned everything, and they had a cameraman showing what they were doing, and we interviewed them about it. Everybody learned something from this, and they were very happy sponsors. This means we can go back to potential sponsors and say we can show some kind of value to them – you must give sponsors expectations of what they will receive in return for their money, and that has not been done in the past.”

Managing the vast number of volunteers was another area in which great progress was made, reports Leighton, if a little ruefully.

“I’m not practised in managing volunteers – I’m experienced in managing people I pay. I’m just not used to asking volunteers if they would mind doing something!

“But by the last day, I was pretty much getting the idea of how to get volunteers to do what I wanted.

“It was a good event. Is it all perfect? No. Is it better than we’ve ever had? Yes!”

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This year’s champ, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, was a clear winner on 669.5 points, well ahead of Dale Harris (643), and then Estelle Bright of Caravan. The reigning champ, John Gordon, was fourth, ahead of Joe Meagher of Flat Caps Coffee, just half a point ahead of Don Altizo. Maxwell also took the prizes for best espresso and best cappuccino of the day; the best signature drink was awarded to John Gordon.

One of the newest, but most popular awards is the ‘best newcomer’, created and sponsored by Union Hand Roasted.  This year the winner was  Imogen Ludman from Six Eight Kafe in Birmingham, who wins a trip to origin as Union’s guest.

“Her coffee was a Bolivian caturra, and her signature theme was ‘Imogen’s Sweet Shop’,” we were told by Devinder Dhallu, the owner of Six Eight. “The espresso mixed with sherbert and with candy floss made during the routine. The contents were stirred with homemade cascara lollipops which had been dipped in cascara and then coated with cherry flavoured sugar.

“Cascara is like a herbal tea made from the dried coffee cherry (of which the seed is the actual coffee bean). Each cascara tastes different, very similar to how different coffee beans taste. It is highly caffeinated and so it is like rocket fuel… we will be serving it at the café brewed as Cold Brew and seeing how it goes!”

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In the other related contests, held over the same weekend,  the UK Coffee In Good Spirits title went to David Jameson of Union Hand Roasted Coffee.  This is the contest in which entrants may use alcohol, and he created theOrange Custard Martini, described as “a way to capitalise on some of the lesser-used, dormant bottles which lurk malevolently at the back of the shelf”!   It features Advocaat, Grand Marnier and espresso shaken together with Madagascan chocolate flakes and served with an orange zest rim. The result is a thick, viscous custardy body with the underlying acidity of the coffee balanced by the sweetness of the liqueurs.

Champion of the Ibrik/Cezve contest (the Turkish-style brewing) was Vadym Granovskiy of Coffee In Action. It was notable to see that two other competitors were former world barista champ Gwilym Davies, and UKBC organiser Steve Leighton himself.

The new Brewers Cup champion is a colleague of Maxwell’s at Colonna and Smalls, Sebastian Stephenson – he also managed to beat off a challenge from that same Steve Leighton, who clearly distinguished himself more as an organiser than a contestant this year.

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Possibly the most unusual achievement of the entire contest weekend was that of Dhan Bahadur Tamang from the Caracoli coffee house in Hampshire.   Already the official British latte art champion, he took the title again, winning a trip to Rimini to compete in the world latte art championship.

However, there was another latte art contest being held during the UKBC weekend, a side attraction run in the exhibition area by the Cravendale milk brand. This also featured a tempting travel prize, of a trip to coffee origin in Peru.

What none of the organisers had noticed (until we pointed it out to them after the event) was that the winner of both latte art contests on the same weekend was… Dhan Tamang of Caracoli!

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This story first appeared on Caffe Connect, the news website allied to the Caffe Culture show.

http://www.caffeculture.com/

 

 

 

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