Britain's best baristas do battle

Simon Buckingham -
Britain's best baristas do battle

On a wet windy Tuesday in March nervous baristas gathered in Bristol to present their espressos for a total of 7 judges in front of a crowd, bemused, enthralled. We had a front row seat.

The world of competition coffee is diverse as it is deep. The Speciality Coffee Association of Europe governs the many different disciplines. Coffee evangelists display prowess in their chosen field. You can pour bonkers patterns in latte art, show off your insane palate in Cup Tasters, baffle people with your intricate brew method in Brewers Cup, or show your understanding of espresso in the high-pressure UK Barista Championship (UKBC).

In early March a crack troupe of BTP Head Baristas descended to watch our champion compete in the UKBC South-West heat.
The format of the competition is to choose a coffee to present, making 4 espresso, 4 milk based drinks and 4 “signature drinks”, for 4 taste judges whilst 2 technical judges watch every movement, and a Head Judge presides over it all. You’re mic’d up, with your selected music playing between your carefully crafted verbal presentation, the judges table covered in associated paraphernalia. Each movement is practiced for hours on end to assure consistency, like some sort of avant garde contemporary dance piece, except with espresso machines (tutu optional).

Note, the Head Barista of BTP Clifton won our in-house competition in heart-in-your-mouth fashion, dual wielding cocktail shakers to create his Old Fashioned inspired signature drink. As a result he was competing at Bristol’s Paintworks event space. The space itself is beautiful, all exposed brickwork and high-ceilings, 5ft-large screens displayed projections of the performers for the crowd of 100 or so people and those following online. The weather outside was not so beautiful, rather more the pathetic fallacy reflecting the contenders’ inner-storm as the wind and rained howled against the large windows.

In the weeks prior to this event we had been asked by one of the sponsors of the South-West heat, our hot chocolate supplier Beyond The Bean, to help out with volunteers for the event. This was an incredible opportunity for some of our baristas to see some of the UKs finest baristas up close, and a handful grabbed the opportunity to come along. Our black clad crew were beavering away behind the scenes, Chris from Stokes Croft running the back of house timings, the green room if you will, where the anticipation was palpable. Aga from Park Street and Kata from Worcester were brandishing stop watches, time-keeping, listening intently to the content of each presentation. Ashleigh & Charley from Barnstaple and Leanne from Salisbury were clearing tables around judges and contestants, sneaking sips of all the drinks.

As the standard of this competition is so high, the range of coffees competitors brought was vast. It would take hours to dial in 18 different coffees (calibrating your grinders to your coffee to get the required flavour profile each time), not to mention the cleaning of each grinder in between.

I hope our team left the event with a better objective appreciation of espresso. Finding what flavours you’re into is a key part of developing as a barista, as well as understanding how growing, processing and roasting have a profound impact on flavour. When it comes to training new baristas we use the competition’s scoring system to inform their workflow, building efficiency and consistency into every movement.

The SCAE have done an amazing job this year of arranging great coffee events, Mat North, their National Event Coordinator, was available for all my dumb questions, as well as keeping the events ticking over. We will be working closer with the SCAE in the coming years as we put our long term baristas through their Coffee Diploma.

We work hard at BTP to give our baristas added value to working with us. Our training, competitions and event support such as the South-West heat should be a cycle of experience that will show baristas what the expectation is, how to meet that and show how far they’ve come since joining us. My thanks go out to all our team who helped on the day, the sponsors for helping put on the event, but most of all to Note of whom we are all proud. We hope to have many more of our Head Baristas competing and showing their skills next year.

If you’re a budding barista and fancy joining our talented teams, you can find out more about working for us here.