I had a total diary malfunction and thought February had another week to go. This created havoc at work, and of course when it came time to organise me going down both days. As it happened, it all worked out. I was able to swap my days around and I went down on for the Tuesday to support Alex.
Lawrence said afterwards that he was concerned that I'd get bored. Hah! I'd brought my Shiny Thing with me and accessed the free Wi-Fi at The Apex, in Bury which was a top venue. Once we got there (all hail the mighty sat nav), Lawrence abandoned me to get ready to be a coffee judge. Union Roasted were on the coffee bar, but it was so early they hadn't set up yet. I'd had one cup of coffee to get me going, but I needed more to remain coherent. Desperate, I went to the coffee stand run by the venue. Alex walked in after I'd managed to choke down half of it (desperation is a terrible thing, you end up doing things you regret), he just burst out laughing. I'd ordered a cappuccino and it was appalling. The milk was foamed to the point I could have shaved my legs with it, it was so dry....as for the coffee itself. Well, the less said about it the better. It was a disgrace to be served something that appalling at the venue of an event celebrating coffee and the professionalism and skill of baristas around the country.
I digress. I didn't have a role, per se as Alex's crew. I did demand a t-shirt that said Alex's Bitch, but he was mean and didn't get me one. Humpf. Basically, I got to hang out with people who are passionate and enthusiastic about coffee and drink as much fabulous coffee as I could handle (not much as it turns out).
The coffees that the baristas use takes the concept of Fairtrade, beats it to a pulp and leaves it to die in the sun. These coffee houses are so passionate about ethically sourcing their coffee that they when visit the farms, they negotiate a price for the coffee over and above the market price at the beginning of the season; and they will often support charities to educate the farmers, their workers and their children. This means the growers know exactly how much they'll get before they start harvesting, this enables them to budget, secure in the knowledge of their income at the end of the season. Market fluctuations will not crucify them as it normally does.
Anyway, enough waffle. I took some pictures to give you a flavour of the day.
Alex Sargeant, barista extraordinaire
Alex in the Practice Room, perfecting his technique
David from San Remo, purveyors of amazing coffee machines and one of the sponsors of the event. David was mother hen to the baristas in the Practice Room
Another competitor doing his thang
The awesome Union Roasted
drug dealer barista who kept my caffeine stream topped up
MY TAMPER! It had my initials on it, damn it, not Reg Barber.
Alex setting up
Alex talking to Jeremy from Union Coffee, about his coffee and signature drink
Baristas have 15 minutes to produce 4 espressos, 4 cappuccinos and 4 signature drinks of their own invention based on the flavour notes they say are present in the espresso*.
The espresso carries the heaviest weighting and is scored on the consistency and persistence of the crema (the fine foam on the top of the espresso which is caused by the oils and on it's own tastes really bitter), the beverage is then stirred three times front to back to mix in the crema. It's then tasted and then judged on the harmonious balance between sweetness, bitterness and acidity. Flavours that the barista identifies and the tactile balance of full bodied, roundness and smoothness. This is the star of the barista's arsenal and sets the tone of the suite of beverages they present to the judges.
Cappuccinos must look good! It takes its name from the Cappuchin monks whose bald pates surrounded by hair bore a similar appearance to a traditional cappuccino - a slightly raised, glossy circle of milk surrounded by the dark brown ring in the cup.
A "traditional" cappuccino
This is really difficult to do well, so most baristas do "latte art".
Believe it or not, this is easier to do well, than the traditional. Note: no chocolate! Cappuccinos are judged on their visual appearance, consistency of foam and the flavour as a balance between the richness and sweetness of the milk and the espresso. If the milk is properly foamed it brings out the sweetness of the milk and there is no need to add sugar. (Alex is the Master of Milk).
A perfect example of an absolutely
rubbish diabolical revolting poor attempt of a cappuccino
The signature beverage is the opportunity for the baristas to be creative with their espressos flavours e.g. if the espresso has flavour of cherries and almonds then the barista might add a cherry syrup and almond flavoured milk to produce a bakewell cappuccino; but the taste of the espresso must still dominate.
Marks are given for how well the beverage is introduced, prepared and explained; the creativity and synergy with the coffee and the taste balance according to the taste of the espresso.
On top of the beverages, the baristas are judged on their customer service skills, their professionalism and presentation, attention to detail and even their appropriate apparel. And then the overall impression of the performance and the beverages. The idea is that they find the best coffee available, make it into the best espresso they can, produce a tasty and well textured cappuccino and then take it to a new level by adding complimentary ingredients to produce their signature drink.
Alex came 5th at the end of the two-day competition. I know he was slightly disappointed, but he was competing against three of the UK's top baristas, one of whom has been UK Champion twice. Currently, he's sitting 9th on the Leader Board, so after the results of Heat 4 in Chester, UK, we'll know if he's going through to the Semi-Finals at the London Coffee Festival
However geeky you might think I am about coffee, trust me, I'm not. I am a baby geek when it comes down to it. The thing is, it's such a great feeling, being surrounded by knowledgeable, enthusiastic people, I loved attending the Midlands heat at Bury St Edmunds. As I said earlier, Lawrence was worried that I would get bored, but people are so friendly, welcoming and interesting, it's a fantastic experience.I am currently lobbying Lawrence hard to go to the London Coffee Festival, lots of coffee nerds and some of the best coffee a person could ever taste.