This article is a long time coming; one reason is I wanted to put a lot of thought into what I write about and cover. At first, all I wanted to do was focus on the finalists and their amazing performances, but I felt a strong urge to discuss some controversies and difficulties at this year's WBC as well. By the time I was done writing, I had over 6,000 words - far too long even for a CoffeeGeek article! Because it was so long, it's now a two part article. Part one will focus on the performances of the final six Baristas in the 2006 World Barista Championships, including some exclusive commentary by them. Part two will focus on problems and issues with the WBC, and suggestions on how they can be improved.
First, I'd like to thank our primary sponsor for this report, Rocket Coffee Roasters. I'm so happy to have them on board - they are one of the up and comers in the specialty coffee world, and are offering an increasing range of Cup of Excellence and other super premium coffees. I hope you give them a try today.
The Final Six, Bern, WBC 2006
The big announcement the early evening before the finals was probably not as big a surprise as it could have been - most of the favourites going into the competition were named in the final six. Still, it was great to see a wide range of representation standing up there on the stage. Nick Cho took to the microphone and after introducing the volunteers and judges to the audience, called out, in no particular order, the final six. They were
Sammy Piccolo, Canada
Anne Lunell, Sweden
James Hoffmann, UK
Matthew Riddle, USA
Klaus Thomsen, Denmark
Ingibjorg Jona Siguroardottir, Iceland
They also announced the finalist judges, including judges from the countries that had finalists in the competitions. This was unprecedented at least in recent times, and came as a shock to some in the crowd and volunteer pool. But many also saw it as an effort to pick who the two Judges' coordinators (Fritz Storm and Justin Metcalf) thought were the best suited judges for this finals. One change was made overnight to the judging pool, but in the end, Australia, Denmark, Germany, Britain, Estonia and the USA were represented in the selection of judges. This would cause some controversy later on, especially with the pick of the head judge.
The next morning, a great day in Bern, the finalists went through their last minute preparations for their championship round. Here's how each barista performed, in no particular order.
James Hoffmann, United Kingdom
First round score: 740.50
Final round score: 669.00
In many ways, James Hoffman was labeled the "underdog", including by yours truly, but that's not a fair statement. He works for La Spaziale in England as a trainer and Barista workhorse, but surprisingly, is not a Barista behind the bar every day (something he shares with Matt Riddle of the US). Hoffmann's passion and love for food science as a whole (not just coffee) showed in his competition with his signature drink, "Split". It is made up of two vertical segments, stacked side by side, with a foam espresso mousse on top. The side by side elements were contrasting colour fluid gels.
"One (of the gels) was based on Glugg, which is a Norwegian mulled wine spice - so cardamom, cloves, cinnamon et cetera." Hoffmann explained to CoffeeGeek. "The other side was flavoured with roast almonds, almond essence and a little cream."
The foam mousse on top was another special concoction. "On top the espresso was mixed with a honey that sadly I ran out of." Hoffman said. "The honey I wanted to use came from bees on a coffee farm in Brazil but for the finals I used another honey. I turned all of these into a thick mousse using some secret ingredients."
The drink visually and artistically was a hit with both the judges and the audience. In the first round, almost all the signature drinks looked perfect; in the final round, Hoffmann had a bit more difficulty keeping the vertical gels separated.
As a performance Barista, he was on top of his game, and while he would say he was very nervous, he seemed relaxed and made the judges feel very much welcome and at home during his presentation. I saw his espresso shots up close and they looked damned good. His milk texturing techniques were very practiced, and the entire performance was polished, entertaining, and had a touch of elegance to it.
When asked what he liked most about competing in the World Barista Championships, Hoffmann said, "For me it is the chance to build a blend, to immerse myself in coffee with the single goal of taste and nothing else affecting my choices. Baristas are often disconnected from their coffee and it is a great experience and a great learning tool to develop something you are proud to work with, and that holds great potential for the coffee you serve."
Have a look at Hoffman's performance in his special Flickr set, which now includes photos from his Finals round.
Anna Lunell, Sweden
First round score: 751.00
Final round score: 676.50
Anna Lunell a four year Barista working in Oslo (though she is Swedish), was self-admittedly sick during her first and final rounds, a combination of a touch of some virus and nerves. You wouldn't know it to see her in the first round though, with a nice polished performance that really wow'ed the judges.
She also took what has been a risky move for other competitors in the past: she used two grinders for her performance, but unlike some crash and burns in the past, Lunell had no problems at all switching between the two La Marzocco branded grinders. On her signature prep area were an assortment of devices that seemed better suited to a chemistry lab, including burners, chem lab bottles and pipettes.
During the competition, Lunell talked up the roasted coffee that she had custom blended for the competition, featuring three washed and fermented coffees from Kanatica, India, a CoE Colombian from Buona Vista, and an Ethiopian Yirg, building her cappuccino and espresso first with it. She described her blend as having individual components that are distinctive and "strong" in their taste profiles, but even more so as the completed blend.
Her signature drink was blueberry based, with fruity notes in the single origin she used (from the second grinder, a harrar) and blueberries in a syrup she made. As Lunell described her signature drink, "I had a vision with this drink. Instead of taking a casual coffee and flavouring it heavily, I wanted to take an unusual coffee with very strong and pronounced flavours, and this Harrar I cupped had this profile."
The sig was served as a straight shot, and the syrup was in a pipette she asked the judges to squeeze into the beverage before drinking. This was done so that the judges could smell the aroma off the shot first before the addition of a sweet blueberry syrup. It's a good roadmap for anyone who wants to try a variant on this signature drink at home.
Lunell said that "it's very important to know the origin of the coffee. I like to compare coffee to wine, and in wine I want to know the grapes, the region, country, wine house it comes from. All this information is very accessible for wine, and I cannot see why we don't see the same thing in coffee more often."
Lunell has her own special Flickr set up - including the just-added finals round. Enjoy!
Matthew Riddle, USA
First round score: 732.50
Final round score: 727.00
Matt Riddle's performance was just so smooth and polished at the WBC. So softspoken and fluid in his presentation, Riddle explained that his two passions in life are design and coffee and that the judges would see this in his competition round. A variant of Black Cat was served up, featuring a Brazil and an El Salvadore bourbon blend, looking for something full bodied and sweet. He did a partial build of his signature drink at the start of competition, crushing star anise to release oils and aromatics, then moved on to building his espresso shots for the judges, which he banged out smartly.
Capps were next with nicely textured latte art, then his signature drink, called "Star" came last. It was star anise based in flavour, and was meant, as Riddle said, "to be a warm aperitif."
"The inspiration behind my signature drink was a truffle that I found online, that featured star anise, and went through a long evolution to become the anise and black mission figs drink that it was in competition." Riddle said to CoffeeGeek recently. "Star anise was the one consistent element, and I went through an evolution of different sweeteners, starting off with simple syrup sugar, and by the USBC it was a molasses evolution featuring some fig. Fig became the major sweetener by the time I got to the WBC. I made a reduction sauce of the figs, some sugar, and lime to sweeten the drink."
On the prep of the drink, Riddle said that "steamed milk was infused with star anise, espresso was sweetened with the fig reduction sauce. It was a two element beverage, with each element having its own special flavors."
On winning the USBC and representing the US as the highest scoring competitor from that country, Riddle says, "It feels really good, and an honor to be representative of the US as an industry leader in the craft of the Barista. A lot of media attention has come out of this and it's been great because the mainstream media is really recognizing the craft."
Riddle really enjoyed his time in Bern, and found inspiration everywhere. "Bern was, I don't want to say life changing, but still an amazing experience because it was my first major trip outside my own country." Riddle said. "It was great meeting so many friendly people passionate about coffee and espresso. Riding the tram from my hotel to the competition each day was one of the most beautiful things for me, because there was a bridge running over the Aare River, and you could see the Alps in the distance, and it looked exactly like a painting."
Riddle's performance in both rounds is now up at Flickr - enjoy!
Ingibjorg Jona Siguroardottir, Iceland
First round score: 778.00
Final round score: 658.50
Ingibjorg Siguroardottir continued the tradition of showing Iceland as a powerhouse in Barista competitions and showing that country as a place that takes espresso seriously. The very soft-spoken Siguroardottir said that her competition performance was based around the Icelandic tradition of believing in the little hidden people (fairies) in the storms. She served a signature drink called the fairy storm, and started off with her espresso and cappuccino. Her table setting further set up the concept of the fairy people.
Her espresso blend was a Cup of Excellence Nicaragua matched with Brazil and Costa Rican coffees, and a fourth component that I missed writing down (I recall her saying it would add a lemon zest to the finish).
Siguroardottir was fairly quiet during most of her performance, but was talking about the important things to inform the judges about her various beverages, while giving them plenty of time to think about what was going on.
She gave a good explanation of her signature beverage, the Fairy Storm, including honey, espresso, and a frozen mango puree, and finished off with a muddled fennel cream. I had a chance to try this beverage behind the curtain (a total no-no!), and it tasted fantastic - I thought the ingredients went together very well and the fennel seemed to pop out at just the right moments. Frozen was a concept here, from frozen glasses to ice everywhere, indicative of her Icelandic weather patterns.
"This drink makes me feel like I'm out in the Icelandic countryside, sitting solitary, watching the weather, the mysterious stones, and just soaking up the atmosphere", Siguroardottir said during her performance.
You can see some of it on Flickr, in her own set.
First round score: 865.50
Final round score: 746.00
Sammy Piccolo is one of the veterans of these world Barista championships, first showing up as a surprise to the world stage (but not to Canadians) back in Trieste, 2004, when out of nowhere he came in and finished second. He finished third in Seattle in 2005, and gave up an amazing second place performance this year in Bern. Piccolo definitely put Canada on the WBC map, and continued to wow and amaze the crowd at this year's performance.
Piccolo's theme was "Synergy", and it was evident in almost every aspect of his performance. From the grouped servings on custom made serving blocks, to the layout and setting of his table, to his descriptions of the path from seed to cup, to the amount of work and care that went into his detailed blend, the concept of synergy was shown and explained throughout his competition.
Piccolo's blend featured the Brazil Santa Terrazina CoE coffee, another pulped natural Brazil, an Ethiopian longberry Harar, and for sweetness, a semi washed Papua New Guinea and a Bin 35, Double Pass coffee from Mountain Top, Australia - quite a detailed blend!
Capps were up first, showcasing hearts for the women judges and rosettes for the male judges. Espresso was next, which Piccolo said "were probably the best shots I've ever pulled in any competition I've ever been in. I was so happy at that point with how they were pouring out of the spouts."
Synergy was Piccolo's signature drink, a complex drink with a series of steps for the judges to enjoy. They started off with a slice of salted orange, then tasted a flavoured chocolate ganache, and finished with the beverage Piccolo made using espresso, cardamom steeped in steamed milk, bittersweet chocolate, and a tiny dab of mango puree (the Icelandic competitor also used mango, a popular flavour these days).
The concept behind his beverage was to synergize an initial taste from a slice of salted orange into a beverage that had no actual orange component in it. "I worked with a food scientist to develop a taste in a beverage that didn't exist by itself in the beverage. The drink is meant to give a definite orange taste, though when you taste the espresso on its own, there is no orange flavour present." Piccolo said to CoffeeGeek. "I structured the drink and service in such a way that the initial taste the judges would have (from the slice of salted orange) would flow through the ganache and still be present while the judges drank the beverage."
Piccolo finished a well deserved second, and has proven that consistently, he's one of the best Baristas on the planet. When asked if he would compete again, he said to CoffeeGeek, "I think this will be the last time you'll see me competing in the WBC. I really enjoyed my experiences and enjoyed meeting so many interesting and passionate people in espresso, but it's time for me to move onto new challenges and different types of competitions."
Piccolo's first and finals round performances are up at Flickr.
Klaus Thomsen, Denmark
First round score: 811.50
Final round score: 809.50
Klaus Thomsen, this year's WBC winner was just a joy to watch. Along with Piccolo, Thomsen did a fair amount of talking to the judges, but it never seemed overwhelming. He's a five year Barista working at Estates in Copenhagen, and used his competition to show, as he said, "what specialty coffee can be in the year 2006. Coffee is like a symphony, a global chain of people, from the farmer, to the roast master, to the Barista, and everyone must master their craftsmanship, to achieve a great cup in the end."
Thomsen had a dual bean blend featuring Daterra from Brazil and a Costa Rican La Minita. He began with his espresso, then moved on to capps and the signature drink. His espresso was, as he described, a very sweet and "clean" shot. So much work went into his blend that he even traveled to Brazil to visit the Daterra farm to really get a first hand view of that part of the symphony.
His signature drink was very well explained, and after the competition, Thomsen gave me a further explanation of it.
"Symphony of Coffee, as my drink is called, has espresso as the base, and a coffee flavoured panna cotta on top of the espresso, which is made with whole beans from La Minita and a cream flavoured with vanilla. On top of this I have an ice cold coffee foam which I make from whole coffee beans, a Cup of Excellence Colombian coffee, prepared in a French press." Thomsen said. "This coffee for the foam is very bright on purpose with nice floral aromas, and it goes with an inverted sugar, and I use some frozen in a blender to get a very thick, full foam." The drink was built entirely before the judges, with several complex levels involved. "I think this finals went very well, especially when I poured the conna panna onto the espresso, it looked like it was working out very well."
Thomsen's performance was very smooth, and I couldn't believe how quick he had his espresso and cappuccino rounds and he needed the time because his signature round was so detailed and elegant. A very well deserved 2006 WBC win.
You can see more of Thomsen's performance in his own Flickr set.
Every Barista in the finals was at the top of their game, and definitely a showcase of the best Barista skills on the planet. I was so encouraged by the detailed knowledge of the entire process behind espresso shown by all of them. From detailed discussions about origin, to talk and knowledge about processing green coffee, right through to intimate familiarity with what is going on with the grinder, the machines, the cups, the steaming wand, you name it, every single one of these Baristas knows their stuff.
It bodes well for the coffee industry that this new generation of skilled artisans are part of the community. There's a lot we all have to learn from these people, including those of us who think we've seen it all in coffee and espresso.
I hope some day that the WBC figures out a way to harness this knowledge and depth of artistry and quality seen in competitors; harness and utilise it outside the competitions. These super star Baristas are a valuable asset to this industry, and with their help, we can continue to advance and evolve espresso in ways we haven't even dreamed of yet. On top of that, their value should also be used in advancing the public's understanding and appreciation of espresso and coffee as culinary, outside the competitions. I hope that very soon, the WBC and its owners will put the tools and factors in place for these amazing artisans to really evangelize coffee worldwide, year round.
Next up is the second part of this article - the controversies and issues plaguing the WBC. It should be up online within a few days.
Once again, I'd like to thank Rocket Coffee Roasters as our primary sponsor for all the content posted during this trip to the WBC, the World of Coffee, and the forthcoming reports from the Italian road.
We'd also like to thank Zaccardis and Coffee and Kitchen for helping out too, and you'll also find mention of these companies on the CoffeeGeek Podcast. Both are great spots for getting almost anything related to coffee and espresso!
And we'd also like to thank Daily Grind and Parkside Coffee for their very generous support.