As you drink your first brew of the day this morning – spare a thought for the coffee experts from almost 60 countries competing at the World Barista Championships in Seoul, Korea, which get underway today.
While you might be dithering over the merits of a dry cappuccino over a flat white, they’ll be churning out 12 drinks in the space of 15 minutes in front of a panel of judges, while at the same time putting on a performance that marries public speaking with music and choreography. A tall order, indeed.
Niall Wynn, owner of Proper Order Coffee Co in Smithfield, Dublin, is the Irish representative at the championships. He won the Irish title in February, having finished as runner-up to Natalia Piotrowska last year. Pietrowska went on to finish seventh at the world championships when they were held in Dublin last June, narrowly missing out on a place in the final.
Wynn, a 28-year-old former national champion swimmer, who segued into a coffee career when he found that life as a science teacher wasn’t for him, will be on stage on Friday in Seoul, in the second batch of baristas to perform in the first round. The top 16 will go forward to Saturday’s semi-final, from which the six best coffee makers in the world will be chosen to compete in Sunday’s final.
At each stage of the competition, the requirement is the same: make four espressos, four espresso and milk beverages, and four signature drinks, within 15 minutes, while at the same time telling the jury about the beans, the flavour profile of the coffee and the story behind the signature drink.
“Making 12 drinks in 15 minutes ... everbody says that’s really hard. But believe it or not, that’s not the hard part, it’s the stuff that goes around that. You’ve got certain things that you need to say to score points with the judges. There are certain boxes that need to be ticked in order to do well,” Wynn says of the carefully choreographed routines, which are performed to music of the barista’s chosing.
Wynn's playlist is Jungle Boogie (Kool & The Gang), Love Machine (The Miracles), Papa's got a Brand New Bag (James Brown), and More Than a Woman (Bee Gees), arranged to work with his coffee making, his vocal performance and his allocated 15 minutes.
The baristas describe their coffee to the jury, who then assess it based on this description. “If I say it tastes of blackberry, chocolate and cherries, and they say it tastes like blackberry, chocolate and cranberries, then that’s points lost.”
Wynn’s signature drink is called Liquid Velvet. “I’m going for the same consistency and texture as a pint of Guinness,” he says of the mixture of espresso, lemon verbena oil that he makes himself with herbs from his parents’ garden, and Dublin 1 postcode honey. The three ingredients are emulsified in an espuma gun (a kitchen tool used for making foams), and served in a sherry glass.
“The idea behind the signature drink is that you take inspiration from the farm [where the coffee beans are grown], the farmer, or some process the coffee has gone through to get to the judges table. Me being Irish, I’ve decided to make it the same texture as a pint of Guinness.
“About 75-80 per cent of the espresso flavour is maintained. The lemon verbena is there to synergise with the citronella that the farm grows around the coffee plants to act as a pesticide and protect against soil-borne pathogens.”
The coffee beans that Wynn is using are Colombian, and have been specially sourced for his world championship bout. "Finca Imaculada coffee comes from a plot only about 2.3h hectares in size, so it's small. It's roasted by April Coffee Roasters in Copenhagen.
"When I won the Irish championships I came up with a brief for Patrick Rolf, who owns April, and that brief was for him to find me an exotic variety of coffee, something that's typically low yielding, hard to come by, and packed with full-on flavour. The caveat was that was it had to be produced in a commercially viable way.
“A lot of the coffees brought to the championships are showpiece coffees – they are farmed literally to win at championships. I think it’s a shame that these coffees are served only to a panel of four judges three times during the competition. It’s not really representative of how we work as baristas and it’s not representative of what’s going to push our industry forward.”
There are sufficient supplies of the Finca Imaculada beans available to allow Wynn to run a few tasting events when he returns to Dublin, so that coffee enthusiasts can have a chance to taste his competition entry.
Following his win at the Irish championships, and acting on feedback from the judges, who said his communication skills could have been more effective, Wynn enlisted the help of voice coach Cathal Quinn, head of voice at the LIR Academy.
‘Charmin’ Irish fella’
“I am not naturally a very good public speaker. Cathal has really helped me with structure, routine and performance, and to be way more confident. I’ve always been the charmin’ Irish fella who can put judges at ease and serve good coffee, but there’s a difference between doing that and communicating really well on a world level.”
Next year Wynn hopes to open a second branch of Proper Order Coffee Co, and to establish a training academy with his wife Ali, who is a barista at the Fumbally, to teach people how to make better coffee at home.
The couple married in July and live an eight minute walk from Proper Order Coffee Co. “You can imagine the conversation at home – it’s quite one dimensional,” he says of their shared obsession.
The 28-year-old opened Proper Order in January of last year. “We only ever thought we’d do about 100 to 150 coffees a day. Now on our busy days we’re creeping up to 500 coffees,” he says, underlining the popularity of the tiny Dublin 7 cafe.
- The World Barista Championships are being live-streamed at worldbaristachampionship.org (Korea is nine hours ahead of Ireland).