Brilliant baristas in Birmingham this week – but where was the cake?

I almost didn’t make it to Birmingham this week for the regional ‘super-heat’ of the 2014 UK Barista Championships. With storms and snow forecast, the option of staying under the duvet in Yorkshire did seem more appealing at 6.30am on Wednesday morning. But I’d never been to an event like this, and for once there was something on somewhere north of Watford, so I was determined to get along to it.

Regional heat of 2014 UK Barista Championships

I had no idea what to expect in terms of format or layout, but one thing I didn’t expect when I got to Millennium Point – a big, flashy venue that also plays host to Birmingham Uni’s film and screen acting department and a fashion design school – was that there’d be nowhere around to buy myself a coffee and cake…

Yes, after a three hour drive down from Yorkshire, I was desperate for my first caffeine fix, but all I could see was an espresso machine sitting on its own, and a bunch of people sitting on the staircase watching the next competitor strutting his stuff in front of the judges.

You see, this being a barista competition, most people around here could make their own espresso, and that was the idea: the machine was there, with the Union Hand Roasted coffee ready to be brewed; you made your own coffee here and donated whatever you liked to the Coffee Kids charity.

Trouble is, this coffee and tea reviewer has never made a proper coffee in his life. I may know a good coffee from a bad one after years of reviewing coffee shops and tea rooms, but I haven’t the foggiest idea HOW a barista does the job.

I was saved by one of the volunteers (didn’t get her name, but many many thanks), who whipped up a flat white for me in no time and I could finally focus on the championships themselves.

And who should be prepping his performance just as I emerged from my pre-caffeine haze, but Joe Meagher, aka FlatCapJoe from Newcastle. So I was able to watch his whole set…

Flat Cap Joe preparing at the regional uk barista championships 2014

Now, for those who have no idea what a barista competition consists of… each competitor has 15 minutes to make the four tasting judges an espresso, a cappuccino and their own individual ‘signature’ drink.

Flat Cap Joe from Newcastle in action during the UK barista championships 2014

This might sound a relatively simple task to the uninitiated, but bear in mind that as well as preparing these drinks for the tasting judges, every single movement is watched by three more judges who sometimes got so close to Joe (and others after him) that I’m sure he’d be able to feel their breath on his neck. And of course it’s all being filmed, photographed and webstreamed so…no pressure, then, huh?

Judges giving Flat Cap Joe the once over at UK barista champs 2014

Actually Joe did really well, and has not only qualified for the UK finals in London in April, but was awarded Best Espresso of the day by the event sponsors San Remo. I don’t know quite how he kept so calm when he was still preparing his signature drinks and the announcer told him 30 seconds to go, but that’s the skill of the performers (maybe that’s why they placed the competition right in front of the Film Actors Department of the Uni…).

Spare a thought for the judges, too, mind. You might think it’s a bit of a comfy ride, standing around all day with clipboard in hand and sipping cups of coffee. But think about it: they rotate the judges round, but with a dozen competitors each day and maybe a tasting role for one in three or four baristas, that’s an awful lot of caffeine being consumed in a short space of time. I wonder if any of them slept overnight between the four days of competition.

I was delighted to meet Ivan, from Strangers with Coffee again. We’d reviewed his lovely coffee shop in Wells, Somerset for our Fancy a Cuppa? Cathedrals tour, and it was great to see him taking part for the first time too. As the interviewer said to him afterwards, it’s actually refreshing to find someone outside the usual 25-35 age bracket getting involved, and I’m sure Ivan will be back next year.

Also good to see James Green from Whitley Bay in action. He didn’t quite qualify for the finals but his is another venue to add to our list of must-does for 2014.

Cupping competition at Uk barista champs

And then there was the ‘cupping’ competition. Again, if you’re not familiar with this concept, each participant has a table of 24 cups of coffee in rows of threes. The idea is to taste every cup and in each set of three work out out which is the odd one out.

Cupping competition at regional heats of uk barista championships 2014

There then follows a timed session filled with the sound of slurping (apparently that helps to get the right amount of air to flow over the coffee, releasing the right flavours to help spot the difference…) and lots of spoons brought to lips and coffee spat out into a waste cup. It’s probably much like a speed-tasting session at a wine event; quite fascinating to watch how some rush through and go on instinct, while others take it slowly and work through whatever senses they are using to pick out the right cup.

So, at the end of four days of competition, 20 baristas went through to the UK finals in early April in London, with dreams of representing the UK at the Rimini European championships after that, and then maybe even the Worlds in Melbourne later this spring. Six tasters also qualified for the World Cup tasting championships in Rimini, including at least one of those I had the privilege to watch on Wednesday.

Here are the full results, in case you want to spot who you know from your own coffee travels

For myself, it was great to watch the whole process and to see the art (and science) of coffee-making at its best. It has brought home to me, though, how little I know about how you go about making the perfect cup of coffee (and more importantly for me, how to avoid a really bad – or boring – cup). I happened upon Stuart from Pumphreys in Newcastle, who has inspired me to come along to one of their barista training courses. Hey, you never know, I may be able to make my own flat white next time I attend this kind of event…

For the organisers, looking ahead to next year, I’d say: make sure you get at least one stall there serving cake and snacks. Quality cake goes so naturally with cappuccino, and it’d be an easy money-maker given the number of people running round all day on empty stomachs and high on caffeine.

Hey, at one point about 50 little primary school kids drifted past in crocodile file (heading probably for the Film Actors studio). Now, if you had cake to sell, they might even have stopped to look at what the barista championships are all about. Start ’em young, I say…





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