10 February 2009, 16:41 PM
  • In these times of trouble, finding a niche is the key to survival, as Relish Food & Drink has discovered

In February of last year I won the 2008 UK Barista Championships, an annual competition to find the best espresso coffee maker in the UK. I then had the honour of representing the UK at the World Barista Championships held in Copenhagen, a gathering of coffee experts, enthusiasts, professionals and geeks from all corners of the globe. In 15 minutes I’ll never forget, I made a dozen coffees and achieved a very respectable tenth place out of 52 countries, not bad for a little café and delicatessen in a small town in Cornwall.

This year I decided to take a break from the competition scene. However, at Relish I have a young protégé by the name of Jack. He became a regular in the café from the moment we opened in 2006, unusually for a youngster he preferred his coffee as espresso and actually wanted to be a barista. At the time I couldn’t employ him, but after a few unhappy months working for Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant near Newquay, we relented and took him on at Relish. I remember with some pride his comment at the end of his first shift…. “I’ve learnt more about coffee today than I’ve learnt in months at Fifteen…”

Under my wing Jack developed his coffee skills quickly and before long he was making coffees the regulars couldn’t tell apart from mine, no small achievement in such a short space of time.

So, this year we’ve entered Jack for the UK Barista Championships. The masterplan being to give him some experience of competition so that next year, when the World Championships are being held in London, we can both enter the competition and possibly, just possibly, end up with one of us representing the UK in front of a home crowd.

The competition format involves preparing four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks in 15 minutes. These are presented to a panel of four ‘sensory’ judges to taste, the whole process being watched by two ‘technical’ judges and one head judge. Everything is marked, from efficiency with the espresso machine and grinder, through to knowledge of the coffee to the most important thing, the quality and flavour of the drinks.

It’s fair to say that the coffee we make in competition and in Relish is nothing like the stuff sold on the less fortunate high streets of Britain. The beans are speciality grade, lighter roasted in small batches by artisans to retain and bring out the flavour, aroma and sweetness of the individual beans.

Espresso is never more than an ounce of rich, sweet and syrupy nectar, bursting with complex flavours of spices, nuts and fruit, always topped by a thick, dark reddish brown crema. Cappuccino is also a small drink, 5½oz or thereabouts, where a shot of espresso has silky smooth, sweet, textured milk, heated to just the right temperature, poured skillfully onto it, floating the dark crema to the top to maximise aroma…

What they’re not is 3oz’s of sharp, murky liquid with a pale, thin layer of what looks like scum on top that strips the enamel from your teeth….  nor 14oz’s of thin, repeatedly boiled and searingly hot milk with what looks like bubble bath foam spooned on top to produce a thin, pale brown liquid with no discernable pleasant flavour and an unpleasant bitter finish, masked by chocolate sprinkles and requiring lots of sugar or flavoured syrup to make it drinkable.

Back to Jack. As the competition requires getting a lot done in a short space of time it’s essential to choreograph the whole thing and practice a routine. Jack’s a shy, slightly awkward chap, not comfortable with an audience and unused to being the centre of attention. His first attempt at a run-through saw him introduce himself to the dummy judges, friends and family roped in for realism, then promptly go mute for the rest of the routine. In successive run-through’s he gradually gained in confidence, becoming comfortable with his routine, what he wanted to say and what he had to do. His skill with the grinder and espresso machine were not an issue, it was adjusting that to fit the competition criteria that was the task.

Anyway, I’m glad to report that on a snowy day in Devon, at the southwest heat of the UK Barista Championships held at the Expowest exhibition, Jack did a brilliant job. He was awarded best cappuccino and placed second behind a highly experienced competitor. The difference between first and second was just five points from a possible 870 odd. Jack has made his mark on the competition and is being touted as a serious contender for my crown…

In early March we travel to the ScotHot exhibition in Glasgow for the national finals. We’ll have trained a little more, tweaked our coffee and gone through the scoresheets with a fine tooth comb. If it works, Relish will be home to two champion, world class Baristas. Now there’s a USP to shout about!