Competitive CoffeeAn interview with Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood
All I ever want is to get people to realise that once you poke the surface of coffee, there is so much more to discover. There are many variables and coffee gets misunderstood as people try to put it forward as a finished product; they don't realise that there's more to it.
Coffee is a complicated business these days. To get the ‘right’ brew, we need to understand the difference between single origin and blend (there’s also micro lot and single farm, if you’re really curious), as well as having to navigate the increasingly intricate world of roasting and brewing methods. Cupping is also have its moment, where coffee aficionados gather to sniff, snip and slurp various beans to discern the complex flavours, not unlike slurping on a vino at a wine tasting.
Competitions have naturally arisen alongside the speciality coffee boom. Many countries now hold annual national barista championships, with the winners going on to compete for the world title at The World Barista Championships (WBC) – now in its 12th year and the premier barista competition du jour. You may only compete at the WBC if you rank first in your home country’s national barista championship or have been otherwise appointed as a competitor.
In 2012, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood of speciality coffee shop Colonna & Small’s in Bath, UK, came first in The UK Barista Championship, and placed 6th in the WBC hosted in Vienna.
To better understand barista championships and get the insider knowledge on what really happens behind the scenes, we caught up with Maxwell to find out more about competitive coffee.
Cereal: How exactly does one become a barista champion?
Maxwell:In each round of the championship, the baristas are given 15 minutes to prepare and present 12 drinks – four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks. There are two rounds of judging – a preliminary round and then a final featuring the top six contestants. Each round assesses technical preparation, taste and presentation.
Cereal: What does a single heat in the barista championship consists of?
Maxwell: I enter the South West UK heat as it’s closest to me. Although the size of the event is different in different countries, the format stays the same throughout – heat, semi-final and final. You have the option to do the same routine the whole time or change your routine and coffee. I like to change mine because we use so many different coffees in our shop, and to be honest, I get a bit bored no matter how great the coffee is. I do need to know it well, but I also need it to be relatively new to me. Before the big day, there’s definitely a need for a lot of practice – but all people see is just the fifteen minutes on stage. They don’t realise that you’ve spent every day for months before the competition practising.
Cereal: What is the most challenging element of the competition?
Maxwell: For me personally, the signature drink is difficult simply because it’s not what I do on a day to day basis. Everything I do is about bringing it back to provenance and taking away the extra ingredients. A coffee cocktail, which is what the signature drink is, can be tough, so I asked myself, ‘What can I do which is still all about the flavour of the coffee?’. I arrived at a solution that allowed the judges to experience how other ingredients change the basic taste of the espresso. A taste as complex as coffee is different at the top, middle and bottom of the cup too, so I played with that subtle change in flavour. In the end, working this way led me to an even deeper exploration of coffee rather than just using the signature drink to make a nice cocktail.
Cereal: Why is each routine performed to music?
Maxwell: You only have 15 minutes, and in that time frame there are moments when you’re not talking to the judges, so it helps to create an atmosphere and enhance your presentation. I like the music for competing as it helps with my flow – although I’m always in danger of dancing a little bit about half way through. When it’s used badly you see that it can make a difference. I find this to be the case when the music is too slow or when the songs change too often.
Cereal: How do you come up with your routine?
Maxwell: In the shop, we use lots of different coffees and roasters – it’s not for us to say that this one coffee is somehow extra special. It’s about looking at what makes each coffee unique. When I choose a coffee, it needs to be consistent, but I also need something with a strong character to make a big impression on the judges. Overall, my routine might be different for people who work for a coffee roaster because I’m working with coffee and serving it to the public. To create my routine, I ask myself what I’ve learnt from all of these experiences.
Cereal: What would you want the public to learn from your routine?
Maxwell: All I ever want is to get people to realise that once you poke the surface of coffee, there is so much more to discover. There are many variables and coffee gets misunderstood as people try to put it forward as a finished product; they don’t realise that there’s more to it. In my routines I use one case study, whatever that may be, to show a little part of speciality coffee and everything that goes into it. Hopefully that gets people to think about all the other elements that go into making coffee.
Cereal: How does the competition take speciality coffee forward?
Maxwell: The very nature of getting people together to compete and do something interesting with coffee moves it forward. It’s only been around about 12 years, and speciality coffee itself is still a relatively new thing. Understanding coffee the way we do today and focussing on provenance hasn’t really been done previously. This is great because it means you can then put speciality coffee forward as something innovative, exciting and new.
Cereal: What was the reaction like when you returned to the shop as the UK barista champion and as 6th in the world ranking?
Maxwell: I got a great reaction, but the recognition is really only a tiny part of it. It helped people to understand that what we do is different and we’re not just another coffee shop. We’re interested in coffee in a different way. The way we present it reflects that mindset. It’s also a fantastic communication tool to get people talking about coffee, there are so many myths about good coffee that when people see a trophy, you’ve got a responsibility to talk about the field you’ve done well in. As much as anything, I’m an ambassador for coffee, which suits me perfectly. It’s what I wanted to do with our shop in the first place.