Sam Low – How to make a NZ Barista Champion

Ever since placing runner up in the NZ Barista championships in 2015, in the back of my mind I kept asking myself “what if”, what if I had won that year, where would I be now in terms of my career in coffee and when I think about it now, I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to win and represent NZ on the world stage because I was still unsure, unsure of my skills and knowledge compared to the other world competitors and coffee professionals.
So in a way I was glad that I didn’t win last year, knowing that it took me about 8 months on and off to create the routine I did last year and still it wasn’t enough, even though I gave it everything I had. This made me realize that I had a lot more to learn and develop not only for the barista championships but also my coffee ability and knowledge, because of this it made me hungry to learn more and progress in my field which was why I made the move to Melbourne as it’s one of the most progressive specialty coffee cities in the world.
6 months into Melbourne I have had the opportunity to work up into a training role and quality control in a progressive coffee establishment, Code Black Coffee. Being submerged into a city where consumer demands were different and coffee offerings were endless it forced me to be on top of my own craft (even though I’m still learning everyday). Being surrounded by a wealth of industry knowledge and more access to resources and information it has allowed me to progress in my field and become more confident in what I was doing and teaching here in Melbourne. When competition season was approaching I felt ready to compete again and to win it this time. I had taken my original concept and modified it and build from as it was a routine that I really believed in and was predominantly focused on “approach-ability” of specialty coffee.
I knew I wanted to use a coffee with prominent tea flavour characteristics as it’s a flavour profile I really enjoy in coffees. After several cupping sessions and tastings of Kenyan coffees we were close to what I wanted to use for NZBC, then I came across this Costa Rican coffee from my head roaster. It was a SL28 Kenyan varietal coffee from Costa Rica, in fact it was the first ever plantation of SL28 in Costa Rica and when I tasted it I knew I had to use this coffee. It had all the fruity flavour characteristics and tea aromatics that we love from Kenyan coffees but it also had this complex balanced acidity that Costa Ricans tend to have. It was the best of both worlds.
After months of trail and error from trying to find the perfect roast profile working alongside the head roaster of Code Black we finally nailed it and worked out my brewing recipes. From here I knew I had to come up with a way of trying to make this coffee approachable to people outside the coffee industry as this was a topic I am very passionate about. So Ive named my coffee to make it easier for people to understand the concept of specialty coffee, and tried to make it more fun to understand all the different processes that this coffee had gone through to result in its final flavour. After my concept came the signature beverage part, this was the last thing I had to perfect in my routine and thankfully Melbourne “foodies” are everywhere so suggestions on recipes and concepts were coming from several people, the head barista of Code Black loved playing with molecular gastronomy and with his help we’ve come up with a way of creating an aromatic tea foam using a fish tank pump, xanthan gum and soy lecithin. The foam was made with a brewed black tea and orange oil, the foam was ladled on top of a shot of my competition coffee and a stone fruit puree that I’d made.
From here….. RUNTHROUGH’s a lot of them, with different people all the time, coffee people and non coffee people, this needed to be a routine where regardless of your coffee knowledge you will be able to follow and appreciate the concept.
Basically what I’m saying is that everything I did was with collaboration with several people, a team backing you and supporting your belief and passion. The same with my prep of the worlds but just with a larger group of people and from different ideology and methods. I couldn’t have done it without the people behind me whether it was my helper that was polishing my glassware backstage or the people that had to sit through my routine 10 times. On top of that a lot of it was self belief. I wasn’t ready to win it last year but this year I went in confidence and was proud of my skills and ability and was ready to show the world.