Sam Low shares is experience of winning the NZ title and his journey to the World Championship:
The 2016 World Barista Championships undeniably felt like a world competition, half the challenge was trying to keep sane during the lead up of months and months of practice, tastings, dialogue rewrites, crazy concept brain storming sessions, trail and errors of signature beverages, being realistic about budgets, late nights, and rain checked meals/ parties with friends and family. The other half of the challenge was trying to fly everything (competition gear, my coach & myself) to the other side of the world, Dublin, Ireland without anything going missing and/or breaking before the competition.
Ever since winning the New Zealand Barista Championship’s late February this year, I knew I had time (4 months) to really think about my world’s performance, develop a concept that I would be proud of taking to the world stage as well as to find an amazing coffee.
I knew I wanted to have the theme of the approachability of specialty coffee, how can I help consumers understand this complex product that we (the specialty industry) are so passionate about without pushing them away. With this concept in mind I knew I needed a coffee that was different, different in flavour, aroma, story and uniqueness. Thus began the coffee bean hunt! Finding the right coffee is always the first on the list for prepping for a barista championship the rest will come after.
At the current roastery I work for Code Black Coffee Roasters in Melbourne, Australia. We are fortunate to have access to numerous specialty green coffee importers as well have healthy relationships with many of them so finding a competition worthy coffee wasn’t going to be hard….. So I thought to myself. After settling back to work and getting into the right mind set for prepping for another coffee competition right after nationals took a few weeks, from here I came across a coffee that I really wanted to use for the worlds, It was a Honey processed Geisha from Guatemala the unique story behind this coffee was that the cherries are only processed under the full moon because of the Mayan culture it was believed to give more sweetness to the coffee. However things don’t always go to plan after 2 weeks of discussing prices and several samples being shipped for tasting and competition development with the importers I was told that the farmers decided to not go ahead with the sale and wanted to sell the coffee at the COE (Cup of Excellence) auctions in hopes to get a better price.
So the first concept development of this coffee for my world’s performance had to be ditched, so back to square one and the coffee hunting game begins again with only less than 3 months to go.
My coach (Archie Chiu) on a recent visit to the World Coffee Expo in Shanghai where the 2016 World Latte art and Cup tasters championship was held, he had the opportunity to taste a lot of amazing coffees that were worthy of the worlds and in his suitcase on his way back were samples of 6 different geishas and an experimentally processed Ethiopian coffee for me to taste and potentially choose to use. The day after he lands the first thing he did was to hold a blind cupping for me and only me. Out of the 7 coffees on that table I surprisingly scored the experimentally process Ethiopian the highest, it blew my mind! I tasted Lychees, mandarin and tonnes of tropical sweetness from this cup because of this I contacted the producer without sparing anytime and had to try my best to get this coffee into the country.
After placing the urgent order while they were still bagging the green in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia. Being told it was a few weeks away till it arrives in Melbourne I wasted no time developing and writing my concept for the worlds and created a signature beverage based off the 10g sample of coffee that my coach brought back from Shanghai that I tasted once in the cupping room. The signature beverage was based off the uniquely processed method that this coffee had gone through, where I had phone calls with the producer on how and why he implemented certain techniques and what these bring out of the coffee. Three weeks from that cupping I started to become a little worried as that coffee had not yet arrived into the country and no confirmation from the producers were given to me on its estimated time of arrival, so I gave it another week and at this point my routine was coming together but no coffee. I was 1 and half months away from the worlds at this point.
Being realistic I had to find a backup coffee just incase things go a different way and unfortunately it did, when it finally was on a plane to Melbourne we lost tracking of it mid-way through its journey and it never made it to Melbourne in time for me to use. Luckily sitting our roastery the whole time was the actual coffee I used for the worlds Las Margaritas a Naturally processed Colombian Geisha that my coach used to compete with in the 2016 Australian Brewers Cup Championships where he placed 2nd overall.
Having one month left and only just locked in a coffee to use I had to significantly change my signature beverage and concept of my routine to fit this new coffee. My final concept was to identify the unapproachability of Specialty coffee amongst our everyday consumers and try to find a resolution to try and fix it so ultimately our industry can progress with more progressive consumer base which appreciates the complexities of specialty coffee.
The biggest problem with the unapproachability of specialty coffee is (I think) language the current coffee language we industry people use are created by and targeted for industry people. So how can we create a language that our consumer can understand? So I started to look at other successful culinary products/services where they have create a clear separation of high quality and low quality, something that I am very passionate about is food and the restaurant world so what better industry to look at than the restaurant world specifically the fine dining. What the fine dining industry has done very well is that they are able to engage a consumer with a space, they serve the consumer a high quality meal/dish that’s made with precision and presented beautifully, they use simple language and descriptors to translate something so complex to something understandable to their consumers.
I had to make my entire routine approachable so people that aren’t in the industry could understand what is happening and why I am doing the things I do in this 15 min presentation that took well over 8 months of development. First off I named my coffee Maggie and talked about the all the different stages in Maggies life that affected her as a coffee to result in the flavour that she has developed into using storytelling and storyboards so it was easy for people and judges to follow. From here I made a complex signature beverage that consisted of espresso, the foam of rehydrated green apple solution, green grape juice, floral tea that was turned into “air” using dry ice. The complexity of my signature beverage was on purpose to link back to fine dining industry to show that even though the dishes in fine dining establishments are complex the way they present it and how they talk about it is simple.
Once I had a routine done it was practice! Practice practice practice in front of different people all the time (pretty much anyone that’s still in the roastery during practice time), industry or not (even café customers) as well as Skype’ing judges from New Zealand. I did run-throughs pretty much every day for about 3 weeks specifically with 3 people that were incredibly helpful where without them I wouldn’t have gotten the routine I have today. Archie Chiu, my travel coach, budgets advisor and my main taster. Brydon Price experienced and qualified head judge, runthrough nazi and concept advisor. Allan Yeh my roaster perfecting the roast after many expensive trail and errors.
Arriving in Dublin, Ireland after a long 2 day journey and 3 stops we were picked up and looked after by my good friends and multiple time Irish Latte Art & Cup tasters champion Seivijus and Reda Matiejunas, from here we organised training spaces ( Thank you Network Cafe !) and last competition ingredients such as milk, fruits and dry ice.
Competition day came and boy was it an interesting day for me and everyone involved, I competed twice that day as there were communication issues during my first performance amongst the judges so after speaking with the World Coffee Committee Board members they gave me the opportunity to compete again, I said yes (if I didn’t I would be kicking myself that I didn’t). So second performance came and It felt so much better, it was a lot smoother HOWEVER! I forgot to tell my judges to drink my milk beverages before I called time so unfortunately my milk drinks all scored zero in taste balance and flavour. That was my bad as it is rules but in saying that I still ranked 23rd overall out of a crazy 60 competitors representing 60 countries.
Overall the experience I had was too much to put into a few words but what I can say was everything happened for a reason, most things were out of my control but it is how you handle a situation mostly with positivity and taking the highlights with you. I have met so many great people not only at the worlds or my trip to Dublin but the journey from my nationals to the world competition. I have grown to be a stronger competitor and person and I couldn’t ask for more.
Being able to have the opportunity to combine several passions of mine into one great thing and broadcasting it to the world was one of the many highlights, a combination of design, collaboration, coffee, food, music and the restaurant world. Can’t wait to see what the future holds in this beautiful world of coffee and hospitality. Truly am #blessed
Watch my performance here:
Images thanks to Dianne Jialei Wang
Sam Low's road to Dublin and the 'World Barista Championship 2016'
Sam Low shares is experience of winning the NZ title and his journey to the World Championship: