Coffee professionals from across Canada are heading home from Vancouver today following a tremendously successful weekend of events at the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Representatives from Bridgehead have been heavily involved in the events taking place at this show for some years now. I’d like to take a little time to reflect upon how far we’ve come and to tell the story of how a number of our baristas have blossomed into professionals of distinction within the now quite familiar conference halls of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.
Our company’s first success in the Canadian Barista Championships came with Barista Trainer Laura Perry’s first placement in the Eastern Regional competition (featuring baristas from Ottawa, Quebec and the Maritime Provinces) way back in 2008 at the Just for Laughs Museum in Montreal. Laura’s commitment to developing expertise and broader industry experience in specialty coffee led her to success in that completion despite her demanding role managing one of our busy coffeehouses. With enough free time to barely sneak in a few late night practices after close, she would go on to represent Bridgehead at the National Competition (also in Montreal that year) finishing just outside of top 6 who qualify for Finals.
The next season saw two new competitors from Bridgehead making an attempt at improving our success in these competitions. Back at the Just for Laughs Museum in 2009 Cliff Hansen (currently at 2nd Ave) and Brendan Butt (currently at Golden) were making their debuts. Brendan had some difficulty with his equipment and bravely finished his 15 minute routine somewhat overtime while maintaining his poise and greatly impressing the crowd. Cliff achieved success with 2nd place in a tough heat that saw our friend and colleague Anthony Benda of Cafe Myriade (Montreal) taking 1st. Cliff would go on to place well in the Nationals in Vancouver, but we fell short of the Finals once again.
2010 saw the return of both Cliff and Laura at the Regional, this year at the St Lawrence Market in Toronto. Laura put on an excellent and ambitious performance that went over very well with the judges but lead to some unfortunate time penalties. Cliff, who discovered he had a spot in the competition only about 2 days before the event, put together a new routine and wound up taking one of the top spots and qualifying for Nationals. We were going to Nationals for the third year straight!
While proud of our ability to qualify for Nationals three years consecutively, we unfortunately would not crack that nut of the Final round in 2010. We knew that 2011 would require a new strategy and an unprecedented amount of work. This past Spring we hosted an internal barista competition at our Sparks St location designed to provide our baristas with an evening of entertainment and challenges while helping us select our competitor for 2011. Randy Hogg of Albert was the clear winner, displaying a professional attitude toward coffee while impressing the judges with his natural talent for customer service and his ability to manage his espresso equipment to make the most of his coffee.
The Regional Competition was in Quebec City in late July and Randy along with Laura began in June a four month process of intense, regular practice and creative experimentation with the goal of making Finals at Nationals. There was no disappointment in Quebec, with Randy taking 1st place in the Regional and cementing his spot in the Nationals. Randy and Laura would have another two months to get ready to compete with some of the best competing baristas in the world, with full knowledge that both the pedigree of Western Canadian baristas (who have always taken National gold) and the thirst for success on the part of the consummate professional baristas of Alberta would ensure an incredible challenge ahead.
Randy and Laura knew they had to do something different this year. We wanted to connect them more with the coffee they were using, right from the beginning. Instead of using a coffee we work with everyday, we wanted to have them be inspired by a coffee that they had selected and roasted themselves. We wanted there to be a personal connection to the coffee that would drive them through the long hours of practice and fuel the creative fires required to devise a signature beverage worthy of the National Champion.
Randy eventually decided upon a coffee from Mexico that he had enjoyed while joining us in cupping type samples from coffee importers earlier in the summer. This coffee was available in the short period of time we had to get it into Ottawa and go through the roast profiling experimentation process required to make a coffee taste great. The coffee is from a cooperative called Triunfo in Chiapas and is a great workhorse – juicy acidity, moderate sweetness, creamy body and aromatics of roasted almonds, orange, vanilla and grape. Randy thought this could do well as an espresso, although it was an incredible gamble to go for this coffee as we had never tasted it as espresso and had, in fact, only ever tasted it once. Still, Randy decided to take the risk and we brought in one 69kg burlap sack of the coffee.
The day after the coffee finally arrived at our warehouse in Ottawa there was no time to spare. The Nationals were three weeks away, leaving literally just enough time to get the coffee ready for competition. Laura, Randy and Cliff (always involved in everything coffee at Bridgehead) took the coffee in the back of Laura’s hatchback to our friends Social Coffee in Richmond Hill, where they have a type of roaster we were particularly interested in experimenting with. The folks at Social are amazing contributors to Canadian Specialty Coffee and are always there to help out. The group spent the day roasting and developed 6 roast profiles (temperature/time curves that reflect different physical and chemical development patterns in the coffee). One has to wait several days to evaluate roasted coffee as espresso, so on a Sunday afternoon when the coffee was 4 days off roast the eager team gathered at our training centre to taste the results.
We began with a cupping of the experimental profiles – 5 cups of each coffee, 30 cups in total. We were a little discouraged by 5 of the profiles – they fell flat on acidity and sweetness while not expressing the aromatics Randy was going for. The 6th profile – a fluke experiment that Cliff and Laura had dreamed up at the end of their roasting day – wound up tasting incredible. It was juicy and sweet with lovely, nuanced aromatics as described above. It tasted awesome as an espresso and yielded a cappuccino with a beautiful, robust roasted almond character with marmalade.
Laura & Randy set to work plotting a scheme to have roasted coffee sent up from our friends at Social on a schedule that would allow them to practice and eventually compete with the coffee at its best – 4 days off roaster for espresso and 7 days off roast for cappuccinos. The next steps were to practice Randy’s routine during pretty much any moment of spare time they could muster while coming up with a signature drink inspired by the coffee they were using.
The signature drink took considerable time to develop – it’s a difficult task to come up with a delicious, balanced, espresso dominant drink that features ingredients inspired by and designed to creatively interact with the coffee while also making sense within the theme of the entire performance. Randy eventually settled on using a freshly made almond aioli (no garlic) with an orange and concord grape compote served with the espresso, stirred in a snifter garnished with an orange peel moustache brushed with vanilla. The idea was to present the judges with the taste and aromatic qualities of the coffee in its production roast style while incorporating the aromatic nuances that were more potent in the sample roast that first introduced us to the coffee. Randy and Laura worked to perfectly recreate the experience of the sample roast in the cup, portioning their ingredients to match the “volume” of the initial aromas while amplifying the tactile qualities of the beverage with the aioli and using the espresso to provide the taste backbone of sweetness and acidity, texture from coffee proteins and sugars and some aromatics that would meld with the almond, compote, orange peel and vanilla to create a complex experience true to the coffee.
Laura and Randy travelled to Vancouver last Friday with high hopes and many challenges ahead. They had to overcome significant difficulties when they discovered that the new burrs on their espresso grinders were not performing well and one of their competition roast profiles had missed the mark, forcing them to switch over from using two familiar grinders and coffee from two roast dates to using one grinder borrowed from our amazing friends at Myriade and using exclusively the 4 day off roast coffee for all drinks.
Despite the challenges, Randy and Laura came through with style and had the most successful day of coffee competition in Bridgehead’s history. Randy qualified for the top 6 (in a pool of 15 regional winners) and impressed the crowd and judges with his poise, personable style and delicious coffee. Laura competed in the National Cup Taster’s Championship (a “triangulation” challenge where competitors have to identify coffees blind and on the clock) where she absolutely aced the first round, identifying all 8 sets of coffee correctly and finishing in the fastest time. She proved she can taste with the best of them!
The Finals for both the Cup Taster’s and Barista Championship were on Sunday. Randy was in a terrific mood having achieved what he came here for. He was last to go on the Finals day, and unfortunately Laura had to compete in the Cup Taster’s Final at the same time as Randy’s performance. Laura placed 3rd overall in the Nationals, a very significant achievement that was celebrated by everyone at the event. Randy put on an incredible performance in his competition and looked like he had aced it as well. The loudspeaker revealed the one thing that had tripped him up as he laughed off in a way true to his style “Oooh… those capps!!”. Despite the challenges on his cappuccino preparation (due to what he described with vigour as a consequence of the very powerful steam wands on the competition machines behaving “like the Hulk ripping his shirt off and just going to town on your milk” – to paraphrase. Still, he achieved some truly amazing scores that could possibly have put him in the top 3 nationally (which is seriously incredible for his first season). He finished 6th, an achievement we are all extremely proud of. He also got a HUGE trophy.
The title went to the very much deserving Josh Hockin of Transcend Coffee in Edmonton. Josh and his colleagues at Transcend have been trying to achieve this for years and we’re more than thrilled to have him representing us at the World Championship in Vienna next June. Congratulations to Josh, all the finalists and especially to Laura & Randy who represented us in true Bridgehead style: with dedication, integrity and love of the game.
See you all back in Ottawa soon!