Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Zambia Baristas

The incredible explosion of cafe culture in Zambia is more than a side-note.  In 5 years, we've witnessed what feels like the birth of an industry.  While the growers have been busy planting, harvesting, drying and selling beans for ages in the Munali Hills for years, it's really just in the last 5 that there has been a demand for fresh coffee in Zambia.  Previously instant Nescafe and powdered milk ruled the 'scene' and coffee fans were kind of on their own.  Look how far it's come!  Last year the Blue Moon sent two of their best baristas to the world competition in Vienna and this year....who knows!  (we'll know tonight, actually)  The winner will carry on to the World Championship in Melbourne, Australia.  

The competition itself is intense and involves a head judge overseeing all the judges:  2 technical judges and 4 sensory judges plus an official timer.  There could be a visual judge somewhere in there as well.  The technical judging is a bit of a mystery to me but it involves the technical part, duh.  Like what?  Well, like how do they handle the equipment, how clean is their station, how even is their tamping, how hot is their milk.  I'm making some guesses here but that's some of it.

The sensory judging I got to know a bit, having gone through the training and from judging the first of five sessions in the competition this year.  The sensory judge's day starts with a 'calibration' session.  One of the technical judges pulls some shots and we all sample and get our palettes ready as they explain what tastes are coming thru for each shot; we all nod our heads in agreement (ideally!) Then, the competition begins.

Each competitor has a chance to practice on the machines, which are provided for the competition.  They have 15 minutes to get ready for their individual session -- setting the judge's places, collecting and placing their ingredients, checking everything over, etc.  Then they have 15 minutes to make, serve and very (critically) importantly EXPLAIN their drinks:  4 espressos, 4 cappuccinos and 4 specialty drinks.  They need to 'know' their coffee intimately: where is it from, what elevation does it grow at, how many days has it been resting (4 days from roasting is optimal here), and of course, what are the flavour notes of the coffee.  The espresso can be:  acid/bitter/sweet/smooth/light/bold/full/rich and the range of tastes goes from grass, lemon, citrus to chocolate, red current, molasses and everything in between. (Tasters have a separate 'tasting' competition of their own even.)

The session begins....The barista explains what their coffee 'plan' for the session is and fills the judges in on what very specific tastes they are going to encounter.  The barista can be as chatty as they like but they had better not lose track of what they are doing.  15 minutes goes by quickly.  Once served, the sensory judges first check the 'crema' of the espresso -- does it cover the entire glass?  are their breaks? does it 'stretch'?  is it persistent?  Next, how does it taste?  Like they set it on high and walked away to chat or like it was extracted for the 'perfect' 27 seconds?  (each roast/blend has their own optimal extraction time).  The judges then spoon thru the crema with three short strokes and then take 2 sips.  They note the taste scores based on their experience and rate the espresso also against what the barista told them.  If they said it would be lemony and it isn't, the score reflects the omission.

Next comes the cappucino.  The sensory judges first evaluate the 'service.'  Is there coffee and milk dripping down the sides?  how does the foam look?  Is there a nice even dark brown ring around the edge?  If they tried latte art, is it symmetrical and even?  Is there a lot of contrast between the dark and light in the artwork?  (See what I mean about this being an intense competition??!) Next, the judges run a spoon thru the foam.  Is it smooth and velvety?  glossy?  Are their microbubbles that melt back into the spoon's path? Does the foam stack up nicely behind the spoon?  Only then do they TASTE.  The judges are to turn the mug and taste where the foam was not disturbed.  Two sips.  Is it too milky? how is the temperature? Is there a nice balance in coffee/milk taste?  Is the milk sweet and carmelised? Does the coffee flavour come thru nicely?  Is it balanced? And, once again, how does it stack up against what the barista said it would be?

Lastly, the specialty drink.  The barista can prepare any non-alcoholic espresso based drink. While I have heard of some very, uh, unpleasant experimental 'signature drinks' our session thankfully featured some lovely drinks.  One had fresh mint steeped in cream, another made a guava-espresso smoothie (we were all dubious, but it worked), another had honey and banana (also worked), etc.  The most memorable was the "Blue Moon Pancake" prepared by their newest barista.  After the signature drink the sensory judges also evaluate the barista's performance, appearance, professionalism and overall charm (for lack of a better word.)  Did their passion and knowledge come through in their presentation?

Did they finish in time?  There is (maybe?) a one minute grace period.  If they go over, points are deducted.  If they REALLY go over, they are disqualified.  The judging carries on and they are given feedback and comments afterwards but they are excluded from advancing.   This happened to the 'favourite' last year and she was disqualified.  Thankfully, her sponsoring cafe secured funding which allowed her to accompany the 2012 Champion, Dailass, to the all-Africa competition and the World Competition.  This is another experience altogether -- the baristas don't just go for a holiday, they have classes and training and all kinds of opportunities to work with and learn from the world's best baristas.  And when the timer starts, they have their 'shot' at Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame! Every barista has their own story of course but many of the Blue Moon staff are the most unlikely baristas, thanks in part to the unique relationship that the cafe has with an amazing grassroots Women's and Orphan's Project, Chikumbuso. 

Enough explaining, eh?  Enjoy the photos and keep an ear to the wind to hear who won!


special thanks to the little guy who too frequently is my bag-watcher, drink-tester, seat-saver, lens-cap holder, and chocolate-taster. he is BEGGING to try Emeldah's signature "Pancakes" drink! (how can I resist?)

LATE BREAKING NEWS:  2013 Zambia Barista Champion:  Miriam from the Blue Moon Cafe, Runner-Up:  Emeldah from the Blue Moon Cafe.  The ladies are off to Melbourne, Australia...stay tuned for fundraising news! Click way for PAST REPORTS from the Blue Moon, (only in it's 3rd year of operation!) including a piece on their 2012 champion, Dailass and the backstory on her signature beverage, the iced Macademia Nut Milk latte.

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