“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”
The semifinals are tomorrow – this week has been hard, with many highs and lows and whatever happens tomorrow I’m really excited about the team and the work I’ve been a little bit of this year
I wanted to write a full account of everything we’ve done, why we did it, and why I think it matters but I can’t string a sentence together at the moment, so instead here is ales account…
My first exposure to a barista competition was during the SCAA Event in Boston in March 2013. I was with a friend and we wandered into the back of the exhibition hall, where the competitions were going on. We found some free coffee and a seat and started to watch. We had no idea what was going on and at some point my friend said to me “this is like watching paint dry on a wall” and we bailed.
Some months afterward, through Twitter I heard about the World Barista Championships happening. That night, while I was in bed waiting for my wife to join me, I decided to visit the site and watched a streaming video of the competition. That was it, I was hooked. The worst part was that my wife was hooked too. We both know enough about an espresso (at least the theory behind it) that we got really interested in following the competition. Three competitors we specifically wanted to see: the competitor from Costa Rica because my wife is from Costa Rica, the Competitor from El Salvador, because I am from El Salvador and finally, the competitor from Ireland, Colin Harmon, whom Steve has a partnership with and is a buyer and supporter of Finca Argentina Coffee. So, we went through the rounds and watched the performances. I thought that some were stronger than others and there were some really great ones. At the end of the first two rounds, we had clear favorites and it was really exciting to see.
At one point, while watching the competition I noticed that Dale was participating via chat. I met Dale once before while visiting the UK on a previous trip and had exchanged a few tweets with him. That was the extent of our previous interaction. He obviously knew about the competition so we exchanged through the chat some insights, concerns and strategies. I really liked Colin’s signature drink that year, where he bottled the coffee in a beer style presentation. So did Dale. In the end, El Salvador came in third and Ireland fourth.
A few months after that, in August of last year, I got an email from Steve, basically asking me if I was fine with Dale using the coffee from Finca Argentina for the UK barista competition. My first reaction was to ask myself WHY?…and then to ask Steve. Steve’s response was simple, “because he likes your coffee and thinks it would do great in an espresso”. So, I asked him again…WHY? This time he also added that Dale wanted to work with someone that was passionate about the competition and someone that is willing to try something new. That hit home and having overcome my surprise, I basically told Steve that we should totally do it.
As soon as Dale got the green light, we set up a call and started to work on the process. Dale discussed briefly with me his idea for the competition. In a nutshell, he wanted me as a farmer to give him the absolutely best possible coffee I could get irrespective of the cost. Being a little late in the season, I told Dale that we could improve the trees nutrition via foliar spraying, and that in turn should improve the bean quality. I had read some research prior that basically said there is no statistically significant impact on production quantity from using foliar sprays but the research never discussed the effect on quality. So, I decided to set it up as an experiment and to evaluate the impact of foliar spraying on bean quality.
Having agreed with Dale on the tablon to use and the process for the coffee afterwards (semi-washed or pulped natural), I set up three parcels or divisions within the tablon called San Jorge. San Jorge is basically 3 manzanas in area, so roughly one manzana for each treatment. On parcel 3, no foliar sprays were applied, except just for the Roya treatments. In parcel 2, we applied full foliar treatments and in parcel 1, we applied the full foliar treatment with the addition of molybdenum into the mix.
In order show some results, we decided to feed the plant in the extreme. As I told Dave once: “let’s do it like we are producing Fois Grais, and let’s stuff food down the coffee plant throat.”…So, we set a foliar spray every fifteen days which is the amount of time it takes the plant to move the nutrients from the leaves to the whole plant. And so it began, every fifteen days we were spraying the coffee plants in parcel 1 and 2. If you think about it, in a well run farm the norm is usually five foliar spray applications a year. At San Jorge, we did 9 foliar sprays in the span of three months. In total for the year, there were 11 foliar spray applications. Not only did we spray more applications but also the dosage that we used was doubled from the normal dosage and in some cases tripled depending on the nutrient that was being used. Those plants got potassium, calcium, magnesium, boron, zinc, nitrogen and other microelements in excess. At one point, I was concerned that we could be intoxicating the plant but everything worked out fine.
Thereafter, it was time for the harvesting and processing. Dale was desperate. The preliminary rounds of the UKBC were in February and he needed to get the coffee…without coffee, there was no routine. I was even more concerned because the blossoming happened late that year, which meant that the harvest got delayed by about a month to a month and a half. So, around Christmas time, the 23rd of December, I went to San Jorge for a final inspection. The refractometer showed that there were cherries in the 23-25 brix range. That meant it was good to do a first pass and harvest the ripe cherries. And so we did, like a Christmas present on December 27th the first cherries were harvested. We got 8 bags total from the three lots. I personally picked the bags from Finca Argentina in my pick-up truck and drove them to the mill. I just wanted to make sure that the coffee was not going to be misplaced. I guess I really wanted to make sure that everything was going to turn out right. My main concern was that the harvest was the worst ever in the farm history and simply, there was little coffee. So, I did not have any coffee to waste.
The following morning, on December 28th, I showed up at the mill at 6:30am to make sure the depulping was going to be done right. Again, I was being paranoid and extra careful about not having enough coffee. A few hours after depulping, washing and moving the coffee to the patio, I decided to inform Dale and finally go home to get some rest.
My part was almost over. All that was needed was to verify that the coffee indeed improved from the treatments that we did. Luckily for us, Steve visited just in time after the coffee was dried and ready. He tried it…suspen! did the experiment work? I thought they were very similar. Steve thought there was a 4 point difference between the control sample and the competition sample. Finally, I was relieved. So we patched Dale in via Skype to inform him of our findings. The coffee was on his way to him. He received it just in time for the preliminary competition in Manchester.The night of Dale’s routine I could not sleep. I was a nervous wreck. Steve had only said that Dale is a good barista and that he can hold his own. I watched some competitors on the days prior to his routine and thought that there are some really good presentations. So, I woke up at 3:00am to turn on the streaming service…silence…nothing…WTF!!!…then music came on…finally, 20 minutes late Dale appeared on the screen. It started…14:58 minutes later it finished. I was in shock. I thought the routine was amazing. I had no idea that Dale was that good. Who knew? No one told me. I was so excited for him and glad that I participated together with him to make it happen.Now, I am writing this a day prior from my trip to the UKBC at the London Coffee Fest and hope that Dale makes it into the World Championship. Even if he does not, the experience has been extraordinary and something that I have learned a lot from. And if he does not make it, please, don’t blame the coffee.