It is the middle of summer and I am scrolling through the work WhatsApp group and see something that catches my attention: ‘couple of places left for DBC!!’. I must have been in an unusually great mood because I just said ‘yes, why not!’
Little did I know how this would send the next 3 months into a vacuum of time that felt more like 3 weeks.
The first initial meetings were so exciting – I was asked whether I had any theme I would like to explore: at the time, I was thinking…what? I should already know this?
And sure enough, a theme actually did come about due to what I was already exploring at the time in my own way. I remember thinking but there are so many other things that might be better, if only I have some time to figure it out – the classic perfectionist approach. Looking back, I am so grateful for the no-time-to-dwell methodology, because what probably would have happened would be a frenzy of looking through all previous WBC (World Barista Championship) entries and seeing what they talked about, leading to a choice that looked more in line with the current running narrative rather than something that has the potential to be fresh and unique.
Fast track a couple of weeks later, I become frighteningly aware of my long time span of working in coffee, yet I feel like I just started! There is nothing like a competition to catapult you into sharpening up your skills and knowledge in light-speed time.
I turned our tiny studio apartment into a science lab, with endless notes stuck to the walls and the kitchen counter sporting many herbs and spices that didn’t formerly live there, hoping to draw them in to a concoction that not only tastes incredible, but looks incredible too. The coming weeks were very disappointing… this is hard! Some words of encouragement from my partner kept me going as I clung on to the naivety of them.
It is already September and I still don’t know what coffee I am going to be working with… but somehow I have ideas for what the signature drink could be! You are awarded points for synergy of flavours, for example: Blueberry plus peach might produce a flavour such as strawberry. So whatever you are adding, needs to have a transformative power…. This is really hard!!
Luckily there are many elements to the competition: the script, the technical skills, the signature drinks and the overall presentation aesthetic. This helps when you are hitting a roadblock in one area!
My shame of not yet having the answers or the coffee led me to pull back from reaching out for help. “How could I be so behind? This is my problem, I must solve it” tended to be the dialogue in my head. Add a heaped spoon of family health crisis to the mix and you can visualise the spinning plates coming crashing down one after the other. I sat in the corner of hospital rooms in another land with my notepad, still optimistic about being ready for the looming day. It was emotionally taxing but I am not someone who likes to back down so that was never an option!
On my return, there was less than two weeks before the big day so I knew it was really time to roll my sleeves up! I sat on the phone at 05:00 before work, talking to the coffee merchant in India to glean as much information as I could about the coffee that I finally settled on. This part of the process was my favourite, although I don’t miss the unearthly hours of calling India! I felt so inspired by the community that produced the coffee I had selected that it gave me the surge of tenacity that I needed to carry me through to completion. I learned that the family member didn’t make it and that the funeral would be the same week as DBC – life works in curious ways! It almost came to a point of deciding whether I would choose the competition or the funeral but luckily they managed to secure the morning after the competition for the service, which was a stroke of luck!
It is the final few days before competition and our training room has been constantly in use. I get a glimpse at my colleague’s preparation and I feel flush as I see all the things that I should have been focusing on… the technical skills! I had been so caught up in the script and the creation of the signature beverage that I totally overlooked the importance of practicing the routine with the scales, machine and script all in one. “It’s fine, I have been working on the bar for so long, I have a lot of practice every day..” That train of thought did not serve me so well, as I would soon come to learn.
The much anticipated day is here! I am already in the training room at 06:30, polishing every glass I am going to use and making sure all the equipment is ready to be loaded into the van before we journey on to Almere. I have my suitcase and ticket on standby as I’ll be dropping everything after my competition run and straight to the airport to catch the only flight that day to Cork, Ireland.
Somehow my nerves have turned into excitement and I actually feel really pumped about what is ahead! The practice runs helped and the feedback was positive. I have the voice of my colleague in my head saying ‘Just enjoy it, it is already amazing that you are taking part!’.
The day is off to a smooth start, everyone is getting briefed all together and people are friendly and encouraging. My heart is of course running at 90mph, but I am playing it down.
The first couple of runs are going ahead and it seems very relaxed, much more than I expected. Finally my time is upon me, everything is going well in the preparation room and now I receive my cue to go upstairs and get mic’d up. Something about wearing a microphone propels me into a state of sheer dread and I feel like a deer caught in the headlights. But I catch my lovely colleagues in the audience routing for me: one is flailing her arms above her head in party mode and the other is encouraging me to inhale a breath of zen… I opt for zen. Oh god, oh god, oh god. The judges are filing through the room in a snake-like fashion. It suddenly feels very formal! Just enjoy it, I tell myself.
The following 15 minutes are a mixture of nerves, fun, out-of-body surrealism, enjoyment (this is going pretty well!) and confusion (why on earth is my shot running for 16 seconds?!). Well, it was more like 18 minutes by the time I really finished, which means automatic disqualification but I didn’t care! I got through it, I was happy with my presentation despite some major technical issues such as not tamping my first shot..I survived it! I remember at one stage noticing that I was speaking and the judges were looking back at me, some smiling, some looking unmoved and just being aware that I didn’t know how the words were coming out of my mouth – it didn’t feel like me!
As I sat on the plane that very same afternoon, I felt so damn accomplished! What an undertaking it was. The result did not matter, the sun was shining and I was on my way to be with my family. I was so happy to hear my colleague made it through and I genuinely had a lot of admiration for that because it takes a heck of a lot of work to pull all the elements together. Success!