Journey to the world stage: CIGS 2019
Updated: Apr 19, 2020
Hello everyone! It’s June 2019 and I thought that since I hadn’t written in a while, I’d share a story with you. A story about how I came 5th in the world in a competition called ‘Coffee in Good Spirits‘ (CIGS). This is the world’s largest coffee-based cocktail competition and this year, it was held in my home city of Berlin.
But how did it all happen? To be honest, it’s all still a bit surreal for me … but let’s start at the beginning.
Coffee in Good Spirits
I am a competitor. I take part in barista competitions. And this year in January, I wanted to defend my title as the German Barista Champion, having won in 2018. So I took part in the German barista championship and despite months of training, practising over and over, what shall I say … I didn’t win.
All those months of training, of commitment and rehearsing and then my coffee just wasn’t on point. All of us only had one go. Only 15 minutes to show the judges the results of months of hard work and I couldn’t convince them enough. So of course, I was pretty devastated.
After the barista championship had ended, my bosses and I were at the bar of the hotel we were staying in, enjoying a glass of champagne to at least celebrate my third place. Then, I had an idea; the World of Coffee, Europe’s premier coffee expo was being held in Berlin in 2019 so I said, “How about I compete in CIGS?”
My bosses replied “Don’t you have enough? You just competed today and are already thinking about the next comp! Well … you do you.” The best thing is that I know that I can always count on their support, so my idea became reality as I had soon applied to compete in the CIGS competition, to be held two months later.
For anyone who is unfamiliar with the competition, it involves the competitor making a series of coffee-based cocktails to present to a panel of judges. Except of 15 minutes, there are multiple components, including the Spirit Bar, Stage Performance and if you’re lucky, Finals. But more about this later.
I read the rules, I made a presentation and drinks, without having any clue about how to mix coffee and alcohol. I had never held a cocktail shaker in my hands until I started training. At the same time, I was also really busy at work and had to attend several conventions, which resulted in a very, very short training time.
I rehearsed the whole presentation maybe 3 to 4 times in front of people and drove to Unterhaching in Bavaria, where the event was held. And somehow … I won! It was such a cool event, such a chilled atmosphere and the people that I met really made it one of my funniest competitions ever.
So now, after years of competing in Barista competitions and wanting to reach the world stage, I finally had my golden ticket to take part in a world competition! And the best part was, it was being hosted in my home town!! So no traveling, so packing, no driving, perfect.
In April, I travelled to the SCA Expo in Boston, USA to work with Urnex and Vittoria Arduino, as well as watch the World Barista Championship. I was able to watch many competitors on stage, as well as see a lot of the preparation backstage.
During the expo, I met a super well known and amazing coffee producer, Jamison Savage, who produces incredible coffees at his farm Finca Deborah in Panama. He said that he had a coffee in mind for me to use for Coffee in Good Spirits, but only 2.5 kg. I said “That’s perfect! How much can I possibly need for a couple of drinks hey?”
Waiting for spirits
I returned to Berlin and Jamison organised the shipment of coffee from Panama. As soon as the coffee arrived, we roasted a sample on our 50g test roaster. It was amazing! But then, we realised…. we only have a 35kg roaster at the shop. Or the 50g sample roaster. So no jok, in the end my boss roasted the 2.5 kg in 50 gr batches. It took him about 16 hours!
Once the coffee was sorted I started collecting ideas and contacted my judges to give me feedback. My performance that won the German Coffee in Good Spirits competition was based on a talk about strong women in coffee and good spirits. I really liked this topic, but as THE local in this world competition, playing this card seemed to be the most obvious and advantageous topic. My performance then became a tour through Berlin moments, in both summer and in winter.
I started writing my script. And then, I had to wait. The CIGS rules are very, very different to Barista and they also include sponsored alcohol. The tricky thing is, the spirits that you have to use are announced only four weeks prior the championship.
I tried to think about this positively, as every competitor has the same amount of time to practice. The downside of it for me was that I was used to preparing my presentations for about 3-4 months. So obviously, I was stressed out.
The waiting time killed me. I tried making different drinks but at the end of the day I was always thinking ‘This makes absolutely no sense at all. It could be any spirit. If I make drinks now, they will probably not work with the given spirits.’
So, what to do? I messaged the German Ibrik champion, my good friend Sinan, to see if needed help. While I waited to learn about my spirits, I spent time and energy helping him to prepare his championship. We chatted for hours on the telephone, writing his script, designing a presentation. He came to Berlin and we chose his coffee, decided on recipes and ratios and designed his signature drink.
And then finally, I got the mail with the sponsor alcohols. What a relief!
How the CIGS Competition works
Let me explain the rules: in the CIGS competition, you have different rounds. The first round is called the ‘Spirit Bar’. In this component, you have 6 minutes time. Before your presentation you have to roll a dice, on which are a few different spirits - the sponsor spirits. Depending on the spirit you roll, you have to present a drink.
The given spirits where licor 43, licor 43 baristo and grey goose vodka. The stage for the spirit bar is quite small and it isn’t normally filmed so many people don’t really know what’s involved in it and there is nearly no footage online (which is difficult if you want to know what the competitors from previous years have done). Luckily, mine was filmed by someone watching in the crowd - you can watch it here.
The next round is stage time on the big stage, in front of a lot of people. You have 10 minutes to make two different drinks; one has to be warm, one has to be cold. One has to contain espresso, the other one has to be made with filter coffee. And in one of your drinks you have to use the sponsor alcohol, which in this case was gin meridor from the Loire Valley, France.
The points of your spirit bar round and your stage time will be count together and all those points will decide if you scored high enough to make it to the top 6, who become the finalists. In the finals you have 10 minutes again to make two different drinks again - this time the only rules are different: you have to make an Irish Coffee, containing only coffee, sweetener, whisky and unflavoured cream, and the other drink (a ‘designer drink’ of your choice) must contain gin meridor.
Countdown to comp
So far so good. But hang on a second…. That means i have to prepare three different drinks for the spirit bar, then two different drinks for the stage time and the again 2 drinks for the final. Phew. Where to start? I said to myself “Ok Nicole, calm down and organise yourself. You have 4 weeks. Make a timetable.”
First week: brainstorming and finding recipes. Writing scripts for each drink. Check.
Second week: practice all your spirit bar drinks. Do they taste? Whats the best ratio? Whats the best set up? Am i in time?
Third week: practice stage time one. How are the drinks? Whats the text? Whats the set up? How much time did i have again?
Last week before comp: practice finals and start officially freaking out.
So during my first week, a friend who is a bartender came over and we brainstormed together. Creativity flew, we had some amazing ideas and I could also use components of my drinks from the German Championship. We wrote everything down and during the next few days, I organised all the ingredients and equipment, as well as writing texts for each drink. End of the week we started mixing, tasted coffee, set ratios and techniques. All of this whilst working normal hours as a barista.
During the second week of preparation, I met three days with the bartender and we trained workflow. I started training at about 9am, finished at 1pm and started my normal shift at 2 until 7, then went home and tried to learn text and make drink decorations.
A lot of the decoration was..well, not great. The ideas were much better then the actual results… so every time i showed something to my bosses, they gave me the most honest feedback: it was terrible. And I felt terrible. How was I supposed to learn all of this in such short time?
My shakers exploded, I spilled half my drinks, my decoration was sh*t and i was struggling to remember the right words. I had to buy ingredients every day and i was constantly running against the time that was ticking. So week 2, pretty demotivating, but, I still managed to fulfil the tasks from my timetable.
During the third week, I had to start performing in front of people. So again, 9am at the shop, train until 1-1.30pm then work. On my days off, I trained the whole day. Most of the presentations weren’t even within the time limits. But at least I made it a couple of times, which showed me that it was possible. I invited judges, friends, anyone that could give me a qualified feedback.
Most of them loved my drinks. The feedback i got was so positive that I didn’t believe it. I thought they are just trying to be nice, or i thought they were joking. I even specifically said “Be as honest and cruel as possible”. But apparently the narrative of my performance had a lot of fans and the drinks were tasting good.
So week three, definitely getting to the point of exhaustion but also, great feedback, self confidence (as far as my stubborn mind would allow it) and delicious drinks and again in time.
One week before World of Coffee and the CIGS competition, I had became a daily regular at the mall where i bought my ingredients. I was very tired and I couldn’t think of anything worse than drinking coffee cocktails in the morning. I printed my menus, bought my final glasses, my trainings were 3-4 run throughs of the three spirit bar presentations and the stage time.
Then I practiced a presentation for the finals round, for exactly five times. However, the Irish Coffee didn’t taste right, the coffee wasn’t right for it. But I thought “Hey, I won’t make it to the finals anyway, so better focus on giving a solid presentation in the other rounds.”
I mean, come on, I’d seen the line up. Dan Fellows (UK), the former CIGS world champion, the second and the third placed competitors as well…. 2018 World Barista Champion Agnieszka Rojewska (Poland) who just wins everything, and two other world champions who had won latte art. I was happy to be on a world stage and all I wanted was to not place last.
My final run throughs with an audience where terrible. I forgot the vodka in the vodka drink,I forgot other ingredients, I spilled everything, my shakers didn’t come undone or they weren’t sealed enough… everything went wrong, believe me. And the worst part - I was never in time. Unless I forgot the main ingredient.
Despite this, I thought “I am probably not the only one stressing out” and because I seriously wanted the other competitors to have a good time in Berlin, I suggested to ur bosses that we open up our training room for other competitors.
For some reason I had this urge to give everyone a great experience. They are all coming to my city and i want them to go with: Berlin, what a freaking awesome city! And that is exactly what I love about the World of Coffee event; every time i went, as a visitor or working, I always had the best time! I just really wanted to share this.
So we rented out our location and the first guys came on the 3rd of June, so three days before the comp. They had 2 hour slots and I was quite busy hosting all of them, organising ingredients and helping them. On the same day Sinan, the German Ibrik Champion, came to taste his coffee with me. We spent five hours discussing, deciding, changing dose and temperature….until we finally had it. A bright clean geisha Ibrik.
So many people came to the shop and I was so busy that all I could do was stop worrying, and to start being excited about all the people that i will meet or see again, one of them being my boyfriend who flew all the way over from Australia to support me. In his bag he also had some coffee for me. He said it would be perfect for the Irish Coffee, so I just trusted him and thought: “Hey, what are the odds?”
World of Coffee - Spirit Bar
On Wednesday we had our competitor meeting with the World Coffee Events team, who host the competition. The convention was still being built and I arrived with my cart and my equipment for the first day.
Everyone was quite stressed. I watched the other competitors setting up their equipment and well, everything was so beautiful and shiny with so much decoration, and I was sitting there with my bar mats and my glasses. No fancy setup or anything. But that was okay, because if I would start to panic now, where is the point in that? It was too late to change anything anyway.
On the same day we also had our practice slots of 30 minutes, where we could use the sponsored machines and grinders to practice. My slot was quite late, at 5:15. Plenty of time to see what all of the others did. They made drinks, they tasted and I was just thinking: “I have made these drinks 100 times. If it doesn’t taste good now, I’m screwed anyway. And i only have 30 minutes, thats nothing.”
So I think I was the only competitor who just checked their equipment. I used my time to see how long I will need to set everything up and that was it. At the end of the day I could finally pick up my boyfriend from the airport and we chatted for the rest of the evening. I was so incredibly happy to finally see him again after several months, and all of my competition stress seemed irrelevant.
Thursday was the first competition day, and the Spirit Bar. We arrived at 8 in the morning and I did what felt like my 100th equipment check. I took my time, I packed my trolley in slow motion. In addition to this, staff from the venue had trouble communicating to competitors and organisers, so I helped everyone who needed a translator. I felt much more like a volunteer than a competitor.
At 2pm i had my Spirit Bar performance. Five minutes prep time and six minutes presentation. I rolled the dice and rolled ‘licor 43 baristo’ - after that, I can’t remember a thing. After watching the video of my presentation I still think it’s a different person. I transformed into a coffee cocktail stage robot. All i remember is that I was in time and that I said everything. I had no clue if it was good or not; but I felt ok. So And I had finally done it, I had competed on a world stage! The first part was over.
After my presentation i went to the Ibrik stage where Sinan had his performance. We stared at each other, knowing that only the two of us understood what is happening right now. He did so well, I was so proud of him. In time, clean, good stage presence. Afterwards I gave him a hug and went back to my trolley and equipment backstage. I packed up what I didn’t need anymore and drove to work, to unpack the spirit bar equipment and pack the stage time equipment.
After all this, my boyfriend and I went and ate pizza at my favourite restaurant. It was perfect. We laughed, we drank and I could spend time with the most important person for me. It was the best thing I could have ever done before the big day. I was so relaxed, so calm, so happy.
World of Coffee - Stage Time
We arrived early again. My run was at 2.30 pm and I had all the time in the world to set up my trolley. Every hour I went outside and practiced my speech. With every hour it got better. At first I struggled and mixed up the texts from the first day and the second day, but after saying it a few times I got it together. And then it was my turn.
Of course things went wrong. I forgot to open the hopper of my grinder, which meant on stage it took longer to grind coffee… but otherwise, I remembered all of the words. I gave all the right drinking instructions and I loved sharing the Berlin story on stage. After my run everyone congratulated me and I just said “I have no idea, only the judges know.” We went backstage and opened some beers, and waited.
The results were announced at about 7pm. So we went to the Ibrik stage at 3.30pm, were the announcement for the finals were held. They called them out one by one: Russia … Ukraine … Poland… when 5 of the 6 finalists stood on stage and Sinan wasnt one of them, I didn’t care, because I was proud anyway.
Suddenly, they announced the last name - SINAN! He made it!! Sinan wasn’t just the first ever German Ibrik champion, but had also made it to the finals in the world competition! A photographer with a passion for coffee, with a presentation that we made together, a coffee that we choose, a signature drink ….I mean everything was his and my work. I cried. I was so freaking happy I struggle to put it in words. I already felt like I had won. What ever else would happen with my own competition, I had helped a friend to reach the finals in a world championship!!!!
We went back to the CIGS backstage area. And we waited. And waited. And we chatted to other competitors, until finally the announcements came up. Everyone had to queue up and us competitors drank whisky before we went out. I was standing next to my friend, the Australian competitor and 201 3rd place CIGS winner, Danny Wilson. They called out the finalists one by one … UK … Thailand … Hong Kong … Poland … Greece… and when the 5th spot got announced, I held Danny’s shoulder and said “Now it’s your turn, you got this.”
I wanted to push him to the front but then … they announced my name. WHAT? This is a joke right? The crowd was going insane, with my friends, colleagues and so many German coffee people screaming and jumping in the crowd. Agnieszka came to me and said after a couple of seconds I should start breathing again. Me? I was one of the 6 World CIGS finalists?!
World of Coffee - Finals
After my name was announced as a finalist, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed. I had people running up to congratulate me but I couldn’t quite comprehend what had happened. I never thought I would have a chance of getting to the top 6, and there I was.
I went backstage with my bosses and boyfriend, still trying to understand what had happened. Slowly I realised “Okay, I’m in the finals. I have to come back tomorrow and go again.” But then, I also realised “Oh god. I have barely practised for this! We have to go to the shop!” I have never even tried the Irish coffee using the coffee my boyfriend had brought, and I had only practised a few times with the other one.
So, we went back to the shop and we made Irish Coffees … a lot of them. It was my boyfriend Jordan, Hugh Kelly from Australia, my flatmate Nathan and Philip, a friend from southern Germany. We made about 16 coffees and after a while, we were all highly overdosed with cream and nearly vomiting.
Don’t get me wrong, the taste was really really good and the coffee Jordan brought was great for the competition. It was just the amount of coffee combined with whisky and cream killed us after this already kind of eventful day. At 11.30pm Jordan said “We have to stop and get some sleep.” I was quite on edge. I was soooo tired, felt so sick and still couldn’t believe i would be performing in the finals in a few short hours.
In bed I asked him what the presentation shall be. I thought about the routine from the German Championship and I still had the text in mind - women in coffee and good spirits, working together. We dozed for only a couple of hours; too much coffee, too much everything.
On the way to the convention Jordan said “Do the same presentation that you did yesterday, but with all the new drink information. Use your home advantage and make it about Berlin.” I thought “Okay, that’s doable.” My stage time was at around 2pm again. We arrived at the convention around 8.30am and it was one then that I started learning the text for the Irish coffee, three hours before stage time.
As we practiced, I looked Jordan in the eyes and said “ You know i’ve never done this routine before. I always improvised, and said ‘Imagine that I am using two clever drippers now’”, I’d never actually done it before. In the backstage area I remember that I fell asleep for a couple of seconds here and there because i was so tired. Everyone else just said “Wow, she is so calm.” Trust me, I wasn’t!
It came time to go on stage. I didn’t feel ready, but we had done as much as we could since the announcements the day before and I just wanted to do the best job possible. It was the first time I had ever done this routine on stage, so we had no idea if I would stay in time or not.
I can’t remember much of what happened on stage. Afterwards I asked everyone “Did I say my tasting notes?” and “Was it okay?” and overall, people seemed happy. The only thing that I messed up was that I forgot to say the brew ratio of my coffee, which is essential for judges. But I thought “Hey, can't change it now, can I?”
I was the final competitor of the day so between me and the announcements, it was just waiting. So we had to wait, and wait, and wait. We sat backstage with other competitors, sharing our drinks and the various ingredients we’d used for our cocktails. We cleaned our equipment, put everything in the car, had a few drinks and then finally, the big moment came.
When they announced the first name, I completely expected it to be me. I didn’t even think I’d make the finals, surely I would be last in the top 6. When they didn’t call my name, I was in shock.
They called my name next. I had placed 5th in the WORLD! I placed 5th, only three points off 4th, who was the former runners up from last year. After all the announcements had finished and Dan Fellows (UK) had been announced as first for the second consecutive year, so many people rushed on stage to take photographs, to congratulate competitors and to finally relax.
That night there was a big party and a gigantic sense of relief. Finally, it was over! It had been a very stressful, but very rewarding experience and I thought “I think i can be proud of myself.” I never thought that I could compete with the big players, but I did. And it‘s not over.
This experience has shown me that there is talent in me and that the hard work that I put into my championships does pay off. I started believing in myself, at least a little bit, and I hope that i can share my passion with more people over the next years.
Thank you so much for reading, and … Time!