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The Odyssey of World of Coffee Athens: Part I

For the last seven years, I have competed in back-to-back coffee competitions, including the Barista, Brewers Cup, Cup Tasters and Coffee in Good Spirits Championships.

In late 2022, I decided that I wanted to take a break and share my experience with others. I wanted to grow as a coffee professional – so, I applied to be a judge in coffee competitions and was also given the opportunity to coach and help some other baristas and coffee lovers.

My mantra was set: Share knowledge and grow from the experience of pushing others to do their best. This sounded quite calm and structured … little did I know what was coming!

The following is the story of me and several competitors travelling to the World Coffee Championships this year in Athens – what it took to get there, all the struggles we faced, and the victories we shared. I hope it serves as inspiration for anyone that wants to compete in coffee, or to push themselves beyond the boundaries of what they think they’re capable of.

Two Brewers, a Coach and a Plan

After my results at the World Brewers Cup in 2022, I was determined to become more involved with judging, coaching and helping other competitors achieve success. After being lucky enough to judge the 2023 Polish Brewers Cup, I started to get a number of messages from aspiring competitors from Germany and across Europe, who wanted to improve their skills for the competition stage.

I figured that a great way to share knowledge would be to host a course – so, I organised and hosted a five-hour course on the Compulsory Service component of the Brewers Cup, hosted at the BER Rancilio Station in Berlin.

One of the attendees of this course was Erik Freudenberg, a 21-year-old student who is a passionate home brewer and previously won the Filter Coffee Cup competition in Germany. Erik and I had previously spoken about different options for competition coffee, and I had connected him with a roastery that had found a coffee for him to use.

When it came time for the German Brewers Cup, I was amazed … all the attendees of my Compulsory Service Course that competed made it to the finals, placing in the top three qualifiers! And incredibly, Erik – a first time Brewers Cup competitor – won the competition and became one of the youngest coffee championship winners in German history.

Soon after Erik was announced as the new Brewers Cup Champion, I decided to try and help him further and continue training with him to prepare for the world stage. I already had a coffee in mind that I’d tasted previously, so I had some kilos sent over.

I roasted it, tried it and fell in love. This coffee was so special, so sweet, so complex and clean that I couldn’t forget about it. I showed it to Erik and he agreed – we had a plan and were ready to go!

Meanwhile, my friend Vladislav Demonenko asked me to help him for his national brewers cup, which took place in Ukraine during mid-May. To be honest, I was scared. I didn’t want him to go to Ukraine as it is a country at war and it is very risky to go there, but his mind was made up. He said if he would win, he would qualify for next year's brewers cup in Chicago, which would give us enough time to prepare properly.

Preparing Vladi was easy as we already worked together last year, preparing for the World Coffee in Good Spirits Competition in 2022. We know how to work with each other and have become great friends since last year. When he approached me I didn’t hesitate and gave him a draft of a presentation that I prepared just for fun. I know that sounds odd, but I had an idea and got inspired by a dry ice technique I have seen in Brazil, performed by the talented Gabriel Agrelli.

Gabriel used special Sake bottles and used dry ice to chill his brewed coffee, capturing the volatile compounds in the extracted coffee. It reminded me immediately of Coffee in Good Spirits and I wanted the European coffee scene to experience this beautiful way of brewing as well. Thank you Gabriel for this beautiful inspiration and your amazing performance in Brazil!

So I created a performance and text around this technique, we changed the wording a bit to not match me but to match Vladi’s style of performance, and we used the same coffee I had received for Eriks world presentation. This way, we were hoping to get feedback on the coffee before the World Brewers Cup.

So the plan was made: Use the same coffee, get feedback for Erik, and as Vladi would compete in 2024 if he won, we would all learn and be happy.

So Vladi went to Ukraine and competed, but he wasn’t alone. His 18 year old brother, Ruslan competed at the same time in a different discipline, the Ukrainian Barista Championship, also using the same coffee. And somehow, they did the impossible – Vladi and Ruslan won each of their disciplines! I was so proud of them, and so happy that I was able to play a part in such a meaningful moment in their lives. As a plus, we also received great feedback for the coffee and felt super confident.

And this was when things started to get difficult.

A wonderboy named Ruslan

Photo: Katie Burnett

After Vladi had won his nationals the Ukrainian championship, he received the news that he didn’t qualify for next year’s competition in Chicago, but for this year in Athens … which was 4 weeks away. To make things more difficult, Ruslan would also have to compete in Athens – so we’d have to train them for a world competition in just over a month’s time.

This scenario isn’t new to competitors, and many have had to deal with a short turnaround time from national to world level. However, I started worrying as I didn’t have enough coffee to support all three competitors. I asked the producer to send me more, he said no worries and we started making a plan – Erik already was in the middle of his practice, for Vladi we didn’t really have to change too much as he got great feedback and now, we kind of had to focus on Vladis brother, Ruslan.

When I saw Ruslan win, I was so happy for both him and Vladi them. It showed how great Vladi has become as a coach and mentor, and it made me so proud. However, for the World Barista Championship Ruslan would have to compete in English – the problem was: he doesn’t speak any English.

It is possible to use a translator on stage, but it is often really difficult and it severely reduces how much you can say on stage. After the two of them had finished celebrating, I said that he has to come to Berlin as soon as possible so I could coach him in his routine – but mainly help him with language and intonation.

We waited patiently for the government to approve his visa to leave the country. In Ukraine, men over the age of 18 are currently not allowed to leave the country unless they have a special reason. With every day that passed we got more anxious. I wrote his concept and speech, trying to match the drinks that Vladislav designed with the overall topic of ‘Unity’. We went through my old competition gear and sent as much as possible to Ukraine so he could start practicing and memorising sentences of his speech.

After 1 and a half weeks of waiting it was clear … Ruslan wasn’t allowed to come to Berlin. Instead, he only received a visa to travel to Athens on the 18th of June, which was only 4 days before the World Barista Championships began. So, online training it was. I ordered more coffee to send to Ukraine and we started scheduling training plans for each competitor.

Erik and I used the weekends to practice together, and Vladi and I practiced during the week. I was constantly asking to see Ruslans performance as well but he said he needs a couple days more to learn the text. With 2 and a half weeks to go, Ruslan presented the first time in front of us via video call. I then realized the extent of how impossible this mission seemed to be.

Ruslan had learned 15 minutes of English text by heart, word for word. I couldn’t believe he didn’t understand me when I provided feedback, because surely you must speak the language if you can memorise 15 minutes. But everytime he finished we needed Vladi to translate between us. We tried our best to improve his workflow, but there is a very limited amount of detail you can even see online.

Some days we couldn’t see his run throughs at all, because the internet in Ukraine didn’t work. He messaged us with air sirens in the background and more than once we finished our call and I teared up because I just thought that his situation wasn't fair. No preparation time, no proper possibility to practice, everything seemed a bit improvised. But every time we hit a problem, Vladi, Ruslan and the whole Ukrainian crew just didn’t give up and tried to fix it.

The coffee struggle

As I mentioned earlier, we had to reorder coffee to make sure everyone could compete. After the first reorder arrived (of course one week later than planned due to German customs), Vladi and I roasted and cupped it. But something was off. The coffee had the same name but the label was different and it didn’t taste like the coffee we had before.

To make sure we had enough for espresso as well I placed another order and sent most of it straight to Ukraine. One week before Athens we tried all the coffees we had and it hit us – they were all completely different from each other. We had various coffees that had different qualities but never the same profile as the coffee we ordered first.

The panic was real. Only one week to fix it, stay calm, don’t stress the competitors and find a solution. We asked everywhere, in all of Europe, who might have some of the very original coffee left and found someone in the UK. A friend of ours helped immediately and flew for three hours to London, just to pick up our coffee (thank you, Mani)! Crazy.

As a backup, we also ordered from a friend we knew had some, and the producer himself organized for a Korean roaster to roast and then bring it to Athens. The producer also had his own team at origin that also roasted 3 kg for espresso and for filter.

We also contacted friends in the Netherlands to see whether they may have espresso to compete with – because four days before competition started we literally had zero coffee for Ruslan and just tiny amounts of the original filter coffee that I stored in my freezer.

Better yet, none of the coffees we ordered ever made it to Germany in time, the coffee our friend picked up in London was yet again a different quality of ‘the same coffee’ which we couldn’t use. We tried to stay calm and had to trust the coffee that got roasted in Korea and at origin.

When we arrived in Athens, we organized all the pickups from the different coffees we could use, went to our accommodation and started cupping. We had about 30 different coffees, most of them labeled as the ‘same’ coffee at our apartment and what shall I say, none of them was the coffee we tried for nationals.

So there we were. Me, three national champions and bag upon bag of coffee, but none of it was quite right and what we wanted to present on the world stage. After all the struggles to get here, the hours of coaching between cities, wars and borders, we’d nearly made it to the end … only to hit a wall.

Part II coming soon!

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