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The Odyssey of World of Coffee Athens: Part II

In Part I of this blog post, I shared the first part of a recent journey to the World of Coffee Championships in Athens, Greece.

Having competed for a number of years across many specialty coffee competitions, I decided to take some time away from competing myself and to assist other competitors in national and the world championships. I could never have imagined what that would lead to – supporting three competitors across two competitions, training via video during air raids, and arriving at the world championships with no coffee at all.

If you haven’t yet read the first part of this story, please do so here!

An uphill battle

So, to recap – after helping Erik win the German Brewers Cup, and brothers Vlad and Ruslan win the Ukrainian Brewers Cup and Barista Championship (respectively), we’d arrived to Athens and the World Coffee Championships. The only problem was, we didn’t have any coffee.

Anyone familiar with coffee competitions knows that coffee is everything. Competitors build and memorise an intricate performance and innovative techniques to present in their stage time, but everything – scoresheet included – revolves primarily around the coffee you’re using, how you prepare it and how accurately you describe its qualities.

In an AirBnb in the centre of Athens, the four of us (plus more members of team Ukraine) tasted our way through bag after bag of coffee, each of which we’d sourced from corners or the world or had acquired through calling in favours from friends in the coffee industry. We smelled and tasted for hours, only to be disappointed with most of the coffees we tasted.

Erik preparing his performance in our Airbnb

Our only hope was the frozen (and now well defrosted) coffees I brought along in my suitcase, which were surprisingly stable and delicious. These were coffees I had roasted months earlier, and were the original samples I had received from the coffee producer whose coffees all three of the competitors I was with were using. Freezing coffee allows you to preserve it for months (or years) at a time while maintaining its flavour, but once defrosted it tends to quickly go downhill in flavour. Better than nothing!

Trying to dial in the impossible

The next day was Tuesday, we had to go to the Barista orientation meeting and had a training slot at the Taf coffee roastery at 3pm. We all went together to the convention centre, which was about a 40 minute drive away in our rental car, and got to see the stage, the backstage, ask some questions and meet our friends from all over the world. This experience was amazing and very wholesome in this stressful situation – we’d finally arrived.

After the meeting we went to dial in the espressos that we had as options and … what shall I say? They were all very much not what we wanted. Vlad became more and more frustrated, I drank about 20 espresso and we just couldn’t find a single coffee that we liked. After an hour we had to go and leave the training spot and the frustration was real. In the car we talked about possible solutions but none of them convinced us.

So there we were. We only had one day left until the competition started, we didn’t have any coffee and our moods were pretty bad. Not a great start so far.

On Wednesday, Ruslan went to do his Barshift at the convention. This is a requirement of all World Barista Championship competitors, and allows members of the audience and convention visitors to try world-level coffees. While he was doing his shift, the rest of us went to try to dial in one more time.

Apparently we had a two hour slot booked at the venue but when we arrived, we actually only booked 1 hour. To make it worse, the boys forgot to mention we needed an espresso machine. My mood was terrible, to say the least. We had effectively 30 minutes to try coffees and again, didn’t get any espresso that we liked. At the same time, Vlad can’t drink too many coffees as he is super sensitive with his reaction to too much caffeine and Kosta, Ruslan’s Ukrainian Teammate, wasn’t super experienced in competition coffee tasting.

Nothing seemed to work and I messaged my husband about how angry I was at the whole situation. He messaged one of his former workmates from Australia, who also happened to be in Athens, and they arranged an espresso machine and grinder at their booth at the convention which we could use to try the espressos one more time (thank you Hugh and Nucleus Coffee!)

When we arrived back at the convention hall, I ran to the stand, got a quick briefing and went to work. This was the first time I had personally made one of the coffees we’d selected and thought that we could possibly use it. It tasted like pure wildflower honey, and I was actually quite surprised because the same coffee didn’t perform at all the previous day.

Once I had a dial in, I really had to convince everyone else and that was one of the hardest parts. The coffee I liked best was the one roasted by the producer in Colombia, and when we first opened the bag it smelled intensely like dill. At first, the Ukrainian boys hated the coffee, but eventually saw the potential it might have. I guess it took exactly the four days that had gone by and a lot of oxygen that we gave the coffee – we did this by spreading it on baking trays in the AirBnb to age, evolve and (hopefully) show its real potential.

After two hours of trying variations for the different courses – espresso, milk drink and signature – we called it a day and got ready for our big comp day.

The Brewers Cup

The first morning of competitions had arrived, and Vlad’s Brewers Cup routine was up first. After a very short night I got up at 5am, cleaned and packed all of the competition gear for Vlad and we drove to the convention at 6am. We quickly unpacked backstage and had our 15 minutes tasting at about 7am. Everything was so fast and we tasted the coffee (keep in mind it had been defrosted for several days) and well, it was nice but not as vibrant as we knew it could be.

It was too late to search for another coffee. Although we weren’t entirely sure about the coffee, we took the risk and called our flavour notes the way we perceived it. I think Vlad worked wonders with the water he used and in no time at all we had to be ready for his stage time as he was competitor number 3.

Everything went so fast. When Vlad performed on stage I wanted to explode because I was so proud of him and his development compared to last year. Even if everything was super chaotic, he was the calmest person on stage and made everyone feel so comfortable. He evolved so much as a competitor and I just had to cry because I also was so emotionally exhausted.

After Vlad’s performance, there was no time to rest – I had to run backstage again to dial in with Erik, who was a real champ and never lost his good mood. When we dialed in his coffee, we used a similar, but not the same ratio as Vlad and decided on slightly different flavour notes. It was so amazing to see how Erik had evolved over a few short months, from a first time competitor to now a national representative.

When he was on stage, Erik was so positive and energetic, and couldn’t wait to start his performance. Even if it was his very first competition and the first time he was on the world stage, he performed so professionally that the whole German team was incredibly impressed and we were all so super proud of him.

At the end of Erik’s competition time, the exhaustion set it in even more. Both competitors stayed on time, didn’t forget any of their texts, and performed super professionally. I am extremely proud and honoured that they had trusted me with being their coach, and seeing them do well on stage brought me more joy than any success I have enjoyed in my previous competitions.

But there was no time to rest – right after Erik’s performance, I had to run to the Barista stage and help prepare Ruslan to present to the world.

The Barista Championship

In the Barista competition, the competitors are provided with time backstage with an espresso machine and a grinder to try their espressos for a final taste assessment, usually the day of their stage performance. However, for us it was a lot more stressful – we had to try all of the available coffees again and decide which one Ruslan would present on the world stage.

After I tried 25 espresso, I set the recipe and temperature, we tasted milk coffee and signature and decided on the coffee. We decided on flavour notes that Rusan had to learn for his presentation later that day. Remember, Ruslan doesn’t speak English – so in addition to memorising all of the new flavour notes, he had to incorporate them into a 15 minute speech in a foreign language, which he had also memorised.

The coffee we selected was the one we tasted the day prior and was still the best option. I really liked the espresso, but again, I still had to convince the others. It tasted like wildflower honey, passionfruit, honey melon and orange blossom. It was so sweet and delicious! With milk it developed caramel fudge flavoUrs, whilst maintaining a strong honey note. In the signature drink, it was still present but well incorporated with the other ingredients.

It was the only coffee I could describe in simple and easy words and that's when I had to prove to the others, it would be a great coffee for the stage. Finally Vlad agreed, Ruslan also liked it and he learned the new flavour notes. We got ready to go on stage, with Ruslan being the last competitor of the day.

The grinder that tested us all

When Ruslan finally went on stage, the whole Ukrainian fan club showed up. After all the drama we experienced, we still had this hope in us that maybe he could make it and deliver a great performance.

When he called time and started his performance, he talked quite fast and raced through his performance. First, he pulled two double espresso for the signature drink, then served the espresso course and after five minutes he wanted to pull his shots for the milk beverages. And this was when our grinder odyssey began.

The sponsored grinder (the grinder provided for competitors on stage) had a problem – it didn’t stop grinding. Ruslan stood in front of it, called technical time out which was the only correct thing he could do, but didn’t turn off the still grinding grinder. He must have ground about 200g until someone switched the machine off and I just thought “My god, we don’t have much coffee left.”

As it was a time out, Ruslan was able to speak to the judges to explain the technical time out. Vlad went on stage to translate and Ruslan tried to explain the situation. After the Head Judge asked a technician to come on stage and assess the grinder, they said that it was just a hiccup and decided to proceed.

A couple of minutes later Vlad left the stage again, everyone got back to their positions and Ruslan continued the presentation where he left it. And then, it happened again – the grinder became stuck grinding, and he called time out again. And again, he forgot to turn off the grinder manually – another 200g gone.

The Head Judge decided the best course of action would be to change the grinder. Vlad translated, we asked if we could maybe start over again because I could see how annoyed Ruslan got and the Head Judge said we can't as the judges have already evaluated the espressos.

About 15 minutes later we had a new grinder, which meant Ruslan also had to dial in again on stage and use even more coffee. He was able to start again, again from the point at which he had stopped to call a technical time out. He continued again, tried to pull his milk shots and then … it happened again.

The new grinder didn’t work as well. The programmed dose on the display kept disappearing and the mode switched to manual, which is not what should happen. Ruslan called a technical time out for a third time, and Vlad went back on stage to translate. Luckily, this time the Head Judge allowed Ruslan to clear the stage and start all over again, as the signature drink would now taste extremely different to what we expected it to be.

Backstage we cleaned all the equipment, ran through the flavour notes again, encouraged Ruslan to use the last bit of his remaining energy to go on stage and rolled out again. By this time almost an hour had passed, and most competitors normally spend no more than 25 minutes on stage.

After Ruslan went out, set up and started again, things looked good. He started fresh with a better talking speed, and ground his first 2 shots. Everything seemed to work, and we were watching eagerly from the sidelines. But then when he was about to pull the espresso, the new grinder again switched from preset to manual, which means the amount of coffee he was supposed to get out of the grinder wasn’t correct. Again.

Thinking quickly, Ruslan called technical time out again. How much bad luck can one competitor have? The same thing happened all over again – Vlad went on stage again, the judges discussed, the grinder had to be fixed somehow. In the meantime, the audience got bigger and bigger. Usually the attention competitors get on their first day is not so much. But as the delay was so long, more and more of the other competitors joined us and everyone wanted to know what was going on.

I was just standing there and (luckily) someone got me a beer. I mean, how can all this happen? And why does it happen to us? After some time, I actually can not remember how long it took, the judges said we can continue. At this time we all thought ‘man this poor kid, he must be so over this.’

But he wasn’t. As soon as Ruslan continued he was on fire. His energy was perfect, the way he spoke, the way he engaged and his overall positive attitude. I cried my eyes out and couldn’t bear the emotional weight anymore. We all just wanted him to finish this run through without any more problems.

After he served and explained his signature drink, he said his final presentation words: “And for all the people that wonder what is important, in difficult times like this: It is to be Brave, to be STRONG, to be FREE and to be UNITED. Time.”

He did it! He finished the routine that seemed to be impossible to finish. We went backstage, cleaned his equipment and just took a moment to breathe. We only had about 200g of his coffee left but honestly, after all this we were just happy that this stage time came to an end.

Announcements, and a miracle

Shortly after this whole struggle with Ruslan’s routine, the semi finalists of Brewers were being announced, so we slowly made our way back to the Brewers Cup stage. I was exhausted. I looked terrible, my eyes were super red from all the crying and I just wanted my boys to do well.

When the semi finalists were announced, I really thought we could make it. But to be honest, it is the Olympics of coffee and we did not have the perfect cup that we wanted to present.

Vlad ended up missing the semi-finals Semis by only one point, and Erik placed a bit lower, but still had great feedback for his first ever competition!

Of course we were a bit disappointed, but I have prepared the boys to take everything as it comes. I have lost many times as a competitor, and actually it is never losing. It might not be winning, but you win so many great experiences and memories. Complaining about not making it into the next round is a very privileged complaint. There are hundreds of Baristas that compete for years at national level, that push themselves and get better year to year but might still not make it to the world championships.

I always tell other competitors and people I work with, “You are already a winner! And you should be so proud of how far you have come!” Nothing stops you from coming back next year and even if that sounds like very far in the future, a year goes by like a second if you prepare carefully. Most of the world champions in coffee have competed multiple times, have taken their feedback and improved to finally make it to the top. I am very happy that Erik and Vlad were not defeated, but happy about their growth and journey.

After the Brewers Cup announcement, we went back to the Barista stage for the semi-finals announcements. The delay at these events is usually quite long, but as you can imagine with Ruslan standing for nearly two hours on stage, we had quite a wait until announcements could be made.

At the Barista Competition, only 16 out of up to 50 competitors make it to the next round. Only the most professional Baristas with the best coffees represent the tops of this list and to be honest, with our luck all the difficulties we faced, we never thought we would go through to the next round.

After waiting another hour or so, the announcements started. All of the judges and volunteers were brought out onto the stage, the sponsors of the competitions are mentioned and thanked, and then finally all national competitors are brought out. By the time Ruslan came out on stage, I was about ready to collapse from tiredness – it had been such an emotional few days!

The emcees started announcing the semi finalists: Chile, Indonesia, France, Greece … the list went on. Just when I thought they’d announced all the semi-finalists, I heard another name called: “...representing UKRAINE, Ruslan Demonenko!!”

We jumped out of our seats and couldn’t believe what they just said. Ruslan had made it!! I searched across the crowd to find Vlad, and ran to hug him. The entire time, the Ukrainian supporters were going insane, cheering loudly and waving flags to celebrate this amazing achievement. A barista competitor from Ukraine had never before made it to the World Barista Championship semi-finals, and this 18 year old competitor who came straight from a war zone, didn't speak English and had nothing but stones in his way succeeded.

The impossible became possible.

Semi-finals day

After the drama with the grinder, of course we didn’t have enough coffee left for the next round. But we didn’t care at all, we were just so happy!

At about 9:30pm we finally arrived at our AirBnb, cleaned all the gear again, sorted through several bags of coffee we received from other competitors who hadn’t made it through and after a short sleep, the next day we started early with packing.

When we arrived at the convention we had about 20 different coffee options. At this point I just want to say how incredible the other competitors are. We received coffee from the competitors from Ireland, England and Austria and they all said we can use it. The help we got offered was overwhelming – thank you all!

We again had one hour to dial our espresso in. I tried them all, and went back to the 200g we had left from the first day. It was still delicious, so we decided to ‘YOLO it’ with the 200g by placing it at the bottom of the grinder and adding extra weight with the same coffee, roasted as filter coffee on top so the espresso beans would fall into the burrs first.

I stand by my first impression of his coffee. It was clean, easy, clear, tasted like honey and was easy to describe. I think it was the best espresso I have tried from what felt like over one hundred coffees I tried over the time in Athens (and actually over the last year).

Ruslan’s competition time was around midday and thank god, everything went smoothly – no grinder problems this time! He was nervous and raced through his performance a bit, finishing well under the 15 minute time frame each competitor gets.

We were so incredibly proud. Backstage we opened a bottle of sparkling wine and that was the first time that I actually relaxed a bit. Now we could chill, talk to other people on the expo and simply enjoy our time.

With all this drama, I knew finals would probably be impossible. We had ‘cowboyed’ too much and also, the other competitors Ruslan competed with were competition legends, and had been competing for many many years.

In the end, Ruslan ranked 14th and made history as the most successful competition barista Ukraine has ever had. We may have not made finals, but hey – 14th best barista in the entire world isn’t too bad at all!

Lessons learned

‘The boy who lived’ said Vlad about his brother after the competition had finished. I cannot put in words how impressed I am by these two brothers and the Ukrainian Coffee Community. Their strength and their absolute drive, not accepting defeat at any time and the belief that there will always be a solution is mindblowing.

Many years ago, when I was competing in Barista, I broke under the pressure of going to the World Coffee Championships, and ended up not being able to represent Germany. I always believed I had to punish myself in order to deserve a title and suffered through my training, being extremely hard on myself. Everything had to be super German, everything had to be super prepared and if anything went wrong, I freaked out. I had to be perfect.

This year I have finally realised that it is not about winning a title or a flashy medal. It is the very quintessence that coffee connects people, coffee is emotion and competition is growth. If you are happy with what you show and if you love yourself, the coffee, the concept and your team, you can only win.

This year, by coaching others I have learned the biggest lesson of my life and I am immensely grateful for it.

A special thank you to everyone in the Ukrainian and German coffee communities for their endless support and friendship. You have no idea how much you mean to us!

An even more special thank you to everyone who helped us during this campaign by sending, sharing, roasting and donating coffee to our cause. We are forever grateful for your generosity.

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