During a casual cupping on a recent trip to Mercanta Coffee Importers, I was asked, “When did coffee sink it’s teeth into you?”
Wow, what a great question.
I knew I was fascinated by coffee back in 2004 when a particular cup of Aged Sumatra blew my mind away. It was the first coffee I had that didn’t need cream and sugar. It was exotic and smooth, like cedar and spice of a far-away forest. The taste will always be with me and you can read about that experience in my previous article Morning Rituals.
But it wasn’t until after I started attending weekly cuppings at Conduit Coffee in Seattle that I actually starting doing my own research on coffee.
In no time, I discovered a YouTube library of fifteen minute videos showing what appeared to be the barista olympics. A well orchestrated event in which baristas pulled espresso shots while simultaneously showcasing their coffee. Their choreographed movements and scripted presentations were not only impressive, but addicting. I had no idea such a subculture existed, but for some reason I wanted to be a part of it. Over the next three months, I devoured hours of these bite size coffee candy videos.
It was all very strange how they moved around the espresso machines, preparing three espresso shots, three cappuccinos, and three signature beverages while discussing origins, varietals and processing methods. There was a quirkiness about them that reminded me of a home cooking show. Maybe it was the slim lined, jaw-skirting microphone/earpieces the baristas wore. Maybe it was the strategically placed stickers on the back of the judges clipboards that advertised espresso cleaning products. It could certainly have been the red tuxedo wearing MC, who despite a Willy Wonka meets James Bond appearance, actually knew his stuff and kept the show the moving.
In each fifteen minute video a new participant from a different country would present his/her unique coffee with his/her own personal flare including creative menu, dining set, and music. If I were a barista champion my music would be something groovy and electronic without words. I noticed the words made it difficult to hear the baristas, especially the ones with thick accents. And, I’d wear a dark waistcoat with a flashy shirt. Such an outfit evokes professionalism yet intrigue.
Before watching another video I would Google the name of the competitor and whatever coffee shop they worked for. I read their stories and studied their biographies. I looked up places they had worked in the past, other coffee shops and roasters in those cities, projects on which they collaborated, and I started to form a visual web of how everyone was related and how coffee was at the center of it all.
Two particular people began to stick out. But first of all, I couldn’t help but notice that the MC in the brilliantly red tux was in every video wearing some shade of red. I learned he was Stephen Leighton of HasBean Coffee in the UK. Then I traced HasBean Coffee to 3FE in Dublin and another familiar face showed up, Colin Harmon, who’s been on the world barista stage since 2009. Turns out Stephen supplied Colin with beans for his competitions and now they co-own the chic Dublin cafe, 3FE. At the time, 3FE was serving HasBean coffee, but now they roast under their own 3FE label. Small world.
One might say I was inspired by these two guys and I somehow felt an affinity toward them, probably because I had lived in both the UK and Dublin. I wanted to know everything they had to teach me; so, I literally binge watched every episode of Stephen’s In My Mug show, imagining I was tasting the coffee right along with him. (Because of the difference in time zones I could usually wait up Sunday night for Monday morning’s release of the new episode. Big time nerd alert.)
That particular show taught me how to expand my palate and open up my mind to what the coffee wants to reveal. Stephen gave me a new vocabulary with which to describe coffee flavors; he gave me knowledge about varietals and how they differ; and, he gave me a motto to live by: “Life’s too short for bad coffee.” His catch-phrase hit home with me. He was right.
If you know anything about Colin Harmon you know he’s probably the most genuinely humble guy in the coffee world. An insanely good barista, excellent showman, knowledgeable and funny, he’s kind of the whole enchilada. I must confess that there’s a code I live by – I don’t trust people who don’t swear. If someone can’t express their true feelings with curse words, they’re probably hiding something. After listening to Colin deal it straight on the Tamper Tantrum podcast, lemme just say I’d trust Colin with my life. He has a calm ferocity about him – brutally honest with his opinions. My kind of people.
Fast forward three months to the SCAA convention in Seattle when I volunteered for 21 hours as a room host. With coffee celebs everywhere for the World Barista Championships the energy was electric. In between classes I had time to check out the arena, drink the Cup of Excellence winner from Brazil, and rub elbows with my idols. No big deal.
With a huge grin I walked right up to Stephen and showered him with accolades, telling him how much I had enjoyed watching In My Mug. I asked him how he liked Seattle and how his running was going since he was training for a marathon. Then I spilled it all. I told him about how I lived in England. I told him my favorite coffee. I told him my favorite In My Mug episode. I told him I drank his coffee that a friend brought me from England. I did everything a giddy teenage girl would do seeing her pop idol – except I’m a grown man. Even though Stephen was MCing the event, he spent five minutes with me and only me. He wasn’t distracted by the circus going on around us and made me feel like the center of the universe.
Ten minutes later I ran into Colin. Just as people had described him, he was the most down to earth, easy-to-talk-to guy. We talked about Dublin, Tamper Tantrum, and like a true Irishman he wanted to know where the best place for a pint was in Seattle. It was an effortless conversation that left me on a high.
So to answer the question, this is when coffee sank it’s teeth into me. When I came face to face with two industry giants and they treated me like an old friend. If I got to work with people like them, then I would follow my passion and finally combine what I love with what I do.