The past three weeks has been a severe test of my endurance. Nothing to do with training or routines, only that I do believe I have consumed more alcoholic beverages in the first three weeks of 2011 than the whole of 2010 combined. So while my fellow baristas have been pulling late nights in the shop, slinging together various ingredients for their National routines, I have been participating in afternoon BBQ’s, dance parties and cigar smoking.
I did get a little insight into the rigorous training earlier this week though when I gave my two cents on Kris Wood’s coffee and routine. We sat in late at Proud Mary, knocking back endless espresso, evaluating and generally having a caffeine freak out. Thursday evening saw us back again, mixing caramel and fixing last minute bugs. We were so late in fact that we completely forgot about dinner and ended up having to eat microwaved Lean Cuisine. My first bite into my lemon chicken drumstick confirmed that yes, it had no bones and no, I will never eat Lean Cuisine again.
Due to having to check Kris’ Robur E into special baggage, the taxi picked us up for the airport the next morning at 4:30am. I thought that 5am starts were hard enough. That time of the morning is desolate and ugly, especially with 3 hours sleep. Once on the plane, I cracked the wrapper on American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis, read three pages and fell asleep until the jolt of the tires hitting the tarmac on the Gold Coast.
The humidity was assaulting, even at 7am as we descended the stairs onto the runway. From there it was a short trip to the beautiful air conditioned dome of the Gold Coast Convention Centre. After missing last year, I had forgotten the best part of the fact that The Nationals are held at the Food and Wine Festival: The free samples. Floating through the plethora of stalls, I got to sample various breads, cheeses, desserts, dips, olive oils and the most important thing, wine. After the heats, I threw down the challenge to my compadres to try every single drop before the event was over. Some were more enthusiastic about the idea than others.
We spent the rest of the morning polishing silverware and cracking nervous jokes in the back room. As 10am rolled around, I settled myself in the front row and prepared myself for a long day of note taking. The first round on Friday was the open heats. The change to the rules this year meant that each competitor had to have participated in a State competition. It was excellent seeing such a strong Melbourne contingent with brand new routines after St Kilda three weeks ago.
Tim Goonan, NSW, Trainer for Michelles Patisserie and Donut King:
Tim brought a blend of two Ethiopians, a Harrar and a Sidamo. He made a point of emphasising the spice element of the blend and also mentioned its fruit and nut notes. Their body complimented one another. The cappuccinos had the same profile but were mellowed in milk.
His signature drink was dashingly pretty and one of the most individual of the whole event. Tim made an icing sugar and egg meringue with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg then crushed it in with a mortar and pestle. He then rimmed the glasses with a scored apple and dipped the edge with the meringue dust. He then added a homemade, gluten free, dairy free ice cream. It was made with vanilla, coconut and almond milk. On the first sip the judges experienced a creamy, sweet espresso and were then instructed to let the ice cream melt and finish the beverage.
Simon James, Vic, Trainer for Michelles Patisserie and Donut King:
Simon used his time from the Victorian competition to alter his routine based on the judges feedback. He also happened to be using the same machine as Kris for the event. In the morning, during practice time, Kris asked me to steam a jug to taste his cappuccinos. I was surprised when my jug came up severely bubbly and almost unusable. I just thought it was a mistake on my part and wrote it off.
When it came time for Simon to present his cappuccinos, he got to the judges table and then doubled back to steam another jug. I was impressed with his ability to swallow some pride and present a better beverage. Then it clicked, the steam wand was faulty. Kris was on the machine soon after that and had a sneaky word to the technician backstage. Though nothing was done and it wasn’t until the finals that the machine was taken out of circulation. Either way, it would have been nice to see Simon get through to the finals again.
He used varietal as his platform to showcase two differing coffees. The blend was a mix of Caturra, one a pulp natural Brazil and the other, a washed Panama. They had been grown at differing altitudes in different countries and both were processed in individual ways.
The Brazil was said to shine in milk, with the body of a dry processed coffee. It was buttery and had milk chocolate sweetness. It had been roasted to the point just after second crack, to ensure integrity through milk.
The washed process of the Panama brought a juicy element to the espresso, the Brazil brought butter and dark chocolate. Simon then made the point of stressing the importance of direct trade coffee, as the Panama he used works closely with UNESCO to bring a better quality of life to the farms workers and their families.
For his signature he had gone back to the drawing board since early January. What he created was described as being zingy like an espresso fruitini. Simon used a mandarin curd, made with egg, brown sugar, mandarin juice and tapioca flour. The beverage had a beautiful grape sweetness and acidity.
Angus Mackie, Owner, Canberra:
Angus is one of those guys that you can see moving onwards and upwards in the competitions towards brilliance. He also had the guiding hand of Sasha, his boss and ACT winner to send him in the right direction.
His blend was a pulp natural Brazil that was reminiscent of a sweet dessert and a washed Bolivian that brought clean stone fruits to the table. In the espresso they came together to be juicy, sparkling, clean and have a hint of stone fruit.
The cappuccinos he described as tasting like a Snickers bar with an elegant mouth feel and chocolate finish.
For his signature he steeped dried figs to enhance the characteristics already inherent in the coffee itself. He then reduced that and added balsamic vinegar for acidity and sugar to balance. He also added warm milk foam and malted chocolate.
I really liked Sam’s approach of utilising his fathers wine producing knowledge and paralleling to coffee. He presented a semi washed, aged Ethiopian Guji and gave insightful knowledge about the coffee aging process. It was placed in a climate controlled warehouse to enhance the present flavours and sweetness. Having had fresh crop Guji, I was curious to taste but didn’t get the chance.
He had the judges smell the green, then roasted coffee. He also described the aromas as floral, honey and berry.
For his espresso Sam described the flavours as an up front fruit acidity with a deep, rich sweetness of berries and bergamot. The coffee itself was really versatile, coming up as a blueberry muffin when added to milk for the cappuccino.
The signature drink is where Sam’s knowledge from his family really shone through. He tried to replicate an alcohol free, espresso based red wine. He did this by maturing figs, plums, brown sugar and water in a temperature controlled environment for 7 days prior to the competition. He then chilled his espresso in carafes and served the beverage chilled.
Kris Wood, Vic, Proud Mary:
Kris was one of the few competitors that took two grinders. A brave move, I believe. Not simply for doubling your set up time but also the cost. It takes a massive amount of money to take one of those things on a plane, let alone two.
His routine this time around was completely stripped back since the Vic’s. Few beakers, no syringes and more focus on palate experience. He even tossed around the idea of naming his signature drink, “The Palate Party.”
The coffee that he used for his espresso was roasted by Nolan at Proud Mary on their 1kg Giesen. It included 60% Guatemalan Santa Clara and 40% Costa Rican Perla Negra. On a lighter roast it had intense florals, beautiful cherry notes, apricot and buttery toffee. This roast was a little darker though and it brought out darker cocoa flavours.
For the cappuccino, the ratio was altered to 40/40 and then 20% Sumatra Wih Pesam that was hand sorted was added. It tasted like peanut butter toast.
Then onto the signature drink. Kris infused dried apricots and water on a low heat in the oven for four hours. He added a small amount to the bottom of a glass, then included a mars bar and cream reduction to the side to sip through.
All of his routine was done ad lib and it had a nice casual feel.
Each competition I attend, I always ask myself, who will try and recreate an Ethiopian coffee ceremony?
Jai had good reason to though, spending six months there recently and brought back a real slice of that country into his routine. Firstly I really have to commend him on his choice of set up. He used a polished distressed wood throughout and it looked terrifically smart. His knock box in particular stood out for me. It was a free standing small old stump that had been converted to a perfectly usable receptacle.
He used one of my favourite coffees, the Ethiopian Guji and had it roasted to three different levels. In the espresso Jai presented flavours of tart blueberries with a dry finish. In the cappuccino, there were elements of sweet honey oat that was punch and lingering.
For the signature drink, all of his paraphernalia was related to an Ethiopian coffee ceremony, with similar burners, mortar and pestles and cups. Although time was a little short to do it traditionally. Instead he used flavours that were common in Ethiopian cooking. Barley malt, lemon butter and cinnamon bark. It was served in lovely African cups.