These days, the NBC might be best known for its seminars and talks given by luminaries in coffee or related fields. However its original intention was as a friendly competition between the respective barista teams of the Nordic countries. This year, the competition saw its first major format change.
We’ve written about the background of the Nordic Barista Cup previously. While the barista cup itself may have lost focus in recent years, it is still a fun-filled – and challenging, for the competitors – aspect of the event.
This year, NCC’s own Kalle Freese was on the ground as a competitor for Team Finland. Here’s his recollection of those hectic days:
Competing at the Nordic Barista Cup is a milestone for every Nordic barista. Each year national coffee competition champions or runners-up are chosen to form a team for the NBC. Usually that team consists of four baristas but this year there was only three from each Nordic country. Kenya being this years’ focus country, each team was reinforced with a Kenyan counterpart, making working as a team both much more exciting but also slightly more challenging.
The competition format varies from year to year. This year our task was to serve coffee to the 200 or so attendees. Each team was supposed to serve espresso, cappuccino, black coffee as well as loosely defined ‘signature drink’ – basically anything drinkable with coffee in it. After sampling drinks from every team in one category (ie. cup of black coffee from each team) attendees would score the drinks within 0-10 points as they saw fit. In the end all the points were tallied, with the team with the most points taking the crown.
However, there was a little catch. Ten of the attendees were chosen as the *secret shoppers* who would, besides just the coffee, take note on the hospitality, team dynamics and other dimensions of the bar work. Naturally, we didn’t know who they were. This turned out the be a great way to keep us on our toes. Nearly anybody could be the VIP scoring the teams in detail – the outcome I would guess the organizers expected: in the end all the the customers, in this case the attendees, became VIPs.
In the mornings we had to be at the venue by 7.00 and we would be back at the hotel around 23.00 at the earliest! The days at NBC were long, emotionally very consuming, and intense. Making your best to serve amazing coffee at all times while being inviting and hospitable is incredibly exhausting. Explaining the same story behind the particular coffee and composition of the signature drink 23rd time that day can be little tedious.
But once you get that glimpse of a smile from the customer it all becomes worthwhile again – it’s all about making people happy, in our case with coffee. That’s where we got our energy to keep going. These three days were also filled with great coffee, fantastic customer interactions (many of that turned out to be with the secret shoppers), intense learning and new friends from around the globe.
Serving hopefully amazing drinks to some of the most professional, educated and curious coffee people around was very humbling but also great variation from the day-to-day work of a barista.
Although the name of this event might indicate so, the competition is actually only part of the event. The days are filled with fascinating lectures held by some of brilliant minds in coffee industry like Tim Wendelboe, James Hoffmann and David Walsh. There’s often a cupping related to the preceding lecture like this year when we had the chance to taste some of the experiments from producers Tim had worked with followed by a question & answers session. These Q&A’s are often the most rewarding bits of the day.
Thankfully it’s not just lectures and formal programme. Coffee professionals are also good at having fun. Smart as they are, the NBC organizers have built this into the schedule. During the days, around the cupping tables and on lunch, there was time to socialize with new faces. When the day at the venue finished there would be a bus picking us up and driving to a dinner location. This year one them was the Danish parliament!
From a barista’s perspective the NBC is an event everybody would benefit attending. For me it was very unique opportunity to cup coffee with the producers who had nurtured, pruned, fertilized, picked and processed the 20 or so coffees we were tasting. Moments like these are some of the most intriguing ones and stellar learning opportunities. I think the NBC is a great forum to make long term connections with pioneering producers, importers, roasters and baristas alike. All of a sudden it’s not just about picking the coffee that hass rested enough after roasting, brewing it well and serving it with a smile, it’s about so much more too.
For me competitions are the best and most intensive learning opportunities. When you don’t win you still learn much more than you thought beforehand. It’s still very rewarding. However, one day you might be standing in the podium with a bottle of Champagne and a trophy. The best thing in winning is that you get to learn even more.
This year our Team Finland happened to win the NBC for the very first time, with Sweden very close behind. Each winning team gets a trip to that years’ focus country meaning that we are off to Kenya in November! It’s going to be the first time I’m going to see coffee trees with my own eyes, something I’ve been waiting for for a very long time.
Be together, act together, learn together – as the motto of NBC goes.