Angus Mackie’s triumphant return and win at ASCA Central Region Vitasoy Barista Championship

Barista Champion

Before Angus Mackie was announced the 2022 ASCA Central Region Vitasoy Barista Champion on 22 May, he was already in tears. He was nervous about the pending results and whether he’d done enough to claim the top spot, but the enormity of what he had achieved by returning to the competition stage, had finally come to fruition.

“It was the first time I had allowed myself to reflect on my journey over the last couple of years. Up until then, I was so focused on the routine and performance that I had blocked everything out. When they called my name in first place, I was just so happy, surprised, and relieved,” Angus says. “I have never received so many messages of support, it’s been so overwhelming.”

Two and a half years ago, Angus was diagnosed with a stage three tongue cancer diagnosis. He put his career on hold as Head Barista Trainer at Ona Coffee, focused on his health, and endured surgery and radiation which severely impacted his taste receptors, voice box and saliva glands. For a coffee professional, the fear of permanent taste was unfathomable.

Unable to eat solid foods for six months or use his palate to taste coffee, Angus was determined to discover flavour in another way. He trained his nose to be the best olfactory receptor it could be, until his taste buds slowly recovered.

“I thought my taste might never come back. For some people it can be two to 10 years or not at all, so I decided to train my nose if that was all I was going to have. I remember helping curate the menu for the opening of Ona Melbourne, and I had zero taste. I was able to dial in the whole reserve menu by just using my nose and was the Head Barista of the venue for the first month, using just my nose to taste,” Angus says.

Thankfully, after six months, Angus tasted a hint of sweetness for the first time, then bitterness, giving him the confidence his taste would return. He undertook a conditioning process and retrained his palate from scratch. As a result, his taste is sharper than ever.

“I’ve definitely got an advantage in terms of my nose, which has become more sensitive, and I would say my ability to taste is better than before,” he says.

“It was actually such an efficient process of learning how to taste from nothing. The year before my diagnosis, by chance, I placed fourth in the [2019] nationals with a performance all about the taste system; how our taste buds and taste receptors work, and why people taste different things from the same coffee. It was totally fascinating.”

Since December 2021, Angus put his focus on a return to coffee competitions, and set out to craft his routine. The first month-and-a-half was focused on the foundation of his routine, followed by perfecting the performance, then the tasting notes of his coffee. Angus used substitute coffee for his practice sessions, only having two tasting sessions with his actual competition coffee.

His coffee was a Typica Mejorada heirloom varietal from Santa Gertrudis in Ecuador, thanks to producer Jose Eguiguren.

“I did a blind cupping for my competition coffees and of the five favourites I picked out of two tables of 10 coffees, all five were from Jose’s farm. They are so refined in their structure, smooth and clean. Jose is a producer that became unmotivated by coffee until he tasted a good one a few years ago and it reinvigorated his love for coffee production,” Angus says.

“The texture of his coffees is so smooth. Depending on the cycle of the coffee trees, Jose adds different nutrients to the soil, such as phosphor as soon as it flowers, and when there’s fruit he adds potassium.”

Angus Mackie is the 2022 ASCA Central Region Vitasoy Barista Champion.

The result is a flavoursome coffee worth using in each of Angus’ three courses. For his espresso, Angus says the coffee delivered sweetness in the cup, with floral and caramel notes.

He wouldn’t normally use a washed coffee for his milk-based round, but this was his challenge to overcome. He challenged the roast profile to work with Riverina Fresh milk, roasting for six and a half minutes, closer to a filter roast, and using the two-day old roast so that the coffee was “super fresh” for clarity and intensity of flavour. He used a small milk-to-coffee ratio for an end result that was “super delicious”, but with room to improve the sweetness in the cup.

For his signature round, Angus decided “to have a bit of fun”. He created the idea of his own lemonade icy pole serving his coffee cold with a refreshing citrus, achacha juice, with fresh, floral and lychee notes. Angus even developed his own creation of an icy pole wrapper for the judges to unravel.

“I found that over the years customers always connect to a coffee if they can identify and connect it to something familiar, such as the taste of a favourite chocolate bar or favourite dessert. That’s the idea I wanted the judges to connect with in my signature beverage. It’s a great way to connect people who don’t know much about coffee but are willing to learn,” Angus says.

This will be Angus’s 10th year competing in barista competitions. It took him six years to make it to the ASCA national finals, and since then, has been in the past four finals in a row. His first competition year was 2008 when he stood side by side with fellow competitor Sasa Sestic. This year, they stood alongside each other as work colleagues, with Sasa also winning the ASCA Central Region Brewers Cup competition.

Angus is now focused on his nationals campaign, and can even allow himself to dream that little bit further, with the potential to take out the title and compete at the World Barista Championship (WBC) on home soil.

“This is where the fun begins. The next couple of months are really exciting. I’ve got some more sample coffees on their way for Nationals, and I’m looking forward to playing with the coffee, that’s the best part,” Angus says.

“It would be so special to compete in the WBC in Melbourne, to have all my family and friends there in the stands that would be so cool.”

The last year and a half has been completely life changing for Angus. He is now cancer free, and believes he is stronger, fitter, healthier and mentally tougher than ever.

“Now I move forward,” Angus says. “Competing has been my biggest milestone and winning [regionals] takes a bit of weight off my shoulders. I’m so happy. For so long I wanted to come back to competition, be on stage and present in front of people, which I was quite nervous about. But I know coffee is my life. It’s where I belong.”

Congratulations also to Isaac Kim who placed second, and Zhuolu Xie who placed third in the competition at Grinders Coffee in Leichhardt.

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