Honoka Kawashima reveals the path that led her to the world stage

Honoka Kawashima

Honoka Kawashima reveals the path that led her to the world stage, and how a New Zealand holiday jumpstarted her coffee career.

Six years ago, Honoka Kawashima arrived in New Zealand. She had only planned to stay for a short time but was quickly swept up in the country’s vibrant coffee culture.

“I was a hotel receptionist before I decided to travel. On the trip, I used my Working Holiday visa to visit Australia, learn English, and immerse myself in the coffee world,” Honoka says.

“I returned to Japan for a year and continued to learn more about coffee. I became increasingly passionate about it until I decided to move to New Zealand to take my coffee career seriously.”

Frank Hsu, owner of Frank’s Coffee in Wellington’s CBD, hired Honoka to help reach her potential.

“I didn’t have much experience in the beginning, and I didn’t speak much English either. But I was very eager to build my skills and show my appreciation to Frank for giving me a chance. I devoted all my time to learning everything I could,” says Honoka.

“I soon realised how complex and interesting coffee is, and that’s when I discovered the world of coffee competitions. It was a new challenge for me and a goal I wanted to aim for.”

Within her first year working at Frank’s, Honoka competed in the 2019 New Zealand Latte Art Championship, which helped her gain confidence and skills to perform under pressure.

“I started to compete in the Latte Art Championship every year, which improved my barista skills immensely. In my third year I came third which was amazing as my goal was to place in the top three. This achievement boosted my confidence to move on to the New Zealand Barista Championship,” she says.

Six months before the competition, Honoka started increasing the length and frequency of her practice sessions. Initially, she dedicated three three-hour blocks per week, then increased to daily three-hour blocks — all on top of her normal working hours.

Her competition concept was how to make coffee more approachable for customers, drawing on her experience of studying the art and science of coffee at Frank’s. Her routine consisted of a milk- based coffee, an espresso, and a coffee- based signature drink, which included notes of strawberry yogurt, hibiscus, pink grapefruit, and an orange peel aftertaste.

In each of her serves, Honoka used a lactic washed process coffee from Acevedo in Colombia’s Huila region produced by Luis Anibal Calderon.

“Coffee can seem confusing as there is so much complicated information and jargon surrounding it. My aim was to simplify coffee for customers, so I talked about it as if it were a human. I talked about what makes coffee special, its parents, and the environment it grew up in when it was a cherry. I want more people to be involved in the industry and for them to know it’s not scary or complex,” she says.

In her first year competing, Honoka was crowned 2023 Meadow Fresh New Zealand Barista Champion. She also won Best Newcomer and Most Outstanding Milk Beverage, an award given to the barista with the highest scored milk beverage on day one. The award included a NZ$2000 (around AUD$1870) cash prize, and trophy.

“I didn’t expect to win in all three categories, but I had set a goal to rank in the top six. I received a lot of support from different people leading up to the event, so I believe I won thanks to their support. My coach, Logan Collinge of Hammerstone Coffee, was very supportive from the beginning and provided a lot of inspiration. He helped me twice a week, which was incredibly kind,” she says.

Honoka didn’t stop there. She also won the Monin Coffee Creativity Cup Asia-Pacific Finals in November 2023. With the theme ‘enhance your five senses,’ contestants were tasked with creating four signature coffee mocktails that enticed all five senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. The three-day final was held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Honoka competed against 13 other national champions from across the region and swept the floor with her Espresso Lacto-Sour drink, a combination of Monin blood orange and pure sugar cane syrups, espresso, amazake, and osmanthus tea.

“It was such a fun experience. I love drinking cocktails, so creating them and pairing complementary ingredients was a fun challenge,” Honoka says.

First choosing a coffee she really enjoyed, Honoka then selected other ingredients that enhanced the character of the espresso.

“I didn’t have any bartending experience, so I leaned on my coffee knowledge — that’s why I decided on the coffee first,” she says.

Her advice for those looking to compete in the future is to not wait for the “right” time to make the leap into coffee competitions.

“I always wanted to compete in a barista championship, but watching the super high-level performances each year scared me. I didn’t have the courage to enter the competition because I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Now I know I should have competed earlier as I have learnt so much about being a barista,” she says. “Luckily, I have a really good team in Wellington. Finding a great team is the most important part because we’re all in this together.”

Honoka now turns her attention to the World Barista Championship in South Korea, which takes place in May 2024. Her mindset ahead of the competition is based on setting her goals with the belief that she deserves to be there.

“I’m not setting low expectations simply because it’s my first time. Instead, I’m putting in a lot of effort. I’m pretty much set on the coffee I will use and I’m constantly practising my routine and presentation. At the moment, I’m choosing what cups to use and refining all the small details. I’d say I’m 80 per cent of the way there,” she says.

And she’s not doing it alone. Honoka has massive support from her partner Tsubasa Nico Nozaki, also a head barista and New Zealand’s 2023 Latte Art Champion.

“It’s so great to have a partner in this who understands coffee and the nerves of competing. Nico provides around-the-clock mental support, patience, and laughs, and stops me from getting too stressed,” she says.

“He’s coming to support me at the competition and I will return the favour by supporting him at World of Coffee Copenhagen in June where he’ll compete in the World Latte Art Championship.”

Honoka is proud of what she’s achieved in the industry so far and looks forward to competing on the world stage for the first time.

“Looking back on the past two years, I’m so happy with what I’ve accomplished. From moving to New Zealand to placing in the top three of the New Zealand Latte Art Championship and winning the New Zealand Barista Championship, I’ve achieved all my goals. I’m proud I didn’t give up,” she says.

While she prepares for the World Barista Championship, Honoka is eager to continue developing her skills at Frank’s Coffee and doing what she loves most: engaging with customers.

“The main thing I love about my job is communicating with the people who come into the café. I feel a connection with people through the coffee. We have lots of regulars at Frank’s and we’ve created a real sense of community,” she says.

This article appears in the April 2024 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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