Hugh Kelly of Ona Coffee wins Australian Barista Championship

Hugh Kelly of Ona Coffee has won the Australian Barista Championship for the second year in a row.

Hugh is only the second Australian to win the prestigious Australian Specialty Coffee Association title since Paul Basset won the championship in 2002 and 2003.

Matthew Lewin of Axil Coffee Roasters was runner up and Jade Jennings of Veneziano Coffee Roasters placed third, a repeat of last year’s top three finalists.

“Here we go again,” laughed Hugh as he addressed the rapturous crowd that filled every seat and inch of standing room in the grand arena at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo (MICE) on 1 April.

“I was already an emotional wreck after watching (fellow Ona colleague) Sam Corra win the Australian Brewers Cup Championship, and then to stand there for my results and win again was a little overwhelming. The level of competition really stepped it up this year. Oddly enough I woke up on the day of the finals with a strange feeling that the universe would be on my side, and it was.”

For his 15-minute routine, Hugh engaged the panel of four sensory judges with his fluid presentation, distinct flavour profiles, and element of fun with his playful tangerine fairy floss he transported from a carnival setting to the judging table.

Unlike past championship routines, which focus heavily about origin or the development of a new processing method, Hugh used his 15-minutes to address the need to bridge the gap between specialty coffee and consumers.

“Our world can be a little intimidating,” he says. “I could have done a routine with a focus on a new processing method or varietal, but I started asking myself all the ‘why’ questions. Why do we do this? Why don’t we involve our customers in the process? Through asking all the ‘whys’, I found there was a big disconnect between specialty coffee and the consumer. I want to serve quality coffee first and foremost, but I also want to focus on how to make the customer experience better.”

As such, Hugh talked to his customers to find out what they liked. He would come out of the Ona roastery into the café and ask everyone – from his mum to random strangers – to taste three different flavour profiles of espresso and choose their favourite. In the beginning, Hugh says the reactions were “brutally honest”, but by the end their positive responses meant he was on the right track.

“It’s always been the role of a barista to tell people what they should be drinking, but in some instances the customers can be the voice to what they want,” Hugh says.

“This consumer-driven approach has completely changed the way I make coffee. I think this necessary adjustment has been missing for a while. If a barista tells the customer they should taste pineapple in their drink and they can’t identify it, they can’t connect. My method is about rebuilding trust. It’s a fundamental first step to making specialty coffee interesting and approachable for the customer.”

Hugh took his field research and applied it to his espresso course. He presented the judges with a washed processed Geisha from Morgan Estate in Panama, thanks to producer Jamison Savage. In espresso, Hugh says this coffee highlights distinct mandarin flavours. Hugh dropped his coffee dose from 20 grams to 17 grams for a clean cup profile, to which Hugh added the vapour of jasmine flowers.

He addressed the milk-based round by acknowledging this category of beverage as the “perfect introduction for many people into our world” – the specialty world.

Hugh added a 20-day natural processed Ethiopian coffee found near the Geisha forest in Wush Wush, with specially developed Riverina Fresh milk. Its extra lactose and cream content was designed for a creamy mouthfeel to highlight notes of black current jam, and caramel.

For his signature beverage, Hugh used Jamison’s coffee again in espresso form, and applied techniques and ingredients to accentuate the fruit notes of his coffee.

He sous vided white peach slices at 60°C for two hours to produce a juicy peach liquid. He then added 12 millilitres of the juice to his espresso, to which he added the vapour of jasmine flavours at 70°C for five minutes. To that he added 50 grams of each tangerine peel and unrefined organic cane sugar, which he rested for one month. The result was a tangerine sugar, which he heated at 150°C in the fairy floss machine to create his own “tangerine floss”.

This was the crescendo to the routine, to which he added 1.8 grams to each drink, and told the judges to expect “citrus and florals on the nose, on the palate orange and apricot, jasmine florals, a silky mouthfeel, and a long finish”.

For the first time Hugh will perform his routine under new World Barista Championship (WBC) format changes introduced by World Coffee Events last month, which includes flexible table configurations, seating options, table height, set espresso machine temperature, and staggered start times for this year’s event.

“I think the changes are a positive improvement for the competition, especially the ability to change the espresso machine temperature and the ability to not have four judges sitting over a table. I do think taking away the technical judge is a little bizarre, but the ability to restructure the routine will be something completely different and interesting to watch,” he says.

After failing to make the top six of last year’s WBC final, Hugh says he was disappointed but the experience was a huge learning curve.

“I took all my weaknesses from last year and made them my strengths this year, but there’s still weaknesses I need to improve on,” he says. “Last year I found it quite stressful on stage but his time around I felt I was in control.”

Hugh admits there are still a number of details to refine before he represents Australia on the world stage in Seoul, South Korea from 9 to 12 November, but a well-earned break will give him time to reset, refuel and refocus on the task ahead.

To celebrate his 2017 win, Hugh attended the official MICE after party and enjoyed his day off yesterday sampling breakfast at Melbourne’s Higher Ground and attending his first ever AFL match between Carlton and Melbourne at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The adrenaline-pumping footy match was neck and neck to the final quarter. It was a hard-fought game with lots of emotion and passion evident on the field, but the best team won on the day, and so did Hugh.

Writen by Editor Sarah Baker. Image: credit Melbourne International Coffee Expo

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