Inside Hugh Kelly’s 3rd place WBC routine

hugh kelly

Hugh Kelly has achieved third place in the 2021 World Barista Champions, showcasing a new species of coffee and extraction technique that could change the future of specialty coffee.

It had been two and a half years since the last champion was crowned when the 2021 World Barista Championship (WBC) was held in October. But Ona Coffee’s Hugh Kelly had been preparing for the competition even longer.

“It was August 7, 2015, when I first visited Julian Holguin at his Finca Inmaculada [coffee farm] in Colombia. Julian took us up to a little house on the mountain in amongst the coffee trees. There was a long wooden table for a cupping session. I remember there was this coffee in the middle of the table, unlike anything I’d tried before,” Hugh told the judges as he began his routine. 

“As I tasted it, it was unbelievably sweet. It reminded me of Stevia sweetener, which has this clean refined sweetness similar to icing sugar. The second time around the table, this coffee had completely changed. It turned savoury and vegetive, but I knew that sweetness and gentle acidity were the bones for an incredible espresso. So, I had to know more about this coffee and found out it was one of the first non-Arabica species that I’d ever tried. It was Coffea eugenioides.”

The most recent WBC had been rescheduled many times due to the global pandemic and travel restrictions. It was first meant to occur in Melbourne in 2020, it was later pushed to Athens in June 2021, before being moved to Italy from 22 to 26 October. Speaking to BeanScene ahead of the competition at Host Milano, Hugh says the extra months were not a problem, and just gave him more time to work with his coffees and perfect his routine.

“I’ve never been so inspired by a path or direction and this is something that can make a huge difference. When you’re looking at one percenters in coffee making, the things that make tiny differences to taste that we put a big focus on, this is like a 50 percenter. It’s a paradigm shifting change and there are so many opportunities to explore,” he says.

“For me, that’s what makes coffee exciting and gets me out of bed in the morning.”

Hugh has a long history in coffee competitions, first competing in and winning the ACT Barista Championship in 2012. He claimed his first national title in 2016, with a back-to-back win in 2017. Hugh reclaimed his title at the 2020 Australian Barista Championship, which was postponed to early 2021 due to COVID-19. On the world stage, Hugh has performed better in each competition, finishing seventh place in 2016, making the final round and coming in fifth in 2017, and achieving a podium finish of third at the 2021 WBC.

“In the first one I was still finding my feet and it was a big learning opportunity on being organised and controlled. The second one was a little better, but it was still a bit chaotic and out of control in some key areas. I learnt from that as well,” Hugh says.

“Not everyone has been able to travel, so it’s only the essentials that have come along but even that’s been an advantage. When you keep your core team tight and focused it runs like a well-oiled machine.”

Hugh was joined in Italy by Ona Coffee Founder and 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic, Director of Coffee Sam Corra, and coach Pete Williams of the United Kingdom – who also trained 2017 World Barista Champion Dale Harris. Ona Coffee Melbourne’s Charlie Chu also travelled to Italy for the World Cup Tasters Championship, where he took the top spot.

Hugh’s past WBC routines focused on making the most out of standard varietals and connecting specialty coffee to consumers. This time highlighting Coffea eugenioides, Hugh says he wanted to emphasise the need to look beyond how we think about coffee.

“We haven’t really explored any of what coffee can offer when you look at it. There’s 124 species and we only drink one of them properly, in specialty coffee at least,” he says. “It’s a whole routine on exploration, finding potential, and really opening up the mind to how we can successfully work with this idea and create a new future in coffee.”

Hugh first set out to understand why Eugenioides cooled the way it did and discover a way to preserve those initial fruity flavours for longer. For his espresso coffee, Hugh used compound chilling, a technique developed with the Zurich University of Applied Science to brighten Eugenioides’ flavour profile by running the espresso over frozen metal rocks.

“When you have a hot liquid like espresso, it loses those aromatic compounds into the air, but if you chill it immediately, those volatiles don’t get released and remain in the coffee,” Hugh explains. “I chose to rapidly chill the first 12 grams of the espresso, the portion where Eugenioides gives the majority of its fruity volatile compounds. With this method, we measured up to 40 per cent more of some of these compounds. The effect on Eugenioides is like walking into a dark room and turning the lights on.”

Hugh described tasting notes of pink guava, pineapple, passionfruit, and Stevia, with a long sweet finish, like the sensation of eating a fresh white grape.

While preparing his signature drinks, Hugh detailed the fermentation process behind the Eugenioides. The coffee’s savoury notes come from its microbes in the fermentation process, so he worked with Danish microbiologist Christian Hanson to select a species of naturally occuring non-Saccharomyces yeast that could help its fruity characteristics flourish.

The yeast was added to a sealed tank of Eugenioides cherries for six days at 18°C, pushing the fermentation in the direction Hugh wanted. “I remember opening that tank at six days and it smelt unbelievable. It was like pure tropical fruit punch,” Hugh recalled.

To highlight the potential of the coffee, Hugh used 90 per cent water and 10 per cent galaxy hops to distil its aromatic compounds without the savoury tannins. He added pineapple syrup, fructose syrup, and nitrous oxide to produce a drink with a taste profile of candied pinnacle, whipped cream texture, white peach, and orange marmalade, with a juicy acidity.

For his milk-based beverages, Hugh used milk from Australian dairy supplier Riverina Fresh, a long partner and supporter of Hugh’s and Ona Coffee’s competition ventures.

“We’ve worked with Riverina Fresh for years, in competition and our cafés, and all of our milk-based coffees are designed with their milk in mind,” Hugh says. “But we still blind tested about 60 different milks with the coffee to make sure we were making the best choice possible and it’s reassuring to know that, without even knowing it was them, their milk came out on top every time.”

He paired the Eugenioides with another underutilised coffee species in Coffea liberica, to not lose its delicate fruit notes among the fats and sugars of the milk. This resulted in a milk coffee with tasting notes of ripe banana, caramel, whipped cream, fruity dark chocolate, and flambéed brandy.

“Liberica has natural intensity – it’s big in flavour profile and is basically designed for fermentation. It has a thicker skin with more sugar, giving microorganisms a lot more food to build flavour in the bean,” Hugh says. “I worked with Jason Liew from My Liberica in Malaysia on this particular lot, and he told me Liberica is a declining industry. We have all overlooked this coffee for such a long time, but after tasting this lot, our chats are just positives for the future.”

Hugh tells BeanScene his work with Eugenioides and Liberica have made him realise just how little the coffee industry actually understands about and experiments with coffee.

“Climate change, pests, and diseases are very real threats to coffee, and Arabica could just be wiped out. If you have access to different species, they could be resistant to things like changing temperatures or some can grow with almost no rainfall,” Hugh says. “On [Finca Inmaculada], the Eugenioides trees are healthier and producing higher yields than any of their Arabica varieties.”

Hugh says exploring different varieties could change how we approach coffee, not only at origin but in the café as well.

“When you get coffee with less harsh acids and bitterness, it opens up techniques with how much milk you use or how you roast your coffee, there’s so many new opportunities to make your coffee different,” Hugh says.

“There’s been a lot of pressure in the industry to perform perfectly, as a barista or in terms of equipment, grinders, and machinery. If you’re working with a coffee that’s inherently sweet, rather than inherently bitter or acidic, it gives you a lot more leeway in the café, so you don’t have to hit ‘exactly 27 seconds’ for 300 coffees every day.”

It could also make specialty coffee more approachable to the end consumer, a topic Hugh says has been at the forefront of the industry since it began.

“If you think of different varieties of Arabica as being like red apples and green apples than this coffee is like stone fruits or grapes. It’s going to make it a lot easier for consumers to see the differences between coffees and the uniqueness they can bring,” Hugh says.

With the 2022 WBC taking place in Melbourne, Hugh is unsure if he’ll compete again so soon, but either way he looks forward to seeing the coffee world descend on Australia.

“Competition drives innovation and it gets people together, talking and collaborating. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, with businesses struggling, climate change, and all these things, but we need to have these things that bring people together and drives changes that move things forward,” Hugh says. “When you think about the number of people positively impacted by coffee competitions on a world scale, it’s mind-blowing.” 

This article appears in the December 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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