Ona Coffee’s Hugh Kelly shares his WBC experience
It’s been one and a half weeks since Ona Coffee's Hugh Kelly returned from Dublin where he represented Australia on the world stage in the World Barista Championship (WBC).
Hugh may not have come home with an Irish green tamper trophy – only a bit of jetlag – but says he did have the experience of a lifetime.
“The whole thing is as a bit of a blur to be honest, but an incredible blur,” he says. “It's come and gone by so quickly. It was a big few months leading into the competition, and a stressful few weeks of just repeating and refining my routine over and over. Then I performed in Dublin, it finished, and I came home. Back to reality.”
Along with his Ona Coffee’s entourage that made the trip to Dublin for the 22 – 25 June event, Hugh carefully took over his coffee, a decanter, table tops, glassware, knock boxes – the works.
“The good news was that nothing broke in transit. Unlike Sasa’s struggles with fresh milk last year in Seattle, we brought over plenty of Australian milk, and had no issues with Irish customs,” he says.
Hugh went into the WBC heats feeling "confident" and "prepared". He presented the judges with his espressos, using a Castillo variety from El Mirador Farm in Colombia, milk-based coffees using a method he called “natural process on the tree”, and a signature drink based on the process of making ice wine.
To learn more about his routine, click here.
“I felt fine going out there for the heats,” Hugh says. “Backstage, I’d never had so many people helping me organise my gear, I’d always done it myself. Then all of a sudden it’s your turn and you're out there on the stage. It's almost surreal and an environment I had to try to get used to.”
At the end of day one, Hugh was the highest-ranked competitor out of the other 31 baristas from the first heat.
"I tried not to pay attention to the scores, I focused on my own performance, but I did know I was first place at one point. My team banned me from checking my phone and any social media that hyped up the results," he says.
Hugh’s high score of 489.5 points was enough to make it into the Semi Finals. At the announcement, Hugh says the “Colosseum-like” grandstands were full to the brim with spectators.
When it came to his Semi Finals performance however, Hugh says it was “controlled chaos”.
“It all happened so quickly. Maybe I wasn’t as mentally prepared as I should have been. Or maybe I was focused on certain aspects more than I should have. I’m not sure. You tell yourself everything’s going to be fine, but I knew I had made lots of small little errors along the way, and in the routine I was just trying to counteract them,” he says.
“I tried to recover the best I could but I think the judges could feel my tension on stage a little. All these little things count,” Hugh says. “In the end it’s about who can gain control and maintain it. Afterwards I was exhausted, a hard run takes it out of you. I knew it wasn’t a good run through, but I thought I may sneak in [to the Finals] given my first round placing.”
Sadly it wasn’t to be. Overall, Hugh placed a commendable eighth in the WBC. “You live and learn," Hugh says.
And he already has.
"I learned a lot about how I would or wouldn't compete again," he says. "I was happy with the way I development my ideas and concept, and processed my coffee, but I'd consider changing the direction of my routine next time, and I’d make lots of little technical changes.”
Compared to last year’s WBC in which his mentor Sasa Sestic won the title, Hugh says the competition this year was “very different”.
“Flavour brackets were a really big concentration. Flavour descriptors had to be very accurate. If you look at Berg Wu (WBC 2016 winner), his tasting notes were spot on. He was so precise in describing his coffees and was able to produce very distinct flavours that the judges would definitely taste” Hugh says.
“It was really interesting to be exposed to the way the world judges judged and viewed the rules, and how the different baristas adapted to that. It showed me that certain things I perceived as correct were different to what the international judges thought. For instance, I considered my espresso to be a medium-weight, but the judges found it heavier weight.”
Backstage, Hugh says it was a really "cool and relaxed environment”.
“Everyone was really chatty and happy to share information. I got to taste the other competitors competition coffees and it was really interesting to see that each tasted completely different to the other, especially the espressos,” he says. “In particular the Japanese barista’s (Yoshikazu Iwase) shots were nectar like but also very clean. I’d never tasted anything like it.”
On the night of the Finalists announcement, Hugh treated his tastebuds to a delicious Irish strew and a few beers with his team to celebrate months of hard work and effort.
“I hadn’t eaten meat for six months so I indulged and destroyed my taste buds,” Hugh laughs. “The WBC after party was pretty loose too. Lots of Guinness was consumed.”
Upon returning back to Canberra and his everyday routine at Ona Coffee, Hugh says the first thing he did was discuss different roasting approaches and recipe ideas for coffees.
With this determined attitude, BeanScene asked Hugh if he’d consider competing again?
“We’ll see,” he says. “I’m definitely inspired now. There’s lots of ideas in my head and lots of people asking if I will. I might just have the itch to try again, but I’m not too sure what my girlfriend’s going to say about that."
Image credits: World Coffee Events and Jake O.