Ona Coffee’s Hugh Kelly – 2017 ASCA Australian Barista Champ

Hugh Kelly of Ona Coffee has won the Australian Specialty Coffee Association (ASCA) Australian Barista Championship for the second year in a row.

Hugh is only the second Australian to win the prestigious title back-to-back since Paul Basset 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 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 is 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 routine, Hugh engaged the panel of four sensory judges with his fluid presentation, distinct flavour profiles, and elements of fun with the playful tangerine fairy floss he transported from a carnival setting to the judging table.

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. 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,” Hugh says. “I want to serve quality coffee first, but I also want to focus on how to make the customer experience better.”

To achieve this goal, Hugh talked to his customers to find out what they liked. 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.”

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 Gold milk. Its lactose and cream content was designed for a creamy mouthfeel to highlight notes of blackcurrent 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 used the sous vide cooking method to poach 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, and the vapour of jasmine flavours at 70°C for five minutes. He created an impressive fairy floss, from 50 grams of tangerine peel each and unrefined organic cane sugar, which he had 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, orange, apricot and jasmine florals on the palate, and a silky mouthfeel with a long finish”.

Hugh says there are still a number of details to refine before he represents Australia again 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.

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