Paul Bassett: The trailblazer

Paul Bassett

Australia’s first World Barista Champion Paul Bassett reflects on his career in coffee, pursuit of flavour, and the global growth of specialty coffee.

Paul Bassett is the only person alive who can boast having a World Barista Championship (WBC) title, television series, and Asian coffee chain to his name.

“If you told me as a child, ‘you’re going to have 100 stores named after you in Korea’, there’s no way I’d have believed you,” Paul says.

His interest in hospitality and flavour was embedded in him from a young age. Paul grew up living above his parent’s French contemporary restaurant in New South Wales, where he would often help out after school.

“Having all the taste and tactile – the sensory awareness – of a kitchen around me as a kid, in those formative years, was highly influential,” Paul says. “My father was also an amazing chef. He had a strong influence on my character. We’re quite perfectionists and pursue special tastes.”

While Paul committed to a career in hospitality and worked in several cafés as well as restaurants, his attention didn’t turn to coffee until a holiday to Italy opened his eyes.

“I was about 19 or 20 and realised I wanted to specialise in a particular area. I was considering wine or becoming a chef,” Paul says.

“The moment I landed in Italy and went to my first espresso bar, I was captured by the romance of the culture, the way espresso is part of their daily lives. It was so regional too. Seeing this taste variation from region to region is what really pulled at my heartstrings.”

paul bassett
More than 100 Paul Bassett coffee shops operate across Korea and Japan.

When Paul returned to Australia, he opened the Yellow Pages and called every coffee company he could find, looking to get his foot in the door. After a short stint with the Australian importer of Italian roaster illycaffe, he took a job with Toby Smith during the formative years of Toby’s Estate Coffee Roasters.

“Back then, it was still a very small business, roasting out the back of Toby’s mother’s house in Woolloomooloo. I learnt as much as I could,” Paul says.

“I’ve had many influences during my career, but that is where it all started.”

Around this time, coffee competitions gained traction in the industry at a grassroots level. Paul competed in the first official Australian Barista Championship in 2001, not placing as high as he’d hoped.

“I didn’t take them too seriously at first. Once I’d competed, I got a feel for it and got to know the people,” Paul says. “Being highly competitive and extremely interested in the pursuit of quality and how taste can be improved, I naturally gravitated towards that world.”

He won the following year and placed seventh in the 2002 WBC in Norway. This experience gave Paul a better idea of what the judges were looking for and applied this when he competed again and won in 2003.

“Success is a poor teacher. I paid attention to what the guys in the top places were doing, so I knew what I needed to do when I came back. It was very much a case of knowing that, then going above and beyond it,” Paul says.

“I went in with that mindset and a real level of commitment. I was also working with a great team around me, everything from my best mate who was a performance psychologist, to people on the green and roasting fronts, looking at the performance and delivery of that.”

Paul titled his signature beverage the Bacino. An espresso was poured over the top of a chocolate ganache in a glass with a rim dipped in honey and cinnamon sugar. This was served with an orange wedge on the rim. Paul won with a score 20.5 points ahead of the runner up.

“Looking back at my performance, I won quite convincingly. I think it was the level of detail I went into that shone through on the day. You can see that in the year’s following, where the bar raises year on year,” Paul says.

“It’s quite humbling when someone with their own specialty coffee business comes up to you and says ‘you inspired me to follow this path’.

What’s great about the WBC is that it pushes the boundaries of quality and encourage people – even those not competing – to explore coffee’s potential.”

In the 17 years since he competed, Paul says the biggest change in the competition is the coffee being served and what the competitors and judges hope it achieves.

“The coffees back then went further in terms of roast development. They were medium roasts with nuances of caramelisation and sweetness coming through. This was in cohesion with the intrinsic characteristics of the coffee,” he says.

“Now it’s more about tasting and expressing the purest nuances of the coffee, and less of the roast characteristics. They’re roasting lighter profiles but still looking for full development of flavour.”

Winning the WBC opened many doors in the industry for Paul. These included filming the 2004 television series Living Coffee and working with Sunbeam to improve consumers’ in-home coffee experiences.

Paul also took the opportunity to start his own roasting business, Bassett Espresso, in late 2003, which has built a strong and tightknit community in New South Wales.

“I’m really happy that I’m working with a great small team of people, whether they be employees or café owners, who are equally as passionate about coffee as I am,” Paul says. “We’re all in pursuit of the same goals, share the same values, and get to go out there every day and do something we love and share it with other people.”

Bassett Espresso is not the only business to bear Paul’s name. Not long after winning the WBC, Paul received an email from a Japanese company asking him if he would like to collaborate with their brand ambassador, a World Patisserie Champion.

Paul met with the company, which eventually led to the launch of two Paul Bassett named cafés in Tokyo. The success of these stores encouraged Paul to look into other markets with the right partners. Such an opportunity came up in 2009.

“I was introduced to Maeil Dairy in Korea who saw the potential of the brand, taste of the coffee, and premium space that it could sit in,” Paul says.

“It was opportune timing to start there. We could really make a difference and improve the quality in Korea.”

There are now more than 100 Paul Bassett cafés across Korea. Paul’s role is to act as the “brand conscience”, being responsible for quality assurance and most decisions related to its coffee. Paul says the brand has built a strong awareness and perception among customers in the local market.

The most obvious difference Paul notes between the South Korean and Australian market is the popularity of commercial coffee chains in Asia, whereas he says Australians are more likely to follow certain roasters than stores.

The two markets also have divergent taste preferences. Acknowledging this has been key to the success of Paul Bassett.

“When you enter a new market, understanding the cultural idiosyncrasies is really important,” Paul says.

“There is a far greater acceptance of high-acid coffees in Australia. One of the things that helped us build momentum in Korea was the style of coffee we were doing. The low-to-medium acidity, full-bodied, sweeter espresso gravitated towards Korean palates.”

Now firmly established in two Asian countries, Paul is looking to spread the Paul Bassett brand to other markets, starting with the Philippines.

“We have a great opportunity there to leverage the success we’ve had in Korea and replicate that in other markets,” Paul says.

He adds the focus will be on countries with emerging coffee cultures, like Korea in 2009 and Australia when he picked up that phonebook 20 years ago.

“The Australian coffee industry has changed so much. Some of the biggest growth was in the mid-2000s, when there was strong movement and interest from a consumer level. Since then, it’s been on an upward trajectory,” Paul says.

“It’s nice to have been part of that movement and share something I’m so passionate about.”

This article appears in the April 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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