From the producer who makes it to the customer who drinks it, the relationships behind coffee are why Tilly Sproule loves the industry.
Despite five consecutive wins at the Northern Region Barista Championship, Tilly Sproule says the growing Queensland coffee scene has kept her on her toes.
“There’s a bit of excess pressure every year, but part of me feels proud to come back and represent 12 months of exploring new coffees and ideas. There’s also been a nice movement in the Northern Region competitions,” Tilly says.
“The support you feel onstage is incredible. This year, the room was jam-packed and the community was keen and excited to see what we had to present. There was also so much passion from the baristas this year – old faces coming back and new ones striving to succeed. I like to think I played a part in that.”
When Tilly began working as a barista at Gloria Jean’s 11 years ago, it was less as a career choice and more of a casual job.
“During the busy morning trade in the city, we had a lot of professionals coming in, making interesting conversation. It was the opposite of what I was studying at university,” Tilly says. “The whole customer interaction side of things really intrigued me, and it felt good being somewhat responsible for making someone else’s day with a cup of coffee.”
Tilly deferred her urban and regional town planning degree and went to work for Gloria Jean’s full time. She entered a management role, overseeing several coffee houses, before transitioning to training, covering the Sunshine Coast. During this time, Tilly started attending industry events and became a regular of Lamkin Lane Espresso Bar, the café of former Australian Barista Champion Tim Adams and face of his roasting business, Tim Adams Specialty Coffee.
“I’d been following Tim’s journey in barista competitions and knew [Head Roaster] James Pedrazzini previously. We got to know each other and build up a relationship,” Tilly says. “I started to feel a disconnect between what I was learning about coffee and my job as a trainer for a large international company. Tim offered me the chance to join his team and it took me about 30 seconds to give an answer.”
With Tim Adams Specialty Coffee, Tilly heads up barista training for wholesale or “anyone who wants to chat coffee for a few hours”, and contributes wherever else she’s needed, from managing and building wholesale relationships to machine maintenance, packing, and deliveries.
“Our team is really one big family that does everything together. There’re no set roles, which I find really refreshing and versatile. Our customers appreciate that too, because they can reach out to any of us for help,” Tilly says, adding that this team mentality carries across to her competition performances.
“The thing I love about barista competitions is how it trains us to think outside the box. We dive deep into our coffee and techniques, and it unites our team as well. I’d never have achieved any of this without the support of my team.”
Barista competitions have also allowed Tilly to connect with the wider industry, from other competitors to sponsors and supporters like cleaning product supplier Cafetto.
“Through the competitions you get to meet some amazing people who are passionate about coffee, including the Cafetto crew, and I’ve been lucky enough to have their support,” Tilly says.
“Cafetto is a product Tim Adams Specialty Coffee has been using for more than 10 years. It’s a brand and a product we’ve been pushing to every wholesale customer for cleaning or maintenance and we wouldn’t ever recommend any other product.”
Though the industry relationships have been beneficial, Tilly says barista competitions have also paved the way for her own personal development.
“This has been powerful for me as well because it’s this awesome platform to improve and learn,” she says. “There’s amazing times in training and challenging times too, when the coffee goes to sleep or doesn’t taste right. It really provides an opportunity to go down the rabbit hole of coffee.”
Through her competition career, Tilly’s routines have increasingly focused on the role of the producer and strengthening ties between them and the consumer. She visited origin herself for the first time in 2016, volunteering at the Brazilian Cup of Excellence.
“As a barista trainer, up until that point, I’d told the story of origin every chance I could get. I’d tell aspiring baristas about producer livelihoods, varietals, and processing, and how it influences flavour. But I felt like I’d lived those memories through other people,” Tilly says.
“When I saw it for myself, I realised how big an effect everything at origin has on a barista’s everyday life and vice versa. Every coffee is a chance to support producers. That experience gave me the need to come back.”
Tilly has since travelled to El Salvador and Honduras, during the latter of which she visited the Lanzas, a producing family whose coffee she has brought to several competitions.
“When I first used their coffee four years ago in a barista comp, the Lanzas actually travelled to Australia to sit in the audience and support us,” Tilly says.
“I’ve continued working remotely with them, talking to them about their coffee, and over the years our relationship developed more and more. Having the opportunity to visit their farm and spend time with them, to realise that connection, is beyond words.”
Tilly further cemented her international connections when she participated in – and won – the eighth Fushan Cup International Barista Championship of China. The invitation-only tournament follows a similar format to the Australian and World Barista Championship circuit, though Tilly says it posed its own challenges.
“The environment is really unique. The biggest difference I found was that we went by ourselves. When we compete in the regionals or nationals, we have our ‘formula one’ teams around us, and there’s so much support and energy,” Tilly says.
“The stage and coffee machine were also different and our fancy tools [like the Ona Coffee Distributor] didn’t fit in the basket. But these unexpected situations created this awesome level playing field for everybody, because we were all in the same position.”
Tilly adds that the competition gave her and the other baristas an opportunity to showcase their unique coffee cultures, relationships with different producers, and new ideas.
“It was cool to learn from baristas around the world. Going to China was outside my comfort zone, but the competitors were all there for an incredible time. We went on excursions to coffee farms in Yunnan and it was almost like the competition just happened to be there,” Tilly says.
“Backstage was hilarious, and we were all willing to help each other. None of us felt like the competition was the sole purpose of being there.”
This article appears in FULL in the December 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.
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