Toby’s Estate explains why this year’s Swirl Club is more than just a latte art competition or an everyday barista showdown.
What began as a light- hearted phrase used internally by Toby’s Estate staff members has become a bespoke knock- out style competition with a prize pool this year totalling more than $45,000.
“We started saying ‘Swirl Club’ about three years ago as a way to describe making coffee, to symbolise combining milk with an espresso shot before pouring your latte art,” says Vee Ketsak, Toby’s Estate Marketing Coordinator, and lead event organiser for Swirl Club.
“We knew we wanted to create a fun platform for baristas and coffee lovers to connect in a grassroots environment. After some brainstorming and trial and error, Swirl Club was born. The first official competition took place in 2022 as a latte art smackdown and was met with an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from guests at the event.”
This year, Toby’s Estate is kicking things up a notch. The competition is going on a national tour, visiting Sydney, Perth, Brisbane, and Melbourne before accumulating to a finale event at Toby’s Estate’s Alexandria warehouse in Sydney.
“This year’s Swirl Club is about more than just latte art. The competition features six unique challenges that is intended to cover every aspect of what a barista would do on a daily basis,” Vee says.
The competition includes 32 contestants in each heat. First up, is Tulip Stack, a head-to-head round where baristas must pour the most tulip stacks in one go. Sixteen competitors move on to the next round, Closing in 30, where baristas are randomly paired up and must complete five coffee orders. The fastest team moves on to the next round. From there, eight competitors continue to round three, Dial-in King. Here, competitors get four attempts in four minutes to dial in an espresso coffee with limited information. Contestants are scored on overall taste, acidity, flavour, finish, mouthfeel.
The top four scoring competitors move onto the Froth Monster round where they must pour six piccolos, distributing foam to a prescribed line. The two losing challengers process to round five, Latte Art Smackdown, to determine third and fourth place. The two winners will go head-to-head in the final round, Triangulation of Doom, to determine first and second place. In the deciding round, the competitors must taste and correctly guess the odd coffee out of three in five flights. The fastest and most accurate barista wins.
“So far, we’ve sold out all three events in Sydney, Perth, and Brisbane, plus extra door tickets on the night. Each event has had 150 to 200 people present. We want these events to be an opportunity for people to interact and for us to connect with the coffee community,” Vee says.
“It’s also a platform for up-and-coming baristas to challenge their skills, and maybe even unravel new talent. I’m sure there’s some shy underdogs out there that the coffee world hasn’t discovered yet. What we love about the competition is that anyone can win.”
Prizes for each heat include $3000 for the first placeholder, $1000 in prize money to second place, and a $500 cash prize for third place.
Kahlia Wilson, a Barista Trainer of Barista HQ Perth, was the winner of the Perth heat that took place on 25 May at Toby’s Coffee Studio Whadjuk Country.
“To be honest, it took me a while to really soak [the win] in. It was such an amazing experience, and I really couldn’t believe that I won the competition. I actually couldn’t sleep that night because I had so much adrenaline and excitement,” Kahlia says.
Kahlia did most of her preparation at home on a single boiler Breville coffee machine and a $5 bag of beans from Coles.
“I practiced as much as I could using the machine, which was a long process due to the size of the machine, but it was definitely worth it. I was able to do the rest of the preparation at work, as I teach classes on dialling in and taste. Every class I would get a little more involved in the process so that I could really practice dialling in different beans,” she says.
According to Kahlia, the most challenging aspect of the competition was overcoming her nerves.
“It is always so intimidating walking in [to a competition]. The coffee community is so big, so I always get intimidated by the representatives of some of the big gun baristas,” she says.
“After the first round, I realised how supportive everyone is and I really started to have fun with the experience. I never expected to get past the first round, let alone win the competition. I was in absolute shock when I realised I was in the final round.”
Kahlia plans to prepare for the finale by training with talented baristas in Perth to try and learn as many different techniques as possible.
“I’ve continued to practice my coffee skills on my Breville machine everyday but will definitely get some more practice in with commercial grade machines,” she says.
“To be honest, I am just looking forward to being there. I had so much fun at the Perth heat and I am stoked to have a chance to compete in the finals in Sydney.”
The last heat before the finale will take place on 28 September at the Slayer Espresso Showroom in Abbotsford, Melbourne. Each placeholder will receive prizes from event sponsors, including Slayer Espresso.
“What’s really exciting about the way the competition has evolved is that it’s not just about latte art, it’s a holistic approach to barista skills. I think [Toby’s Estate] has done a really great job at gamifying the essential things that a good barista should be able to do,” says Slayer Espresso Product Sales Specialist, Hugh McDonnell.
Manufactured in Seattle, United States, Slayer Espresso is providing two Slayer Steam EP espresso machines for use in each heat, as well as merchandise and prize packs for event placeholders.
“We’re a company that makes specialty coffee machines for specialty coffee people. Being involved in community run, barista-focused events is a huge honour for us and allows us to speak to our people, while supporting Toby’s,” Hugh says.
“Swirl Club, while it should be taken seriously, is meant to be a relaxed and fun competition. You don’t need to be a Q Grader to participate. I was lucky enough to participate in last year’s events and judge the Sydney and Perth heats this year, and watching Swirl Club grow and blossom has been so rewarding.”
The top eight competitors from each heat are guaranteed entry into the finale in Sydney, taking place on 16 November at Toby’s Estate’s Alexandria Warehouse, which Vee says is “the only Toby’s site big enough to house over 200 people”.
The Swirl Club Finale winner will receive $15,000 cash, $10,000 will be awarded to second place, and $5000 to third place. Event sponsors will also provide bonuses and gifts to the top three winners.
“We’re expecting the finale to be huge. It’s a great opportunity to get Australia’s best and brightest baristas through our doors for a bunch of fun,” Vee says.
For more information and tickets, visit www.tobysestate.com.au
This article appears in the August 2023 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.