Look to El Salvador! Congratulations to Alejandro Mendez, World Barista Champion 2011!

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Anyone who's walked through a field of blossoming coffee trees will always remember the amazing scent from the flowers

It was such a joy to watch the finals in the World Barista Championship live from Bogota, Colombia yesterday, and especially to see Alejandro Mendez from El Salvador during his 15 minute presentation and preparation of his coffees.

It is in the air: coffee enthusiasts world wide are praising Alejandro for his focus on the coffee plant itself:

Alejandro started with his signature drink, telling the judges he wanted to utilize the whole coffee plant, in this case the El Salvadorean natural hybrid Orange Bourbon:

  • he made a tea-like infusion from dried coffee flowers, having gathered the flowers by spreading carpets under the coffee trees, and catching the white petals as they fell after pollination (the coffee trees flower only a few days, and then swiftly fall off). The flowers were then dried for two weeks.
  • he made a second infusion from dried cascara;  the skin of the coffee cherry, gathered after the beans are removed (de-pulping). Cascara has gained some popularity the last years after some coffee growers started offering it. In Africa and the arabic world it is known as ‘Quishr’. Alejandro collected the cascara during harvest, and dried the cascara for a few days only.
  • Alejandro made a third infusion from coffee cherries stripped of the cascara: the beans now covered by the fruit flesh only (the ‘pulp’). The coffee cherry pulp tastes like sweet melon.
  • the fourth ingredient in Alejandros Signature Beverage was espresso: he used two grinders, one with Orange Bourbon ‘natural’, and the other with Orange Bourbon ‘washed’. Alejandro pulled one double shot from each grinder, blended them and then evenly poured this into the judges glasses with the blend of the three other ingredients.

Quite simple and pure; no sweetening nor topping or even stirring: Alejandro presented all that the coffee plant produces (except tea made from the leaves, perhaps?). And there was no doubt this young man knew his way around a coffee farm –

The judges were then served espressi:  crip and clean from the washed bourbon. This is when Alejandro told the judges to evaluate the créma first, and not stir the espresso with a spoon (as they are suppose to do, according to the ‘protocol’): he then elegantly removed the créma and served the judges anew, asking them to taste his espresso sans the characteristic hazelnut layer usually topping the extraction.

A daring move, but the judges thus got the pure essence in the cup  -and, after all, that’s what it is all about  -and surely in Alejandros philosophy.

For his cappuccini, the el salvadorean barista chose the natural processed orange bourbon in the 2nd grinder as basis espresso.

I’ve often wished I could bring back home the scent of coffee blossom in the air, but there’s no way you can pick the flowers: they are waiting to be pollinated (and these fragile flowers are only fertile a couple of hours)! After a couple of days, they whither and fall off the twigs. Picking flowers means picking to-be-cherries, so I wouldn’t do that. Alejandro could just put a carpet under the tree and come back later…

coffee blossom in El Salvador

I have, though, brought home coffee cherries: as red and ripe as possible, for my colleagues at home to see, taste and experience. I tell you, for a coffee enthusiast who’s not yet been visiting a coffee farm, a red cherry in the hand is an awesome moment.

coffee cherry from a farm in Santa Barbara in Honduras: surprisingly containing not two, but three beans inside!

What Alejandro was showing  -not only the judges and the audience in Bogota, but also the around one thousand viewers watching the competition through a live feed-  was a story many of us in the Speciality Coffee Business have been urging to tell the world for years. These amazing scents and flavours from the coffee tree can be tasted also in the best of coffees!  We’ve discovered incredible coffees the last decade, because the small farms in the higher altitudes have been able to sell their small ‘lots’ of clean, unblended beans directly to small roasteries and coffee houses world wide. Programs like ‘Cup of Excellence’ have opened doors and given us a chance to meet the farmers face to face. The farmers highly appreciate being recognized for their hard work, and in meeting roasters directly, quality is getting higher.

The World Barista Championship is indeed moving forward:  the milder roasts have a renaissance, blends have lost their charm and the characters of varieties and micro lots and processing is the new wine. Even the spanish barista (# 6) confessed he preferred coffee prepared in filter methods because of the wider spectre of flavours it gives.

'Cascara': after the coffee bean is removed, the skin of the coffee fruit can be dried and brewed as a tea. This was and still is a tradition in East Africa and the arabic world, where it is still served as 'Quishr'.

The japanese competing barista was also on a mission spreading the gospel of the amazing flavours in high end coffees: Miki handed out cards to the judges with illustrations explaining what happens when you blend citric acids with tartaric and malic acids  -and what actually happens when you add sweetness. She then demonstrated this in her signature beverage.

the japanese baristas card she gave the judges

The last years have seen an increasing use of different brewing techniques for the Signature Drink in WBC, with the intention of showcasing that ultimate extraction from an excellent bean.  This year, the AeroPress, the Syphon and the Chemex was still dominant in National Finals, but no more so in the Finals in Bogota.  It’s in the air; we’ve seen it coming. What’s left is the coffee tree itself, and the fruit it bears: while competing baristi the last years have talked about  their amazing choice of coffee, with details about the farmers’ life, the altitude, the processing and the light roasting, this year we saw the US competitor telling us he had been at the farm -in Hawaii-  choosing and picking the cherries himself. Alejandro could tell the same story, but in addition wanted us to experience more of the coffee tree itself.  His presentation was inspiring to all watching!

The austrian barista (# 43) ended his presentation by inviting the world to the next Championship: next year in Vienna:

Well, if only Continental Europe would open their palates and smell the coffee blossom and the muscilage, and not hunt for the Kopi Luwak and the best robusta.  The elegant viennese coffee houses deserve better .

Coffee cherries as ripe as they should be when picking: thanks to Aida Batlle for this photo from Finca Mauritania, El Salvador

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