Allegra World Coffee Portal speaks to World Barista Champion and Director of Wholesale at Has Bean, Dale Harris, about persevering in the coffee business, honing his award-winning tasting and brewing skills and how the specialty scene has evolved
Tell us about how you got into the barista profession and what sparked your passion for making coffee
Many people working in coffee can remember a first revelatory moment when they realised how interesting coffee could be and taste – usually because of a chance encounter at a great cafe or an incredible cup.
For me, it was a steady progression of new, exciting things – first as a student chasing a caffeine fix, then discovering the huge increase in flavour from instant to filter and freshly ground coffee. I fell in love with cafés, shared spaces and the romanticisation of espresso. From there I ended up with a little home machine playing with different coffees and learning about the changes caused by brewing.
Finding inspiration in coffee, when my career at the time was proving disappointing, led me to a defining moment. I chose to drive my passion and excitement for coffee into beginning again and working up from the bottom. I knew I would be much happier and excited about what I was making and doing!
You participated in competitions for many years before taking the World Barista Championship (WBC) crown. What has motivated you most to continually learn and develop your skills?
Barista competitions are often viewed as solo affairs, but in reality they’re a group activity. It’s an exercise that forces you to work extremely closely with a team to build a rough idea, incorporate mechanical and presentation skills, and develop a fully-fledged coffee service. That kind of focussed learning is valuable, addictive, and hard to find while juggling everyday business needs.
From another angle, competition puts you in a peer group where – alongside some jostling and joking as you work towards beating each other’s scores – you’re also learning how every competitor is working within the competition structure to craft better drinks or achieve alternative results. Competition like this is a powerful learning mechanism, but also a networking and community development tool that benefits everyone involved.
What are the defining skills of a top barista?
It depends on how you define the useful skills of a barista. If we confine these to skills such as pulling shots or achieving consistent extractions, most science won’t help you serve better drinks faster in a busy café.
If we widen our understanding of what the professional barista can be, there are more nuanced, and in my opinion, more valuable skills we should cultivate. A sommelier isn’t valued in a restaurant for their ability to open a bottle.
Baristas sit at the pivotal moment when all the work that has gone into coffee production from many stakeholders is finally realised. Their ability to control and maximise the impact and benefit of that moment is essential to growing the speciality landscape.
Cultivation, post-harvest processing, roasting and brewing processes all affect flavour generation. By developing a greater understanding of flavour chemistry we can be better informed about the tools we have at our disposal to meet customer needs.
Pair this with developing our knowledge of customers’ sensitivities and preferences, and there is a world of opportunity for baristas to explore through academia, research and study.
There are more than 1,000 aromatic compounds found in coffee and you can detect Horlicks and white wine (among others) in Has Bean’s ‘Wildcard’ blend – how have you trained your pallet to differentiate between so many flavours?
The many aromatic compounds in coffee are just one influence on the final taste experience. We’re only very slowly picking these apart backwards from what we taste to what has happened to the plant or seed on its journey to the cup.
When describing flavours in coffee, you are rarely identifying a single compound or attribute. Even if you could, the situations where that identification is valuable are rare and specific. Instead, you’re normally describing the result of the combination of aromatic compounds, temperature, mouthfeel, and basic taste sensations and comparing these to other similar experiences you or your customer might have had.
The joy of coffee (and one of its major challenges) is that this combination is shifting as the cup cools, and the interpretation is dependent on the customer’s genetic sensitivities and flavour vocabulary developed through their own unique relationship with food and taste.
I genuinely believe accuracy is overrated when we’re thinking about the moment when coffee is served to a customer. Instead, it’s the ability to have an open conversation about flavour, and that interesting and different flavours are core to the value of coffee (a product that beyond keeping you awake has little nutrient value) and therefore of maximum importance. I don’t need to win a game of ‘name that compound’ when I describe this cup with a customer – I want to enjoy the conversation with them, learning more about coffee and each other as we go.
You’ve worked your way up in specialty coffee to become World Barista Champion and Director of Wholesale at Hasbean – in what ways has the industry has changed since you first became involved?
When I began working in coffee the industry was very commercial. Speciality coffee was something that happened in Melbourne or Seattle, it was a fringe product used for brand building or to satisfy an individuals’ niche passion.
From small seeds I’ve watched a vibrant community of cafes, roasteries, baristas and customers take root in London’s creative boroughs and spread across the city. As they’ve grown they’ve inspired smaller cities across the UK, with London-born concepts becoming part of the specialty coffee’s international identity. A greater focus on roasting and green quality has been a key element.
As a result, it’s become easier and more affordable to source, roast, brew, and sell significantly better coffee – this is undeniably a good thing. It’s also generated more awareness around producers and sustainability issues at origin.
That’s the positive story, but I think big business has also built a larger role for itself. Landlords have become more demanding, organisations have grown up that remove value from the growing market for quality without necessarily giving anything back.
Brand has become more important than cup quality, chains have adopted the artisan image without improving their green, roast, or brew quality. Consolidation of ownership has become the big trend, moving the focus towards valuations rather than offering customers value in the cup.
All these changes are natural steps in industry progression and maturation, but I wonder where they will leave the mission of specialty after a few years.
You’ve said that the experience of specialty coffee risks being commoditised where the connection between bean origin and brewing is broken – can you expand on this?
There are three significant areas where coffee quality is defined: at origin through farming and processing, when roasting and when brewing.
The range of possibilities available at each of these steps is set by the previous one. A barista can highlight or cover a flavour created by the roast profile of a coffee, but they can’t add new elements, just as a roaster can’t improve green quality through application of heat.
The most important connection for me is between a customer’s sensory experience and the root cause of those inputs – compounds created within a plant cultivation that are tied to the local terroir and soil. Every time we tell customers the reason their coffee tastes good is just because of a great barista, a perfect blend, or a roasting brand, we simplify these complex origins.
In doing this, we’re reducing what we offer to scalable elements that can be repeated in a way the unique sensory experiences can’t – that’s the core difference between a commodity and a specialty item.
What do you think coffee shops can do to encourage the next generation of star baristas?
Baristas need the same things as everyone else to succeed: someone to look up to who supports them, guidelines and a pathway to success. They also need the freedom to learn and take ownership of projects and decisions in a safe environment. More than anything they need a long-term investment in their growth.
Generally, I think businesses benefit most from growing their own talent and gaining reputations for supporting their people. This leads to higher retention and more dedicated staff. My advice is to hire fewer baristas, pay and look after them well, but set high expectations for workload and standards of service as well as product quality.
Dale Harris is the current World Barista Champion and Director of wholesale at Has Bean Coffee.
The 2018 World Barista Championship will be held at the RAI, Amsterdam, Netherlands 20-23 June.