The UK Barista Championship, the greatest training opportunity of the year for beverage operators, will determine the seven regional finalists during January and February.
The contest provides the chance for all espresso-making baristas in Britain to meet other baristas, have a vast amount of fun, and take their skills to new levels.
For any caterer, this is, without any doubt, the cheapest and most effective on-the-job barista training opportunity in the trade.
Staff who are entered for the barista championships always swap skills, hints and tips from other baristas and, no matter whoever wins the national title, the real benefit is felt by high-street café and restaurant owners, whose staff come back to their jobs as far more skilful baristas than they were before.
This year's barista championships are being held at seven regional finals during January and February, with the finals in mid-March. The national champion will go forward to the world barista championships, to be held in the USA in April.
All the espresso machines being used in this year's UK Barista Championships are the San Remo Verona, distributed in the UK by Andrew Tucker of SanRemo in Buckfastleigh, Devon.
"The contest will help any caterer in promoting to the strongly-growing culture of good-coffee enthusiasts," says Andrew Tucker of San Remo, this year's machine sponsor.
"If you promote it vigorously in your café, it says that you are serious about your coffee to a very high standard and in a downturn, when customers are going to be more choosy, this is going to be a benefit. For a café, even just saying that you have gone in for the competition is a useful quality message."
Some well-known trade names endorse this view. Paul Meikle-Janney, the noted trainer who serves on the championship committee, says: "The high street is going to be a tough battleground over the next months and ‘true quality' is going to be a powerful weapon. I strongly believe that competitions can be a great way of driving staff skills, and promoting a café's standards."
Hugh Gilmartin of the Coffee Boys told us: "In a tough economic climate, operators are going to struggle to convince the buying public to pay £3.00 for a coffee. A barista competition, properly promoted to the public, shows a high level of skill which helps to justify the price asked. So, the competition needs to be seen within the wider context of a lot of industry requirements."
Coffeetech, which can already be seen in the UK high streets, notably in Coffee Republic.
The Aurelia is the first espresso machine ever to have been submitted for an academic ergonomic appraisal. One feature highlighted by the ergonomics assessors was that the Aurelia features lever-controlled steam valves as opposed to normal rotating ones sothe operator experiences less stress on hand and wrist muscles. The assessors also noted the soft-touch buttons for the same reason. Nuova Simonelli also says its machine was chosen by the WBC because of its thermal stability.
"This is possibly the most important issue of all with pro baristas," remarks Coffeetech's Duncan Gaffney. "The WBC set stringent technical criteria on how stable the drink delivery temperature is. The Aurelia performed extremely well and the prime reasons are the very heavy groups (because the mass of a group determines how much heat/energy might be dissipated when water is introduced), a system with which we are able to mechanically regulate the group temperature within plus-or-minus one degree, and also the volume ratios between the boiler and heat exchangers. This big part of the design was carried out in consultation with a physics faculty at a leading Italian university, for an objective scientific approach.
"The Soft Infusion System is another feature, but difficult to articulate - in layman's terms I suppose we could say that hot water is ‘progressively eased' into the coffee cake rather than ‘jetted' into it.
"Clearly, pro baristas understand all this. But for every expert barista there's a thousand caterers who don't have a deep understanding of the physics of making a great coffee. So, in designing an advanced technical product, engineers constantly strive to come up with technologies that flatter even the most unskilled users!"
By Ian Boughton