The Coffee in Good Spirits competition at May's Caffe Culture show is one of the rare, but valuable, opportunities for the beverage trade and the bar trade to come together.
It is largely a mixologist contest, but with the serious additional aim of motivating bar staff to better understand the coffee they serve beside their alcohol.
The Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, which runs the contest, has pointed out that coffee is now served in a vast number of licensed premises, bars and restaurants, a market sector which outnumbers the ‘pure' beverage coffee-bars many times over.
From the coffee industry's view, a higher standard of coffee served in licensed premises is going to improve both the trade and the public's view of the beverage as a whole. The desirable result is that the standard of coffee will then improve wherever it is served.
A typical example put forward in support of the Good Spirits contest is the one of Irish Coffee. This, remarks the SCAE, is both the most used and the most abused combination of coffee and alcohol in the world. Made properly, an Irish Coffee shows a perfect balance between the Irish whiskey and the coffee, and a further balance with sugar and cream.
The barista or barman who can make this perfectly understand his products, and his other cocktails will probably also be well balanced. But in practice, of course, many Irish Coffees that are served are an appalling mess. So the Good Spirits contest exists to help bar staff better understand the qualities of coffee and exactly how it works with alcohol.
Paul Meikle-Janney, head of Coffee Community in Huddersfield, is one of the leading organizers of the Good Spirits contest. As a noted barista trainer, his work takes him into both coffee bars and licensed premises, and he is also a former competitor in the contest.
"We at Coffee Community do a pile of training in cocktail bars, and part of our job is to interest them in coffee and get the espresso machine on to the bar, like it is on the continent. The Coffee in Good Spirits contest is designed to catch the interest of mixologists and the cocktail people."
So, for the imaginative bartender who wants to have a go, what alcohol flavours work with coffee?
"A difficult thing for the barista in general is that a lot of flavours in general just do not marry with coffee," observes Meikle-Janney. "However, the flavours of alcohol do in general sit well with coffee - look at the 1970s coffee menus. Alcohol makes your possibilities with coffee much more open and adaptable."
In the Good Spirits contest, says Meikle-Janney, there is wide scope. The competitors do have one ‘set' drink to make, in that they are asked to make Irish Coffees (in a respectful nod to the coffee-and-alcohol mix that started the whole thing off) but then they can do what they like in their individual signature beverages, making them complex or simple.
Paul Meikle-Janney has a background in both bar and coffee trades, and has competed in Good Spirits himself. His own entries were, he suggests, perhaps a little too complex for modern tastes.
"My second attempt was on a fairground theme - it was a saffron candy floss, an espresso with a rum toffee base, and a little doughnut. The idea was to stir the candy floss into the espresso, then dunk the doughnut. I expect that this year, that would lose a lot of points on practicality, because we have now brought in a 'commercial reality' requirement."
This brings in a key business aspect, he notes. A coffee cocktail which works is one that can be served in a busy bar situation.
"Mixologists in a work situation don't want to spend a lot of time preparing their drinks to order - cocktail barmen want to spend time beforehand on the prepping, and when it comes to serving the drink, they want to get that done within a minute.
"So we like to see entrants simplify their drinks down to very few ingredientsâ¦ remember, the classic espresso martini has only two."
Details of the Coffee in Good Spirits contest can be found at the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe website.
By Ian Boughton