2008 World Barista Championship runner-up and reigning Australian Barista Champion David Makin is featured in this article about the barista profession and competitions:

TO many people, a cup of coffee is just a cup of coffee. To a few, it can be a work of art, if a very transitory one.

“It’s a matter of perfecting all the variables,” says David Makin, two-time winner of the Australian Barista Championships and rated as one of the best in the world. “From the selection of the beans, the coarseness of the grind, the length of shot, the steaming of the milk and the management of the crema. At the highest levels, it demands both classic and creative skills.”

In June, Makin competed in the World Barista Championships, held in Copenhagen.

“Every competitor has to use an identical machine, but everything else is up to the individual’s choice,” he explains. “I took 260 kilograms of luggage, equipment and ingredients, ranging from beans to tablecloths. Everything has to be of the highest quality. For example, the beans are about four times the price of what is usually used in commercial operations.

“In previous competitions, I had even taken my own selection of milk, but Denmark is known as a producer of very good milk, so that wasn’t necessary for Copenhagen.”

In the World Barista Championships, competitors — all national champions — must provide four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four “signature” coffees of their own creation. Makin’s choice for his signature drink involved a black cherry reduction, with a layer of cream infused with roasted almonds, topped with an espresso shot.

About 60 per cent of the total points are for taste, although presentation also rates highly. Interestingly, coffee art — patterns created on the top of a latte or cappuccino — is not considered in the World Barista Championships, although it is a part of some other top-level competitions.

Makin came second in the Copenhagen competition, only five points (out of 1100) behind the winner, Stephen Morrissey of Ireland.

Makin currently works as a sales manager for wholesaler Veneziano Coffee, owns a cafe in Parkville in inner Melbourne, and operates the website www.makinespresso.com, which provides news and information about the coffee world. He acknowledges that the intensity of competition is not for everyone, noting that it requires constant practice, improvement and innovation. He estimates that he has made over a quarter of a million cups of coffee in his professional career. The aim of constant preparation for competition, he says, is to be so familiar with the task that the procedures are automatic.

“You can make a distinction between cafe baristas and competition baristas, although of course the two groups are not mutually exclusive,” he says. “For cafe baristas, the emphasis is usually on producing high volumes at a very fast pace. You need to be very consistent, very organised, and very familiar with your equipment.

“Competition, whether internationally or at the state level, is about knowing how to produce the highest quality cup, with a streak of imagination.”

In Australia, there is no requirement to gain a technical qualification to call yourself a barista. Makin, for example, does not hold any certification, having developed his skills from mentors and experience.

However, there is a Nationally Endorsed Competency Standard developed by Tourism Training Australia for training baristas to prepare and serve coffee. The unit, called THHBFB12B: Prepare and Serve Espresso Coffee, is offered by a range of registered training organisations around Australia, and includes classes in theory, practical work with a commercial machine, workplace experience and an assessment.

“It’s good that there is a training standard, but dedication is really the key ingredient, in my view,” says Makin. “In fact, I would rate the Australian population of baristas as the best in the world, overall. Certainly, the standard you see in local competition is very high. And as I travel around for my work, I see a lot of baristas spending their own time practising to perfect their techniques and improve their understanding of coffee.

“I think that the quality of baristas and the demands of Australian consumers are developing in tandem. There are many coffee drinkers who are extremely knowledgeable and expect a very good quality cup. We are even seeing consumers who are fans of particular baristas and will follow them if they move from one cafe to another.”