Former Australian Barista Champion and current top-seeded competitor, Hugh Kelly of ONA Coffee, discusses overcoming early challenges and the power of espresso.
When did you begin competing in ASCA championships?
I started competing in 2012 in the ACT Barista championships.
What inspired you to take part?
I had just started making coffee and was enjoying learning, but wanted to go deeper and competition was a great way to do so.
What were some of the challenges you faced in the beginning?
Everything was difficult because I didn’t really understand how the competitions worked. I didn’t have huge experience in troubleshooting, let alone executing high quality in all scenarios under pressure. Speech writing and general knowledge wasn’t where it needed to be either, so I needed a bit of support from those around me to get something in the cup. The signature drink was also a really difficult course to understand, but it did teach me a lot about building structure and flavour to become something tasty.
How were these overcome?
Spending a lot of hours obsessing over finding solutions. I did practice after work into the late night, I watched other more experienced competitors and absorbed what I could.
What is it about your main field of competition that made you choose it over the others?
I chose the Barista championships because it seemed to be the most difficult and complete competition in terms of improving my skills as a barista. I have always been fascinated by coffee taste, particularly espresso, which is the most difficult beverage to make amazing! There are a lot of great filter coffees out there, but top 1% espresso experiences are much more fleeting and each year, I taste it and it blows my mind with texture, intensity and complexity that you don’t find in any other drink.
What have you learnt about coffee through competing?
I have learned how important it is to understand coffee as a bigger picture thing and that it requires broad understanding to get the moving parts to work together. The more I’ve competed, the more I’ve simplified my techniques and focused on fundamentals, so that if something goes wrong, the fixes are also simple.
How has it impacted your career?
I have been lucky enough to win the Australian competition twice and this has led to me travelling the world, working with amazing people who I’m grateful to call friends. I have had the opportunity to work on new methods of coffee production that have created really exciting results, and also work with San Remo Coffee Machines in Italy developing new equipment. None of this would have happened without the opportunities opened up through competition.
What is your best memory from competing in coffee championships?
Winning the Australian Barista Championships for a second time was huge for me as I had made a big mistake at the Worlds the year before, which had shown me weaknesses in my attitude and knowledge, and I really wanted to prove to myself that I could make these areas strengths and really take control in competition.
What are some of the easy mistakes you’ve made early in your competition journey?
Not writing lists initially made life really difficult on competition day. Also, not having a super structured method of quality controlling espresso from roast, age and extraction.
What advice would you give others thinking about competing?
Go into it with a completely open mind, don’t take criticism as an attack, use it as a way of learning and improving. Also, don’t compare yourself with others, you are in control of you and what you like, let that guide you. Don’t make coffee preparation or presentations more complicated than they need to be, make it make sense to anyone and it will be a more enjoyable experience for those watching.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I’d like to put out a big thank you to ASCA and the judges that have volunteered their time to make competition such an amazing thing over my career. Without all these people helping to make these events happen every year, I wouldn’t have been able to learn and experience what I have.