Last month, Phil & Sebastian barista Jeremy Ho won the 2012 Canadian Barista Championships in Toronto, solidifying Calgary’s place in the country’s coffee scene. He will be representing Canada in the World Barista Championship held in Melbourne in May 2013. Jeremy chats with Calgary is Awesome about coffee, being a barista, competing in the Barista Championships and what makes Calgary’s coffee scene awesome.
Calgary is Awesome: Tell us a bit about yourself.
Jeremy Ho: I kind of have two lives in a sense – obviously my coffee life here [at Phil & Sebastian], I’ve been pretty involved in the company since 2007. I’m also going to school on the side, I’m working on my Masters degree in Population & Public Health.
CIA: How did you get into coffee?
JH: I think my story’s very similar to a lot of people in that I drank coffee like any typical student, just to stay awake or if you were studying very hard. I was drinking pretty standard coffee and would go to Starbucks for a “treat”, like flavoured lattes and stuff like that. My sister lived in Vancouver at the time, around 2005 or 2006, and Vancouver already had a really good coffee scene back then (they still do) She brought me to this café and told me I had to try this coffee there and so I had an espresso and a brewed coffee and I was blown away by how coffee could taste not just like coffee, but like different fruits and have tons of flavour and it really opened my eyes.
From that point I ended up working at a local coffee chain just to get my foot in the door and learn as much as I could, and I geeked out on the internet and tried to find as much info as possible. Then in 2007 I applied for a job at Phil & Sebastian, just a few months after we’d opened at the [former] Calgary Farmer’s Market and that’s how I got started.
CIA: For the uninitiated, how do the Barista Championships work?
JH: There is a standard set of three drinks that you have to serve to four judges – a course of espressos, a course of cappuccinos, then a course of your signature drink. This is all within a 15-minute time limit. The four judges that you present to evaluate you on the sensory side – how it tastes, the balance, the tactile, the flavour, all those things. There are also two technical judges that judge your technique while you’re making your coffees, like your economy of motion, how consistent you are, things like that. Then there’s one head judge who oversees everything and makes sure everyone is as calibrated to one another as possible.
All of this is wrapped up in a presentation or concept that ties everything together (well, the good ones anyway). So, you talk about something that links all your drinks together, and your signature drink should reflect your overall concept.
CIA: Tell us what your presentation was about.
JH: My presentation was all about traceability in coffee in Ethiopia. Why I chose that theme was because my all-time favourite coffees are Ethiopian coffees; they’re the ones that hooked me into the industry. In 2008, Ethiopia implemented a commodity exchange for some of their crops, including coffee. The commodity exchange program was meant to provide a market for people to sell their goods and get an actual market value, and it was a really good way to leverage that, but during that time, coffee became commoditized. So before, specialty coffee roasters like us were buying directly from mills that were really high quality and the beans had very unique profiles. Suddenly, they all had to sell it through this program and they all get lumped together just by region and grade, so we lost all this traceability.
I think traceability is important in this industry because we need to work together to understand all the steps [in the making of the coffee] and actually have the potential to improve the coffee. All the partners that we have in Central and South America, we can tell you exactly what has happened to the coffee because we have these relationships, but in Ethiopia we don’t.
Why I’m so excited for that in Ethiopia is because their coffee is unlike any other coffees that you’d taste on Earth. They are the coffees that I think have the potential to completely shatter customers’ expectations as to what coffee can be. This is already what it is without any control or traceability, so imagine the potential if we had that system in place.
CIA: How did you conceptualize and summarize all that in your signature drink?
JH: My signature drink was sort of “cheeky” in the sense that it was a very literal representation of what I talked about. I made the drink with white peach nectar and I poured the espresso through a filter with a tiny bit of orange zest so it infuses some citrus flavours. Then I added a tiny bit of chilled water and a tiny bit of stabilizer, then I infused it all under pressure and made a foam out of it. I purposely made it an unstable foam so that it would dissipate and turn into a liquid.
The foam was meant to represent the problems associated with traceability. I had the judges take a sip of the foam as soon as I dispensed it; you get a little bit of flavour, but it’s muddled and lacking clarity – that was meant to represent how you could see potential in Ethiopia, but there’s a lot of uncertainty. As it turned into liquid before the judges, that was meant to represent that slowly but surely, we are taking steps in being able to source more traceable coffees. Then once all the foam was dissipated and swirled into the drink, it was meant to represent that underneath all the problems there’s this amazing, raw potential, and it was a celebration of flavours that are very typical in this region – the peach, citrus, a lot of high notes.
CIA: In regionals, you placed second behind fellow Phil & Sebastian barista Ben Put, who placed second in the national championships behind you. What do you think made the difference in nationals that pulled you ahead?
JH: We actually scored within 11 points of one another, and when your scores are in the 600s and you look at the multipliers, it’s like nothing – it’s like a half-point here could’ve been the difference. I ended up ahead, but realistically, our points are so close, they were practically the same. Ben is an amazing competitor; he actually has finished 2nd in the last three years, which is something that no one has ever done. He’s a super-close friend of mine and I’ve learned so much from him; I can’t say a specific thing that put me ahead, it’s just how it turned out that day. Our goal was to go one-two in the competition and we achieved that.
CIA: Are you going to do anything different or special to prepare for Melbourne?
JH: The competition is not until May, so we have a lot of time to think of what we want to do. One of things we are looking at is what experiment or project we can put into place on the green coffee side that could yield some amazing results that we could present on or provide something unique on the world stage. It all comes down to the coffee we use and we really need to find a coffee that is outstanding, then understanding it, refining the roast profile and building a concept from it.
CIA: So you’re essentially building a new presentation from scratch.
JH: Exactly. I won’t be doing the same presentation that I did at nationals. It’s going to be a big team effort, I think. Ben is going to coach me, and we’ll be working closely with Phil and Sebby and the whole team. It’s interesting because at nationals I was representing Phil & Sebastian, and now I will be representing Canada, and I have lots of friends across the country whom I think can provide some interesting insights. It will be cool to connect with everyone in the community to get their opinions; I think there will be a lot of connecting over the next while.
CIA: A more general coffee question – how do you think the coffee scene in Calgary compares to cities with more established coffee cultures like Seattle or Vancouver?
JH: It’s amazing how much our scene has grown. If you look at when we started in around 2007 compared to now, there have been so many shops and roasteries that have popped up. I love our scene in Calgary and I want it to get better.
I’ve travelled around a lot of good coffee scenes and I think our scene holds up really well; it just hasn’t been around as long. You see a great community here – sometimes in other cities that have scenes that have been around for a long time you see a lot of cliques and sometimes animosity because their scene is so deeply rooted and you get into different communities. But in Calgary, it seems like we grew up together and everyone is very supportive of one another and challenges one another. I think our scene is really awesome. I want it to get better and better too, so we’ll see what we can do with that, but I think we have some cool things on the go that might happen in the next year or so that will help better link our community.
CIA: Do you think that there are things that Calgary has in its coffee scene that other cities don’t?
JH: [One example would be] the Prairie Coffee Show. Even though the show [was not unique in that it] centred around the Prairie Regional Barista Championships, what we did was brought in key coffee people from around the world to have an industry forum to give presentations and insights. I think what we’re doing in Alberta is that we’re bringing in a lot of international influence; we’re not focused on just our little area. You see that in some other cities as well, but I do love the way that we’re doing that here.
I think we also have a lot of healthy competition. We actually have a lot of coffee roasters in Alberta – there’s us, Transcend Coffee in Edmonton and Fratello here, so there are three solid coffee roasters here in Alberta. Vancouver has more, and there are one or two popping up out east, but I think what is really cool is we do have a lot of presence here.
CIA: Last question – what makes Calgary awesome?
JH: I think what makes Calgary awesome is how “warm” everyone is and willing to make something happen. I think Calgary has a very magnetic, encompassing warmth to it, and you hear that from other people too.
Another thing that makes Calgary awesome is that there are a lot of “gems” within Calgary. I think that because we’re such a big “land” city, instead of having everything concentrated in one place, I think it’s fun to go around and find these gems, not just food or drink, but arts, community-focused events, design, etc. I think a negative is how spread out we are; I’m not an advocate of sprawl, but at the same time you see people who are doing cool things in their own neighbourhood, in the context of what we have.