Photo by James Hoffmann.
Gwilym Davies is the 2009 United Kingdom Barista Champion. Although his house is not often docked near the internet, he managed to find a little time to talk to twitchy.org in between picking out his finest competition tweed.
Hello Gwilym. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. As you have already indicated to me that you will not be funny, I’ll try not to push my luck.
So. You live on a boat?
Yes, a flat bottomed canal boat. Mostly cruising through London on the inland canals, just about wide enough for 2 boats to pass. The Canal is usually 5ft deep and has no flow like a river. A pretend boater really, more like living in a long (52ft) bobbing corridor that is 6ft wide and has to produce its own electricity.
Can you describe your cafe setup? Who roasts your coffee, Square Mile?
We have 2 carts. Monday-Friday on Whitecross Market and another at a local flower market on a Sunday. Both start at 8am and close at 2pm.
Both are a plywood box built onto sturdy hand carts. We wheel them into place from nearby storage areas we rent from local shops. They were built to be practical but cheap, we wanted to direct the cash towards staff and machines. We use 2grp and 3grp Lineas. Anfim Super Caimano grinders with timers for the espresso and Super Jollys for the decaf — just to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have the Anfims.
To be honest the Carts are a bit scruffy but in someways that is the point, for the same reason we have not branded ourselves — we want people to come to us because the product is really good
Squaremile roast the coffee. They are 3 stops on the No.55 bus or a short cycle ride away so it was a no-brainer. We have had great support as well as finding great friends.
Why did you compete this year? You seemed genuinely surprised at winning.
After making coffee for many years I competed for the first time this year. I was surprised to win as that was not the reason for entering. I have been self-taught over the years and wanted to tidy up my skills and improve. I also wanted to prove to the UK that there were good coffee makers in London, we are generally underrepresented and in doing so raise the profile of the competition in London. I also wanted to meet the wider coffee community as I seem to spend all my time working my own machine.
What is cafe culture like in London, or the UK in general? Do you feel like you’re a part of that, or does what you’re doing make you a little bit of an outlier?
The scene in London has been bubbling under and is just starting to surface. It is mostly concentrated in the East and Soho. As it is so localised we find it easy to visit each other and connections are being made. I am very positive about the future direction of coffee in London and hope we can continue to all work together despite differing corporate identities.
What have been some of your favorite coffees in the past year?
The “Taste of….” series at Squaremile have been great. I generally am limited in the espresso I drink to what is in London or at work. the Taste of the West Coast was particularly good. I have recently been getting into El Salvador as an Origin. I have tasted very little until this year and have loved the sweetness.
What would you change about barista competitions if you could?
I have only competed in the UK and then only this year so my experience is limited. I welcome the move to a greater emphasis on sensory over technical. I would like to see emphasis taken away from how the judges table looks and why do I have to pour their water?
I would love to replace the signature drink section with a section for competitors to use different brewing method (of competitors choice).
What would you like to see change in coffee culture in the larger picture? Either locally or globally.
Quality (greens, roasting, preparation) has improved a lot since I started making coffee 12 years ago and I hope it keeps improving.
There is a lot more openness and sharing of information than when i first started 7 I hope this continues too.
Does your family understand coffee and your role in it?
No. They were mortified when I left my previous profession to move to London and make coffee. Though they have not yet got used to the boat thing yet either.
My partner makes coffee though & my 4 year boy old seems to have learnt how to tamp by just watching!
You get to work in the morning. What drink do you make for yourself?
I meet who ever is helping me that day in the local caff (are you familiar with our concept of a ‘Greasy Spoon Caff’ – Everything is fried and based around breakfast) for a cup of tea. The tea is made by balancing the amount of hot water from one container with concentrated tea from another then finished with the appropriate amount of milk. It creates a very strong brew and is becoming a dying art.
The first drink of coffee is in dialing in the grinder, there is then no stopping until midday when the queue slows down.
For my pre-WBC interviews this year, I’m going to have a rolling question at the end where I ask one competitor to ask a question to another, on any topic you like. You have received a question from Raul Rodas, Barista Champion of Guatemala. He asks:
“How does it feel to be together with a WBC Champion does it make it easier to work on??”
I was busy on some community projects while James was becoming a Champ so the first few times we met I did not know. I have always seen him as a nice guy who gets a bit nerdy now and again.
Whether it has made things easier or harder I do not know as I have never competed before — it certainly seems very hard!
Thank you, Gwilym.