Photo stolen from Emma Markland-Webster.
Carl Sara is a smart-alek from New Zealand who has competed thrice already in the World Barista Championships. He takes a break from flying with his entourage from Auckland to Atlanta to answer a few questions.
You’re really into competing in the World Barista Championship. Is it because it’s the only time you get to see Sammy Piccolo?
Who is Sammy Piccolo? Is he that famous actor guy from the thrilling documentary “Black Gold”?
What is cafe culture like in New Zealand?
We have some great cafes down here. While there have been a few cafes that have been around for a few decades, the last 10 years has seen a surge of new cafes appear. We have a massive amount of roasteries, between 200-250, which for a country with only 4 million people and 60 million sheep is a lot, and so the influence of the smaller roaster who has time to spend with their customers has become evident.
We are building a stronger and stronger pool of baristas, many of whom are moving through and now opening their own cafes as well which is helping the espresso scene. New Zealand is pretty unique in that our cafes are 100% espresso based, and so our consumers are becoming more and more specific in their demands for great coffee as their palates get accustomed to the better coffees.
What have been some of your favorite coffees an in the past year?
Exciting coffees have to be one of the real highlights of my competition training. While I always enjoy getting stuck into some new brown, the competitions make me look more intensively. I have some new freeze-dried stuff for the WBC this year, but I want to keep it under wraps so other people don’t use it. Its not easy to find but it was on special at the supermarket so I got heaps.
Other than that… I think the most surprising coffee I have had has been an amazing Blue Batak. I get sick of Sumatrans that are so big and earthy that you need to use a shovel instead of a spoon to stir it, but this Batak was so clean, balanced and juicy that I just really enjoyed every sip of it. It was still a big coffee, but I was pleasntly surprised.
Have you been to Atlanta before? Are you really going to be rolling with a crew of 20 people? I hope you’re all on the same flight.
I have never been to Atlanta before so I am looking forward to it.
I do have a bit of a team coming over with me. On my immediate team I have 4 people who have helped me on a day to day basis. We do this because we love it, and as a team we can learn so much more. The rest of the people coming are to support and learn themselves. We are really lucky to have a strong team of people working owards growing our espresso industry in NZ, and I believe it is one of the main reasons we have done okay over the years. We are too small, and isolated a country to do anything but work together if we want to do well and so the support I have received has been incredible. The depth of our WBC involvement moves beyond just my competing as we also have 5 WBC judges. Sometimes the team likes to have a little bit of fun at the WBC as well.
We have a scouting party of 8 arriving on Sunday with the rest landing over the next three days.
What are you looking forward to doing in Atlanta besides winning the World Barista Championship? Nearby Stone Mountain is the “largest piece of exposed granite in the world” if you get bored at the barista competition.
Wow that sounds great. Where did the name of the mountain come from?
I am coming to compete in the WBC again because I love the competition, and winning would be a longtime dream come true, but for me the two best parts of the WBC is catching up with all the coffee people, and drinking some incredible coffees. So a few cafe crawls with some friends I dont get too many chances to see is on the cards for sure.
Why do you compete?
I compete because it has opened up the door to a world that 10 years ago I didn’t know existed, and I love it. There is no other industry that I have found that is based around something as incredible and amazing as coffee, and is jammed pack with talented people who want to keep progressing their understanding of it.
What would you change about barista competitions if you could?
There are so may different comps about now its tough where to start, but WBC?
I would like to see a semi-final round. Its soooo tough (on judges and competitors alike) getting from over 50 competitors down to six in one cull.
What would you like to see change in coffee culture in the larger picture? Either locally or globally.
A general acceptance of the need to adopt change readily. Techniques and practices are moving ahead so quickly, it is so important for baristas, cafes and roasteries not to just accept the status quo.
Does your family understand coffee and your role in it?
Yes. My wife has been incredible. We have a beautiful 6-month-old daughter who arrived just a few weeks before we started training so getting to this point would not have been possible without a huge effort from her, it has been tough. Scott, my business partner/coach and his wife also had a baby boy 2 weeks after Sophie arrived so hectic times! Rachael married me after I had done a few WBC’s so I knew it really must be love!
My Mum and Dad have been to every WBC with me and they love watching and supporting. They have seen nearly every competitor at the events they have attended. Sometimes I wonder where my obsessive personality comes from.
You get to work in the morning. What drink do you make for yourself?
I dont know. I cant recall anything that happens before 9am in the morning. My best guess would be either a double flat white, or an espresso .
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 Gwilym Davies, UK barista champion. He asks:
“What has surprised me about competition is how demanding it is on time, relationships, wallet, nerves etc. What drives you to keep competing, are you a masochist?”
Competitions are demanding in many ways, but I enjoy that.
I compete in many different formats of coffee competitions because the keep me hungry, on the balls of my feet, always searching for more understanding and wicked tasting coffees.
Thanks, Carl. Look out for ninjas.