So yes. Last we left Gwilym Davies in the preliminaries he was telling us why espresso is disappointing. It seems the judges weren’t convinced, and he is back again in the finals. He describes his Colombian Del Obispo as “loads of juicy fruit giving way to a treacle finish” — which probably sounds better to the entirely non-US judges’ panel than it does to most North Americans (treacle?).

“I wanted to show the versatility of the espresso — and I just wanted to have some fun,” continued the tweed barista, and this rendition of his routine was as fun as the previous one…but fraught with a little more peril.

A set of shots needed to be repulled. In the WBC finals. For some reason there weren’t enough chopped nuts for the signature drink. He handed out the envelopes containing the choose-your-own-sensory-identifiers to the judges in the wrong order, causing him to fumble his explanation in an oh and another envelope too, I meant to do that sort of way. And of course the small matter of going 17 seconds over time, during each second of which he was only talking.

Oh my.

Today’s version of the 1/256 signature drink contained ingredients selected to highlight the texture of butter, the sweetness of cane sugar, the flavor of toasted almond, and a slight fruit note of orange. Gwilym could perform this routine 254 more times and we could see a different drink each time! There’s the afforementioned issue with almond distribution, and the drink comes together smoothly at the end and within time.

And he keeps talking.

Because Gwilym’s routine is of a piece, see, and the presentation of the coffee hasn’t ended with the serving of the final drinks. His entire thrust has been to combine the physical delivery of the beverages with this idea that there is a mental piece that is continually overlooked. That we should be receptive and liberated about our coffee experience, that espresso, finicky and romanticized, “can and should be amazing”. He wants us to broaden our perspectives about what it can be, rather than chasing some kind of fantasy, some kind of benchmark or god shot or thing you talk about that gets put on a snarky T-shirt. It’s this message of openness to possibility going forward, rather than constant measuring against an ideal that’s too abstracted to even be fair, that all of Gwilym’s performance is constructed around, and as the red numbers tick further past the 15:00 mark, there’s a collective feeling of oh no and inspiration both, a sort of this is amazing but why isn’t he calling time? and I can’t help but wonder if he’s doing it on purpose.

And, I mean, I think in some senses he did.

Not specifically to throw the game? But maybe because the game wasn’t about winning in that way. And because it wouldn’t be the worst thing to go home to your partner and kid and houseboat and a couple of nice coffee carts in London and not worry about all of this coffee-making contest silliness anymore and be yourself again.

After Gwilym’s routine, a couple of people remark to me — genuinely sadly — that they feel bad for the guy. That it’s such an unfortunate thing that he had to repull his shots, and how that likely cost him a shot at any place higher than sixth. And I said to both of them: You know? He was done at 15:00. He just kept talking. And I think it made total sense that he finished his drinks but didn’t leave his message behind. From a competitive perspective: yes. It’s ridiculous to make an impassioned speech about how we think about espresso for 17 seconds over time if you are trying to beat everybody. But I don’t really think that’s why Gwilym came here. I’m not even sure if Gwilym entirely knows why Gwilym came here, but I think the real beauty in his routine — and in his ultimate winning of the world championship — is that he succeeded perhaps despite himself, that he succeeded based on a quality delivery of incredible coffee that apparently nothing could hold back. And the fact that he wants to change minds about how we think about coffee was his primary message? Well…would you look at that. He’s already started doing it.

3 Responses to “wbc finalist no. 5: gwilym davies”

  1. Hats off to Gwilym Davies, 2009 World Barista Champion | Young & Foodish

    […] in London you can congratulate 2009 British and now World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies in person – and have a great coffee while you’re at it. Gwilym pulls his award-winning […]

  2. » WBC Thoughts by James Hoffmann

    […] I am also sure that by now people are doing what they always do with WBC videos. Watching, seeing the mistakes and asking how come they won despite these errors. This is the wrong way round. Every performance has its mistakes, and they are easy to find if you go looking for them. People seem to wilfully miss what made them stand out. Gwilym’s performance was exceptionally risky, assuming there was the potential to lose something important. To me it was entertaining, thought provoking and fun. Liz Clayton, as always, writes wonderfully here. […]

  3. ian callahan

    Inspiring… Thanks Liz for such a wonderful read, and a fantastic recolection of the evnts transpired.

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