Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been asking readers to put their coffee-related questions to 2018 German Barista Champion and founder of the Female Barista Society, Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery.
As an MTPak Brand Ambassador, Nicole provides regular insight for our Education Centre on everything from coffee cocktail-making to testing packaging for optimum freshness.
Here, she answers all your questions, including how she prepares for world barista championships, what she thinks about the future of coffee, and her top tips for preparing the perfect coffee cocktail.
Who am I?
I started working in coffee as a barista when I was 18. It just to earn a bit of money, but I really enjoyed the flow of the café and the experience of getting to know customers.
I then left the job when I started studying, but soon realised that I really missed the café environment. So I quit my studies and began an apprenticeship as a chef, during which time I moved to Berlin and got to know the Berlin scene.
I was working in a Michelin star restaurant, which was really exhausting. So I decided I wanted to go back to a normal nine-to-five day job and that’s how I ended up working in coffee permanently. That was seven years ago.
I joined Röststätte [in Berlin] and they really motivated me to learn more and start roasting and entering competitions. That led me to the position that I’m in now.
In 2018, I entered the barista championship here in Germany and won. Then, a year later, I finished as a finalist in the World Coffee in Good Spirits championship, a competition that focuses on the relationship between coffee and mixology.
Today, I’m still working as a barista, but I have lots of background knowledge that I can pass on as a trainer and things such as roasting, brewing, green bean buying, that sort of thing.
How did you prepare for the German Barista Championship?
My first time was in 2016 and I had no idea what I was doing. I basically just watched all of the other old routines. I really wanted to use my 15 minutes to tell a story – it’s everyone’s aim to tell the most romantic story.
Then, as I progressed and gained experience, I became way more focused on the scoresheet. When you start competing, you realise that it’s way less emotional than you think.
It took me five months to prepare for the 2018 championship, from the text and concept to the drink itself. The signature drink was probably the trickiest part. I was very tense. It was my second time and the first time I’d placed second. So there was only one place I could go – I had to win.
I practised every single day for five months. It’s like if you practise a dance until your muscle memory is complete. This is how I practised this routine. I could do it in my sleep!
If you have to learn a text it’s very challenging and if you’re focusing on something else and you drop out of the text, it’s very hard to drop back in because your head is so unused to saying all of these words as a non-native speaker.
A lot of it is luck of the day. Obviously it takes a lot of knowledge and a lot of skill – but sometimes it’s just not your day and there’s nothing you can do to change that. You never know how the judges are calibrated.
Are women fairly represented in the coffee industry?
The problem with this is that the coffee industry is super large. What we see a lot of is the baristas and people on social media, but that doesn’t represent the people sitting in the offices making decisions.
This is something that I find a bit frustrating because there are a lot of brands where it’s still all male dominated. Especially if you want to talk about machines, it can be frustrating as a woman.
You don’t want to be a barista your whole life – it can be very physically exerting. So when you have enough experience and knowledge, you want to take the next step up into management and it can be difficult.
Having said that, there are some brands that are amazing. Bun, for example, are fantastic and really showcase how effectively women can work. But in general it’s still very frustrating to see how many office jobs are taken by men and the only opportunity is to become a secretary.
There are lots of amazing women in the coffee industry who have brought a female structure into this male-dominated world and are showing that we are at the same level as our male colleagues. We might have to work double, or three times as hard, but we’re willing to do that.
Do you ever worry about the future of coffee?
It’s an open secret that coffee is one of the most unsustainable goods in the world. This is really frustrating for the younger generations to realise because we want to create a more sustainable future while continuing to enjoy coffee.
I’m very scared about what’s happening to the planet and how agriculture in general is being affected, particularly in coffee. Specialty makes up around 5% of the market and the other 95% is mass production, which abuses the land and the workers in order to produce as much cheap coffee as possible.
Coffee is a growing sector and there will come a time when the land is exhausted. Right now, Germany is experiencing some of the worst floods ever – it feels very “doomsdayish”. We can’t say it’s not happening when it’s taking place very much right in front of us.
I think the only way we can improve the outlook is to set a minimum price of €25 per kilo, but at the moment we’re very, very far away from that. I think commodity coffee is sold at €3-4 per kilo, which is awful. So long as we operate at these unrealistic prices we can’t change it, we can only try to.
What is the secret to a great coffee cocktail?
For competition cocktails, there are a couple of things you need to do. First of all, if you read the scoresheet you’ll see they mention two things: body and sweetness.
So you have to have a very heavy coffee, sometimes over extracted, and it has to be super boozy. Your alcohol shouldn’t be sharp or too herbal or too fruity – it should be round and smooth and balanced with the coffee.
This is why I suggest working with a liqueur to balance things out, to work with a mellow, or subtle spirit. For example, a whiskey that has vanilla notes rather than smokey notes because smokey notes can easily ruin a coffee cocktail.
The cocktails I make for friends or colleagues are usually less coffee heavy to balance out other flavours and a little bit lighter. You can then use cold brew to enhance the flavour. But you can’t really do this in competitions because the coffee flavour has to equal the alcohol flavour. For a regular cocktail drinker, this is too much coffee.
My easiest recommendation is to use a really heavy, natural coffee with lots of body and high-quality alcohol and coffee. A lot of bartenders will use whatever they have in the grinder, but they don’t know about varieties and processing. This is where I go into conventions and teach people about coffee.
I’m a mixologist and I want to enter the World Coffee in Good Spirits competition. What are your top tips?
Body and sweetness, and natural coffee. For a bartender, do not put too much alcohol in, they often use too much alcohol and hard spirits.
There’s a thing in the rules that says commercial applicability which you get the same points on flavour. So make your drink so easy that anyone could make it behind a bar. If I’d known that before, it would have been a lot easier.
Would you like to put a question to our experts? Next up is three-time South Africa Barista Champion and Starbucks consultant, Ishan Natalie.
Interested in sustainable coffee bags for your business? Contact our team.