The judges stood in a line, facing him. Diffuse sunlight filtered through the window behind them, and in the background stood brick buildings with that orange tint so typical of Bogota.
No one was interested in the view.
All eyes were on Mauricio. He stood with his back to the wall, facing the judges, his thick tattooed arms crossed in front of him. His baseball cap was low over his eyes. At times he rubbed his bearded chin and frowned, listening. After a while he crouched down in a squatting position, small against the group of judges. He listened some more.
The judge who was speaking was stern. “And one more thing…”
Mauricio listened to it all. When there was nothing left to say, silence hung in front of the judges. One of them asked him, “So…what do you think?”
Mauricio sighed. He shrugged. “I like to get beaten up.”
Everyone laughed. It was true: he’d certainly taken some blows.
Preparing to be a champion
And he was right. This barista, preparing for the World Barista Championship coming up next week in Dublin, Ireland, needed the criticism. He needed every detail of his presentation to be just right. In a competition where a stray bit of coffee grinds, a drop of water, or a splash of coffee out of place could mean the difference between winning and losing, he needed to get it right.
Everything was on the line.
This was Mauricio’s last day in Colombia before heading out to Dublin. The panel of judges had been called in to review the presentation that he would, in just a few more days, carry out in front of the world coffee championship judges. There he will prepare espressos, cappuccinos and signature drinks under the scrutinizing – and nerve-wracking – gaze of that panel of coffee experts. If he can place among the top 12 competitors, he’ll advance to the semifinals. And if he can impress the judges at that point, he could make it within the top six that go to the finals. From there, winning the top place – as this year’s World Barista Champion – would be within his reach.
Here in this office in Bogota, some of the nation’s top coffee competition judges had been watching Mauricio’s every move. Red clipboards in hand, they note a slow gesture, a clumsy movement, and any mistake as he prepares the beverages that he hopes will win him a world championship title. The winners of international coffee competitions are generally from coffee consuming countries, and rarely from coffee producing countries. Mauricio, as well as other Colombian baristas, are determined to change that.
Mauricio Romero has been doing this for a long time. He’s been a barista for 12 years in a country that’s only beginning to recognize the profession. He’s also been to the world championships before, and now he’s ready to go back and show not only his own progress but also that of his country.
He works with Azahar, a coffee export company that has the goal of educating Colombians about the specialty coffees that for too long have been leaving their country unroasted, shipped to the United States and Europe for the last stage of processing. Azahar works with coffee farmers to help them produce and process single origin beans that can achieve the specialty coffee status in demand with educated consumers who know the nuances and flavors that can be found in a cup of coffee. Although Azahar ships to other countries, they also work to keep some of the best Colombian coffee here where it’s grown.
Mauricio doesn’t speak English and will be making his presentation through his interpreter (and boss), Azahar co-founder Tyler Youngblood. But the language barrier doesn’t stop him. As Manuel Barbosa, Azahar’s director in Bogota, states: “The language is coffee.”
As he faces his challenge in Dublin, Mauricio feels the backing of this company that works towards quality. “I feel a personal responsibility to return [to compete again]. I want to go back, and now I’m not alone. I have a whole team behind me. And I don’t represent just myself, or a coffee company. I represent my country.”
The Colombian challenge
In other countries baristas are treated as celebrities, with the fame and prestige – and education – that drive passionate coffee lovers to make their career a life-long endeavor. Colombia is different. A barista who declares his profession may be met with a blank stare. A man or woman who dedicates his life to doling out coffees in a café will most likely have the soundness of that decision questioned.
The handful of specialty coffee shops opening up around Bogota and other cities in Colombia are slowly changing that misconception. Set in recycled shipping containers or remodeled houses, some with huge roasters that take front stage, these cafés are bringing the passionate and at times geeky universe of specialty coffees to a country that knows little of coffee roasting, bizarre looking pour-over brewing methods, or the concept of finding vanilla or maple flavors in a sip of black coffee.
Mauricio and his team are in Dublin getting ready for next week’s events, when over 10,000 visitors from 100 countries will fly in to watch coffee being prepared by the world’s best and most dedicated baristas. “Other countries have won this competition using Colombian coffee,” states Mauricio. “This year I want Colombian coffee to win – but prepared by a Colombian.”
Now Mauricio is standing up again in front of the judges. This second presentation before them will be different. They watch him expectantly, and he draws in a deep breath. Everything is on the line again, and we feel the tension as if Ireland and the world were already watching as he prepares to represent his country, his identity, and his love of Colombia’s most honored product.
A smile brightens his handsome face. His eyes shine. He begins his presentation for the judges. To the beat of Colombian music, he smoothly serves water to each judge and welcomes them to the experience of Colombian coffee…prepared by a Colombian. With the grace of a nation that lives to dance, he moves from the grinder to the espresso machine and back to the judges, presenting his creations with the pride of a man backed by a nation of coffee growers.
Love coffee? Come with us on the Flavors of Bogota Coffee Shop Tour.
Join Mauricio for next week’s events through live streaming:
Take a look at Mauricio serving up coffee at Azahar’s recycled shipping container café just off the fashionable Parque de la 93 in Bogota: