November 23rd saw our annual Winter Carnival take place at the Union Roastery. Home to the Union Barista Championship, we eagerly await the Winter Carnival each year and 2017 proved to be more popular than ever. We welcomed over 150 people to our roastery to compete in the UBC, show off their skills at the Oatly Latte Art Throwdown, hear about our latest producer visit and how not to start a business and of course to enjoy good coffee, good company and good beer!

The Union Barista Championship is a chance for our customers to showcase their barista talent and receive top notch training and feedback. We run it like the UK Barista Championship with competitors preparing espresso and milk drinks as well as a signature coffee based drink. We have technical and sensory judges (some of whom judge at the UKBC) using the official industry scoring system so it’s the best possible practice for anyone considering entering the UKBC. Each competitor has time with a Union barista trainer to support their preparation and hone their competition skills. Tips and tricks you get during training can prove invaluable in knowing how to gain the most points and avoid pitfalls that aren’t necessarily obvious from the rules.

The day started off busy with coffee for all! La Marzocco had their flight case Modbar up and running serving espresso. We also had La Marzocco Linea mini machines that anyone could try out and our new El Salvador microlots on filter. The UBC kicked off with confident performances from Cisco from Company of Cooks and Meno from the Breakfast Club.

A short caffeine-fuelled break saw Rudy, our quality controller and Q grader, talk us through a cupping session of our new El Salvador microlots. We cupped four coffees from the same farm with the same processing method all grown under the same conditions. The difference? Four different varietals. Find out more about these coffees here.

Some slurping and spitting later and the focus was back on the UBC. The competition continued with Ade from Nkora (and his infectious choice of Reet Petite as a soundtrack), the calm and collected Mariusz from Gather & Gather, Jack from Knot Pretzel (with the strongest hat game of the competition) and Cataldo from Gail’s Artisan Bakery before we took another pause to start the Oatly Latte Art Throwdown.

If you’ve never been to a latte art throwdown, it’s quite the crowd pleaser! Baristas go head to head and have to pour the pattern thrown on the latte art dice. We gave each competitor two goes each round and they could pick their best pour. A bit like the Voice, judges had their backs to the action so were judging purely on the final coffee. On the count of three they have to point to the coffee they feel best represents the pattern on the dice – a very technical judging system, we know! Excitement levels were running high with shrieks from the crowd. Typically oat and other plant based milks can be hard to foam with good texture but Oatly Barista milk works a treat and the quality of latte art was impressive.

Back to the UBC and Matt from Stage Espresso & Brewbar in Leeds took to the stage (sorry couldn’t resist!) followed by Mirko from Warwick University and Curtis from Mozzino. We then had the final round of the latte art throwdown which was incredibly close but saw Liliana Romenciu just clinch the best pour! Back to the UBC and Laura from Bob’s Café put in a fantastic effort along with Mozino from Coffee Run and our final competitor, Jonathan from Baxter Storey.

Time for the judges to collect their thoughts, some local craft beers and David Coleman to take to the mic. David Coleman, barista, entrepreneur and all round funny guy had some excellent advice for us as he talked quality, communication and quality communication.

Our final presentation of the day came from Union’s Ollie, Violeta and Rudy reporting back on their recent visit to Peru. They visited our long-term producer partners at Chirinos and Huadquina. It was clear from the enthusiasm they spoke with that this was an experience that will stay with them for a long time.

And finally, after some delicious food and a few more beers for good measure, the results! Jeremy presented the winners of this year’s UBC and they were…drum roll please…: 3rd place – Cataldo from Gail’s, 2nd place – Mariusz from Gather&Gather also winning best espresso and best milk drink, best signature drink went to Jonathan from Baxter Storey and the title of 2017 Union Barista Champion went to Matt from Stage Espresso & Brewbar! Amazing result for Matt and an impressively high level of barista talent on show all day.

We caught up with Matt after the competition to find out how he managed to steal the crown and his plans for the future. When asked what made him enter the competition Matt explained it was a natural progression. Having met us a couple of years ago at Manchester Coffee Festival, he had Union in mind for when he and his brother opened their café, Stage Espresso & Brewbar, in Leeds at the start of the year. "I’d done some latte art throwdowns before but nothing official so when Alex, our account manager, texted saying have you thought about entering, I thought yeah, why not?!"

Matt admitted he’d had, as he put it, a "belly full of butterflies" all day waiting for his time to compete but when it came to getting on with it, he was in the zone! He puts this down to the judges and the team around him being familiar faces which put him at ease. "The coaching was phenomenal" Matt said and would encourage anyone considering entering the UKBC to make the most of it. "Chris and Alex gave me loads of tips and things to look out for. How to play the game I guess and how to pick up every point you can. It’s the kind of detail that isn’t in the rule but is definitely worth being trained on!"

And Matt’s plans for the future? Well, the UKBC is on the horizon as are plans to continue to grow Stage and drive a coffee community in Leeds. Matt had noticed that some cities had particularly close-knit barista communities and this is something he wanted to create in Leeds. Stage are looking to roll out film nights, open mic nights and spirit tasting evenings in their event space downstairs. It’s about bringing people together and celebrating good coffee!

We couldn’t have put it better ourselves as that, precisely, is the point of the Union Winter Carnival. Same time next year? #unionroasted #goodtimes

Gemma - Coffee Hype Machine
Written by Gemma - Coffee Hype Machine
An eager* coffee drinker since my teen years, I was known at Uni for being the last to arrive to lectures because I always stopped for coffee. Now three years into my coffee career, I get to communicate producer stories and speciality coffee roasting for a living. My role is a dream because it spans so many aspects of the Union business. It’s about taking in-depth, often complex issues – such as Union Direct Trade - and distilling them into bitesize messages when you're competing for someone's attention on social media. When not consuming vast amounts of drip filter or hovering at a weird angle trying to get that perfect insta shot, you’re most likely to find me anywhere where there’s live music, right at the front! (*dangerously addicted)