While he might seem at first blush like a kind of affable, quizzical art-history professor—he's been known to wear a jaunty tweed cap—Gwilym Davies is actually the most capably caffeinating man in London at the moment: He's just finishing up his year as the reigning World Barista Champion. (The 2010 winner will dethrone him at this year's international contest, which wraps June 25 in London. You can watch Davies's winning performance here.)
Davies, who first discovered the "pleasure of a short black" in the late 1990s when he wound up broke in New Zealand and took a café job "as an emergency cash-generating job," has become one of the great ambassadors of coffee, and not only in his native England. Though he's worked with influential movers and bean shakers at home—like Anita Le Roy (Monmouth Coffee Company), Jorge Fernandez (Fernandez & Wells), and now 2007 WBC champ James Hoffmann and Cup Taster's Champion Anette Moldvaer (Square Mile Coffee Roasters)—Davies has also spent the last year traipsing the globe, preaching the good word about great coffee to baristas, roasters, enthusiasts, and even detractors.
Though his continent-hopping as the WBC title-holder has temporarily drawn him away from his home base, he can still be found building delicious drinks at Prufrock Coffee, inside the not-just-clothes shop Present on London's Shoreditch High Street. ("I travel a lot, but always try to be back for the weekend shift," he says.)
We caught up with Davies via e-mail to get his thoughts about the coffee industry, our caffeinated future, and what it's like being sorta-kinda the Miss Universe of the espresso world.
What does being the World Barista Champion mean: Is it, "I am the best barista in the world," or does it carry other connotations and responsibilities? I never entered to win, and had never thought of what wining meant. Participating in a barista competition makes you a better barista. It gives an introduction to a wider community. The responsibility I feel is to other baristas who get up early, work long hours, and receive little pay because they enjoy producing a lovely coffee. I want to give them a voice and help in some way to develop the role of a barista as a profession that is taken seriously.
What have you spent the last year doing? Where have you traveled to?Realizing I had the opportunity (and responsibility) to learn, I distanced myself from the coffee carts and came out of East London. I have been to Cologne, Moscow, (amazing), Holland (lovely), Dubai (weird), USA (so diverse), Ireland (close), Kenya (always nice to see Geoff Watts), many times to Italy (responsible for my tummy growth), and very soon, Australia.
What is the most profound moment you've had as World Barista Champion, and what has been the greatest disappointment? [The most profound experience] was my trip to a farm in India. I had read a lot and seen photos of farms, but I did not fully understand—like reading a "Lonely Planet" guide before going. Farming is tough, and made me realize that coffee is the bargain of the century. It also brought home the importance of the of barista in doing justice to the coffee in preparation, education and service
[The biggest disappointment has been] how many talk the talk but do not do it—people who should know better. You are not going to get great coffee if you do not train your staff, or if you roast all the intrinsic flavour of the bean out of it. And, while I am ranting, clean your machines!
Have you seen any major changes in coffee in general over this past year? What would you most like to see happen or change? I have seen people taking the barista and the quality-focused sector of the coffee industry more seriously. Machine manufacturers are getting barista input, major chains are watching us. [The] quality of drink preparation and green beans is going up. The consumer is becoming more educated. Baristas [are] setting up their own places are doing well it—all looks positive after so many years of struggling to move forward.
What I would like to see over the next year are roasters and coffee firms giving more support to females who enter competition.
In one sentence, what would you say is the future of coffee? The future of coffee is black.