Small Batch on the road

Barista Guild Europe: CoLab Antwerp 2016 (by Laura)

Phoebe & Laura LIVE

For most of us the word ‘barista’ is pretty new to our vocabulary. The idea that it takes more to prepare a cup of coffee than just add water and give it a stir is also relatively new. However, it has not taken long for speciality coffee to become part of our daily lives. How many people now start their day with a flat white rather than an instant coffee, or have lavished money on coffee gadgets and gismos that now take pride of place in our kitchen? As coffee culture has taken hold and established itself firmly in the UK (Brighton more than most perhaps) then we are starting to realise that it takes a high quality coffee combined with someone who knows what to do with it, if we are going to enjoy what we are drinking.

Enter the barista. With the support of Small Batch, I became involved in a project 18 months ago with the charity OneChurch Brighton to write and deliver the first year-long apprenticeship in speciality coffee. Throughout that time, one question has been asked more than most “does it really take a year to learn how to make a cup of coffee?” The answer is yes and no, but really to me, the real question that people are asking is can you make a career in coffee? The answer is a solid yes, with barista being one of the pathways you can choose within the industry.

The Barista Guild of Europe was established in partnership with the SCAE (Speciality Coffee Association of Europe) with a purpose of developing the role of the barista in Europe. Their primary purpose is to “foster community and professionalism among people whose income derives from making cups of speciality grade coffee.” Although in its youth, BGE has got off to a strong start with an interactive website that encourages participation and conversation through ‘dialogue.’ Industry professionals contribute articles and members are encouraged to comment, share and discuss. Barista Camp is another BGE initiative. Baristas embark upon a 4 day event full of education, talks and coffee tastings with a view to acquiring some SCAE diploma certificates, confidence and the opportunity to make some new friends.

I was lucky to participate in their most recent event CoLab with my colleague Phoebe. CoLab events take place in European cities where you are able to drink in the local culture (and coffee of course) with the opportunity to meet other baristas and sit in on a variety of seminar talks.

Phoebe In Antwerp

Phoebe On The Streets Of Antwerp

Day 1: We were lucky to be visiting Antwerp on this trip, which is home to the biggest coffee port in Europe. Quite a site to behold on a freezing a rainy Monday morning, the port itself is like a small town. I was blown away by not only the weather, but the scale of the warehouses. Looking at literally tons and tons of coffee, the level of organisation involved to preserve that important traceability that we increasingly demand, is very impressive and overwhelming. It was also an insight into the differences in terms of trading between the speciality grade coffees that we buy at Small Batch and the commercial lots that go through the port. Our trip to the port was documented by a Belgian TV crew so Phoebe and I were made famous that evening on Belgium’s most watched channel! (watch us here at 45s in!)

Following the port we headed back into Antwerp for coffee and chat at Cuperus. Cuperus sell delicious coffee, wonderful cakes and mouth watering chocolates. This made it the perfect destination for an afternoon pick me up to mentally prepare for the Barista League competition that evening.

The competition was held at Caffenation, the home to many an Aeropress champion. Caffenation is arguably the original speciality coffee shop in Antwerp, opening its doors 12 years ago with a vision to “change the ball game” as they describe it. The atmosphere at the competition was friendly, relaxed and slightly beer fuelled. The competition was broken into 3 rounds:

  • Solutions Test: taste the 5 solutions and identify the sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami. Breezed it!
  • The God Shot: 10 minutes to make the best espresso possible using the equipment you have and a mystery coffee. Smashed it!
  • Signature coffee cocktail: given a table of mystery ingredients in 10 minutes prepare a bangin’ coffee cocktail with just 3 ingredients. Failed.


Despite our best efforts, the winning title didn’t belong to us at the end of the evening. Our rather sad old fashioned may have been the reason why. 

Day 2: We had to adjust to our new-found fame following the airing of the news feature. We headed over to De Studio, an events space for a day of Tamper Tantrum talks. If you are a coffee geek and fancy listening to a podcast or watching a video then Tamper Tantrum is a great place to start. They host guest speakers to present on a topic of their choice which is then opened out to the audience for questions and discussion. We listened to a great selection of interesting speakers covering a great range of topics whilst we sipped coffees from Cuperus, Atkinsons, Normo Coffee, The Barn, Square Mile and Crossroast (we were rather caffeinated by the end of the day!)

  • Charlotte Malaval – French Barista champion discussing the freelance barista and competition.
  • Rob Berghmans – Owner of Caffenation discussing the EK43 grinder and how to change your service accordingly.
  • Talor Browne – Now an independent roaster with a very far reaching career as a barista discussing the mental health and wellbeing of the barista.
  • Dr Marco Wellinger – Coffee researcher in the field of chemistry technology and sensory analysis discussing water for coffee. The role of the buffer in coffee brewing and what your water management options are.
  • Emma Sage – Science manager at the SCAA giving us an introduction to the new and exciting WCR/SCAA Flavour Wheel.
  • Stephen Morrissey – World Barista Champion asking why can’t we just serve coffee that is ok? Why does all coffee have to blow our minds? How do we make the experience match the price charged?


Tamper Tantrum Stephen Morrissey

Tamper tantrum: Stephen Morrissey showing slide of pre vs post baby coffee consumption

With all this information to digest along with the vat of coffee we had consumed, it was a pleasure to end the day with a selection of beer from De Koninck. I would highly recommend taking the time to listen to any of the talks that we had the pleasure to be a part of.

For me personally, Talor Browne’s talk was the most evocative. Talor was bravely honest about her own experiences and feelings. A recent study identified that a career as a waiter/waitress is one of the most detrimental to mental and physical health around. The combination of high stress levels, lack of control of the situation (this is key) along with long days of physical work can all take their toll. If you think of people who are brilliant at customer service then they are often of a nature that means they are empathetic and sensitive to others needs. Talor has completed some of her own research specifically among baristas that brought about some alarming results.

It felt very positive to me that we were discussing such a difficult topic. Speciality coffee is a young industry with people at its heart. We often look at the social or economic impact of coffee on the community that produces it so it is the next obvious step to think about the community where the coffee is consumed. Baristas are an intrinsic part of this community, along with customers. Speciality coffee prides itself on leading the way in many areas and this could also be the case for how we look after our baristas, in a way that is different to the norms of the hospitality industry. At Small Batch we always try to consider and safeguard the wellbeing of our team and Talor’s talk sparked more ideas on how we can continue to do this.

Our last day was spent in my favourite café that we visited, Coffeelabs. Coffeelabs felt like a home from home to me. We enjoyed delicious wholesome food in a relaxing yet lively environment. Emma Sage from SCAA hosted a workshop around the new flavour wheel developed between SCAA (Speciality Coffee Association of America) and WCR (World Coffee Research).

SCAA flavour wheel talk

SCAA Coffee Flavour Wheel exercise

Flavour wheels and lexicons are used within lots of industries to help identify and discuss the attributes of the product, using an agreed language and set of terms. Emma talked us through how the lexicon developed by WCR was used to build the SCAA flavour wheel. WCR commissioned a panel to coin the terms and decide comprehensive reference samples for each of the terms.

Breakfast At Coffeelabs

Breakfast At Coffeelabs

We evaluated 3 coffees using the lexicon, reference samples and flavour wheel. It was not easy! We were then allowed to evaluate a coffee without the restriction of the reference samples and everyone went rogue! For me it showed why this resource is not only helpful, but also necessary. Buzzing off the strange combination of coffee, dark chocolate and burnt peanuts we skipped on to the Eurostar and made our way back to sunny Brighton.

If the aim of the BGE is to foster community and professionalism then CoLab in Antwerp was a big success in my opinion. We had a brilliant time meeting new people and visiting new places. I came away inspired and ready for the next CoLab, wherever that may be.