Competition. It’s what drives innovation. And innovation is a powerful concept in the specialty coffee industry. But, of course, collaboration and community also drive our industry forward.
Where do competition and collaboration balance out to create the perfect storm for creativity and innovation?
Enter: The Belgian Championships of the Aeropress Competition.
32cup has always worked to move the industry forward, and we’ve always supported the Belgian coffee community. This is why 32cup has sponsored the Belgian Championships of the Aeropress Competition with exceptional green coffee (of course) since the very first Belgian heat in 2012. And our comrade-in-arms, the one who got started it all in Belgium, is Rob Berghmans from Caffenation, who organises the competition.
A Brief History
The Aeropress was invented in 2005 by Aerobie (yes, the sports toy makers) president Alan Adler. It was originally designed as a sort of immersion-slash-portable-espresso device. Though in the beginning many in the industry viewed it as a novelty item, the industry quickly realised its great potential.
The competition is a great example of what organic collaboration in the industry can bring about.
The first World Aeropress Competition was held in Oslo in 2008 and was organised by just three guys (Tim Wendlelboe, Tim Williams and Tim Varney). It had only three competitors. My, how it has grown.
Over the course of just a few years, competitors were increasingly drawn in by the fact that the competition was much more fluid and less rule-bound than many of the more established coffee competitions. The event continued to grow, and today the event now spans 120 regional and national events in over 60 countries.
Well, maybe we’ve already made the case. But we will let Rob tell you more about the competition, why he (and we) are behind it, and it’s potential to bring the community together.
We caught up with Rob in Caffenation Mechelsesteenweg to get his take on why he organizes the competition year on year.
For how long have you been sponsoring the competition?
This is the 8th time we’ve done it and also the 8th time that we’ve done it with 32cup. It’s an ongoing collaboration.
What about the coffee? How do you choose it?
For the first five years, we held it in April. In April you can’t expect new Kenya or Ethiopia, and if you take old Kenya and Ethiopia, which are our favourite origins, I think they are a bit too old. It’s nice to have new crop coffee.
The World Aeropress Championship organization changed the championship to November and that’s a blessing! Because in the months running up to the championships, when we hold nationals, you have 10 times more countries to pick from. We did the washed Ethiopia Chelelektu a couple of years ago and then last year a Kenyan, and then this year the Natural Ethiopia.
We just need a good coffee. It is maybe a bonus when it is a difficult coffee to work with. It’s great when you have competitors say ‘oh that’s a difficult coffee to work with. You change one gram and it’s a completely different cup.” That’s good. I’ve seen in other competitions where the coffee all tastes the same, it’s not as exciting competition-wise. You should celebrate coffee as well in the Aeropress championship. The idea is that you start with great coffee and you have a good advertisement for everyone involved.
Why so much interest?
Of course, Aeropress is popular anyway. But I believe we are so successful because we’ve done it for so many years and our approach is good.
There’s a low barrier to entry—just 24 euros and winners get prizes that are often more than double that. Whereas other competitions often require membership in the sponsoring organization, or special equipment, or higher entrance fees, competitors know that they can just come with their Aeropress in their pockets and compete. It’s a lot of fun.
Now with three roasters working with the coffee, we have the whole community together, I think it’s something to get behind.
It is just a lot of fun. We learned from the other competitions. We thought, if we have to change one thing, it’s taking all the rules and reducing them and then having fun.
What are the rules?
The first few years we didn’t even look at the clock. We didn’t even look at the centilitres. We just said “go ahead.” But then some people complained, and we decided to take some of the official Aeropress Championship rules and that way it’s easier.
The rules are pretty straightforward. The first rule is that we don’t have a lot of rules. Then it’s that you have to use the coffee we give you and that you can’t change the basic design of the Aeropress. You can use different filters but that’s it. And then, you can’t add anything to coffee – no lemonade, no salt. You can use ice cubes though, because that’s still water.
You’re not allowed to pre-grind before the competition starts. You need to grind under our nose during the allotted eight minutes. You pick the grinder you want and also the water and the cup. However, in the end you must put your result, which must be a minimum of 15 centilitres, in the competition cup.
The coffee should be ready in eight minutes. Also, you cannot use another tool. The whole idea is that you have to make a clean cup with the Aeropress. .
You had two other roasters involved this year? What was that like?
Yeah, the coffee selection has been difficult because of that. Because we also buy the additional coffee and put it on our menu for the month before and the month after, showing that we are behind the coffee and we like it. So to have three people involved, showing that we like it and we do it? When we selected the coffee, we knew the Ethiopians were out there and the naturals were a sure bet. But yes, it is difficult to have three people engaging there.
It is stressful to organise something like that. With every year we grow bigger, with more experience, and we have a bigger team to do it. We have a better location to do it. It’s very good, but it’s very stressful. The roasting? You have to be sure that everything goes flawlessly. We don’t want people coming after us saying “oh you made a mistake”. I don’t want that, so it needs to be almost dead perfect.
But if you want to keep it growing and you want to do the regionals, and the mc’ing… well, I said ‘I think we are over the top’. Also I want to grow, because if I can’t grow, we aren’t doing it anymore because it looks like we are going down. So to grow, if you compete but then also join them and take other roasteries in, well! They sponsor the heats, we keep the finals. To do the whole organisation, now, for one roaster it is very difficult. This way, we were able to go from 54 participants to 81. We were already sold out two weeks before the competition started, so I think [it could have been even larger].
Belgium is unbelievable.
What does judging and competing look like?
Every year, it’s almost always the person who trains the hardest who wins. It’s not by natural excellence that you win, it’s by putting in the hard work.
All judges are international. We don’t want local bias. We calibrate a bit with the judges. We talk about what’s an over-extraction, what’s an under-extraction—so we’re talking the same language. But, of course, once the Aeropress competition is rolling, judges pick according to their tastes and that’s subjective. You have to talk with your fellow judges and learn what their tastes or preferences are like. Because, to the audience, it looks bad if the judges aren’t agreeing pretty consistently.
You have three cups and three judges. The moment each judge knows which one they prefer most, they put up their finger. Then, on the count of three, each judge points to their favourite. If they all choose something different, then the head judge of the three decides which one wins.
Walk us through the elements of brewing in the competition.
The first year we participated, 10 years ago we had our first participation in London, we didn’t have a national championship. We had to argue with the organisers for Belgium to have a spot there. We made our case, and they let us go. And then, turns out, we had the best Aeropress together with Denmark! In the final there were four judges (they hadn’t worked out the system yet, then), and two of the judges voted for Denmark and two of them for us. And they couldn’t decide. At the time, Tim Varney was still the main man, so he came out. Then he couldn’t decide either. Turns out, later, we looked at the recipes, and we had the same recipe!
Everything matters—the grind size, brewing time and even turbulence—how many times you stir or flip it over. Water temperature was a big eye opener, because the reason that Northern Denmark were the winners, ten years ago when we competed in the World Championships in London, was because they had the lowest degrees of water. So, normal people who start brewing coffee, they learn that you have to go just a bit below boiling. Mostly between 92 and 96 degrees C. What we did when we won most of the championships, we were experimenting, and we kept trying with lower and lower temperatures and found it was tasting better and better. We found that because it’s a closed chamber, we needed to throw out the prevailing wisdom. We found that we needed to go even lower, so we went to 82 degrees C. And that girl from Denmark was very smart and she did the same thing. From that day on you saw that most of the winners were also at low temperatures. But it’s a bit all over the place. Two years ago, someone from France won with water temperature at 66 degrees C. When we heard the news, we asked, “how is it possible?” Because under 66 degrees C you don’t have acidity. But the winner said, “I don’t want acidity. I want, of course, some flavours, but 66 is fine with me.” And he became a champion and was third in the World Championships, something like that. We saw you can push that as far as you want.
At one World Championships, Jeff [previously head roaster at Caffenation who represented Belgium at the World Aeropress Championships five times], wanted to change his recipes in the finals by making iced coffee, to cool it down and offer it cold with ice cubes. But in the end, he decided not to and, after coming in third, was really angry at himself that he didn’t take the risk. So, from there, we decided that maybe one day we have to do it.
Jeff is like a nutty professor, always experimenting. He pulled a woolly sweater through the Aeropress pipe once. This created static electricity so when he added the ground coffee it trapped the fines against the edges of the cube, so the coffee was cleaner with no fines. And he won then as well!
But now most people, they don’t have the guts to try these things anymore. But last year, the nicest thing, Mangoo from Cuperus, also the barista champion in Belgium, he thought it was a bit boring to make only an Aeropress in eight minutes, so he also made noodles. And while the Aeropress was brewing, he was eating his noodles. For him it was showcasing that eight minutes is plenty of time to make food and coffee at the same time.
It’s a lot of fun for us to be involved as well! This is an opportunity to be more involved in the community and really step up.
If the sponsors [like you] are happy, and the people bringing the coffee there are happy, it isn’t ‘the Caffenation show’ – not at all.
Now with three roasters working together with the same coffee, it gets the whole community together, it’s finally something to get your shoulders underneath. You guys, La Marzocco, Oatly, the other sponsors – these people know that this year it is the only opportunity in Belgium to do something really spectacular.
You know, it is important to support one another in the industry, even “competitors”. Early on, I had a client, a very good client, who started roasting himself. I went to [a friend of mine in the industry] and said, I’m depressed, what do I do? He said, “Well, you have to help him as much as possible. And if you help him, then there are two of you, and he’s not a competitor. That way, it’s good for him, it’s good for you, it’s good for the coffee community. And you will see, at the end, you will be paid back.” And so I did that.
I keep doing that you know, maybe believing in a better world. I hope that we can all start doing that.
From our perspective, the Belgian Aeropress Competition – a collaboration between three roasters, an importer, and lots of Aeropress fanatics – is a great way to get that collaborative better world on its way. We are proud to support Belgian Coffee community. And if we get to have fun while doing it, all the better. Long live collaboration, and long live the competition!