Barista competitions have long been a source of inspiration, innovation, and community-building. This past March, a new twist was put on the usual presentation when Rosso Coffee Roasters' Cole Torode, a former Canadian national champion we've featured on this blog before, brought something surprising to the competition table.
It was a highly valued Gesha coffee from La Palma y El Tucan in Colombia. But unlike every other coffee presented that weekend in Victoria, BC, this coffee—this rare and expensive coffee—was decaffeinated. And it was Swiss Water he trusted to do the job.
Torode says the choice came about when he toured the Swiss Water Process facility last year.
"I was learning more about caffeine and getting to taste regular versus decaffeinated coffees," says Torode, who is an owner of Rosso, based in Calgary.
"Decaf is generally a little bit sweeter, and has maybe a little bit more acidity based on the offering, and a little less bitterness—because caffeine is a bitter compound," he says.
"As a barista," Torode says, "I strive for not having bitterness in my coffee, and therefore the thought of removing caffeine is really exciting, I think!" So Torode took it upon himself not only to experiment with the potential of the flavor profile in his competition coffee, but to make a point to the coffee industry as well.
"Too many baristas and coffee people speak about caffeine being the driver in what we're doing," says Torode, who believes the focus should stay on flavor—not buzz.
"If you were to mirror us to other industries—say wine or beer or spirits or any of those in a craft or specialty bracket—I don't think any of the purveyors of those things would speak to the alcohol. They would all speak to them for the flavor, and for what defines this beer vs that beer. Maybe there would be a hint of conversation that maybe this one's 7% and this one's 5%—but it's about the pursuit of flavor."
Torode, who placed an impressive third in the national competition this year, focused his routine on presenting the Gesha in espresso and cappuccino formats, with the goal of driving home decaf's flavor potential.
"I think the big message to get across is as the specialty coffee community, we need to drop the mindset that we're just in it for the caffeine, and stop telling that story to our clients," says Torode.
"I don't think much of the community outside of the specialty industry realizes that coffee is one of the most chemically complex foodstuffs on the planet," says Torode. "I think we should start to embrace decaf and should look to serve the best possible thought-provoking decafs that we can. The whole death before decaf thing should die."