Common Ground: Charlie Stewart

Tuesday, 3 September, 2013
Interview by Megan Pilditch

Charlie Stewart: Australian barista trainer
Charlie doing one of his favourite things, cupping.

What brings you to sunny SA?

I feel pretty lucky, a number of factors came together on this one. Initially I was coming across to attend my first Cup of Excellence in Burundi. I toyed with the idea of stopping in SA to visit my folks in Durban {Charles grew up in SA, but has lived in Australia for 9 years} but wasn’t sure if it fitted in the budget of a barista trainer. Fortunately the good folk at FNB approached me and asked if I could do some coffee education/tasting with their corporate clients in KZN. I’m also doing some consulting with a large roaster in Cape Town on behalf of Spar.

Have you made any coffee discoveries on your visit here?

Sure have, TheCoffeeMag is one of them. It’s pretty exciting to see coffee getting some focus and recognition. A large part of the progression of our industry is getting consumers to understand the value of specialty coffee and it looks like you guys do a great job of that. I have also found Colombo coffee in Durban. From my interactions with Kyle and the crew and the coffee I have tasted there, these guys get it, which is exciting.

Have you noticed any similarities or differences between Australian and SA, coffee-wise?

I have definitely seen some similarities. The push toward fresh, traceable, locally roasted coffee is noticeable. There are lots of small roasters popping up which is great. People are starting to question what they are drinking and demanding better quality. Some of them don’t know what quality is but that is easily fixed. I guess it’s just the awareness that there is more to this drink than lots of froth and choc sprinkles. Probably the most exciting similarity for me is coffee people here. In the past I have found it difficult to meet like-minded coffee folk when I come home but this trip they’ve just come out of the woodwork. The level of dedication and enthusiasm amongst the coffee community here makes me happy.
There are some pretty stark differences here too. The support for ‘imported’ coffee boggles my mind. Unfortunately people here still associate the imported brand names with expiry dates from 2 years ago with quality. This is understandable given we are creatures of habit, the part I don’t understand is, cafes have the opportunity to use locally roasted coffee and choose not to despite it being cheaper and more delicious. I guess it just takes time and as consumers learn to demand better, so cafes will shift their support. I hope.

Group shot after constructing a nursery in Bali

You recently visited Burundi, what was that experience like?

Burundi was eye opening. I have seen some poor countries but Burundi changed my perception of 3rd world. Coffee makes up over 90% of their foreign revenue so it’s a big deal there. The COE experience was amazing, so many clean, sweet coffees and an opportunity to share thoughts and ideas with likeminded individuals from around the world. Being at the awards ceremony and seeing the celebrations amongst the owners of the winning lots is a difficult experience to forget, for these small producers being accepted as a COE winner is a significant financial gain. The poverty in the country is evident and for these farmers, something as simple as buying fertilizer, is totally out of reach. Being at origin and recognizing the journey coffee takes before it reaches your cup, the hands it touches along the way and all the processes and steps required to transform it from a cherry to a roasted been halfway around the world gives one a new respect for the value of coffee. And makes you think twice before purging a grinder.

Me doing the Q Grader Course in our Melbourne academy 2011

Why do you love being a barista trainer?

I love that it is always different. At the Australian Barista Academy we offer courses starting at fundamental barista skills going all the way through to dialling in as a science and the geekery that is refractometry. Watching a group come into fundamentals with no idea and leave with the confidence to get behind the machine at a busy café is cool. The smile on the face of someone in a latte art class who suddenly ‘gets it’ gives me a kick. The banter and insight shared in the more advanced classes means I’m learning too. The Academy also has all the latest toys to play with and a continuous supply of amazing coffees from 5 senses. It’s no secret that the quest for coffee knowledge is never ending so the raddest part of my job is that although I’m teaching, I’m always learning.

Meeting the farmers of the top 60 lots in Burundi

What is the one thing you always tell those who you are training?

Your most important tool as a barista is your palate. Taste the coffee you make and know what it should taste like. Far too many baristas underestimate the value of understanding what they are serving. Tasting and understanding the coffee you serve is essential for two reasons. Firstly, it gives you the ability to connect with your customers. If you can communicate the different profiles of the coffees you offer, you can match them to the flavour preferences of your customers, enriching their experience and giving your coffee the best chance of impressing them. The second is more obvious: if you don’t taste your coffee, how are you to know if it is not tasting it’s best? The more intimately you know your coffee the more likely you are to pick up any inconsistencies or drop in quality. Knowing how to react to a change in the way it is pouring or tasting is secondary to noticing that change.

The brewing method you swear by?

It’s going to sound weird but I love cupping. For most people, coffee is not just a drink, but an experience. And for me, the ritual of cupping, smelling the grinds, breaking the crust and slurping the brew as it cools, is the most complete coffee experience there is. With cupping you are exposing everything a coffee has to offer so it lets you know a coffee’s potential. No other brew method does this. The other great thing about cupping is the brew liquid and the grinds are not separated so it is dynamic, as it cools good coffees taste great and bad coffees tend to be exposed. Having said all that, it’s not the most practical so I’d have to give the CCD (clever coffee dripper) a mention as my go to method. Its super simple and repeatable, I even taught my mom to use one.

What else interests you other than the vast world of coffee?

I love bikes, mountain and fixed. Before anyone starts rolling their eyes, I was into bikes before coffee so its not some self-hipster-realisation thing going on. I mountain bike with my dad and ride fixed with my friends. Riding fixed leads me to my other great interest; beer. I’m a huge fan of craft beer and the potential for different flavours within it. Like coffee, I’ve come to expect something beyond ‘generic beer’ flavour and relish the opportunity to discover new breweries and beers. In Fremantle we have a pretty cool brewery called Little Creatures. It is often the destination of our Sunday rides. I also enjoy travelling, spurred on by my girlfriend Nichola, I’ve seen a few interesting places. I’m fascinated by other cultures and the way humans behave and interact around the world.

If you had to tell the South African coffee community one thing, what would it be?
Simple. Drink fresh, locally roasted coffee.

The rad 5 Senses crew at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo 2013

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