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The king of baristas

He’s been dubbed the Siya Kolisi of Florida Road, but instead of the Webb Ellis trophy, 27-year-old Teddy Nzama is the proud owner of a trophy that declares him the world’s best barista. Bronwyn Forbes-Hardinge chats to him on how his life has changed since winning the coveted barista crown.

I arrive at Florida Road Starbucks, where Teddy has worked as a barista for more than two years. Almost immediately I’m presented with a warm, freshly-brewed espresso. With cheeky dimples subtly disguised by a neatly groomed beard, Teddy ups the temptation with one of his new favourites, the Guatemala Antigua origin espresso. It’s nothing short of a soulful experience.

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“Breakfast can wait, but not my morning cup of coffee. Generally, I love a Kenyan brew, straight black, with no sugar. Without coffee, I would never make it through a working day,” he says laughing.

Teddy, whose regular home coffee maker is a single-serve Hario V60, is still basking in his recent fame after beating 15 000 Starbucks employees, to be crowned the best barista at the 2019 Starbucks Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Barista Championship Finals. It was an intense three days of competition, as 30 finalists – each of them already national champs in their home markets – battled through coffee skills tests and demonstrated their deep passion for coffee.

“When I first entered the competition, I was going for gold, but by the time the Top 16 arrived, with all its intensity, I was just simply overjoyed to have made it that far. I didn’t expect to go any further, so when I made it to the Top 8, and the day arrived to compete for the Top 4s, I suddenly woke up to the fact that if I messed up here, it was all over. And then the judges pointed at my cup. Liberated is the only way I can describe how I felt at that moment.”

When it came down to the wire, the judges posed one question to the final four: What makes an EMEA Champion? Teddy’s response told a story of its own.

“Being a barista is no easy task, but without a love for coffee, you cannot be a true example of one. It’s not just the early hours and the don’t-talk-to-me-unless-I’ve-had-my-coffee customers. It takes extensive training to learn your way around an espresso machine, and equally, it takes hard work and passion to brew that perfect cup, foam-topped and complete with lovely latte art.”

While coffee is one of the most complex drinks containing more than 800 flavour-changing components that bind together to create more than 150 flavours and aromas, Teddy’s approach towards coffee is a humble one. In his response to the judges, he explained how he thrives on working with coffee through a deeper, more scientific and more emotional understanding of the coffee bean.

“There’s coffee, its origin and the altitude in which it was grown, but we cannot forget that there is also the story of the farmer who grew it – a story that most often is about hard work, family union, love for what they do and overcoming obstacles that include environmental issues and more. Then there’s also the social aspect of coffee. Engaging and interacting with customers, getting deeply involved in discussions about the coffee and life. People share a great deal over a good cup of coffee. I am drawn to coffee, with a burning desire to learn, understand, appreciate and brew the perfect cup. There’s also a huge element of fun that contributes to being a great barista as well!”

There is no denying that Teddy was a worthy winner, having proved to the judges what he was really all about, and making history for South Africa at the same time. As the winner, he’ll enjoy the trip of a lifetime when he visits the Milan Roastery and he will also join fellow baristas for an annual trip to coffee farms in Rwanda, where he’ll see first-hand how coffee is grown and processed.

“I first fell in love with coffee by watching baristas in action at the Good Food and Wine Show. Back then I drank regular coffee with two spoons of coffee, sugar and a splash of milk. I remember wanting to learn about what a cappuccino really entailed, where the beans came from, how to make those pretty designs in the foam.”

As a school-going teen, Teddy had always longed to be a chartered accountant, but with a younger brother who also needed a tertiary education and a shortage of funds, when the time came, Teddy sacrificed his studies and enrolled for a three-month course through Ciro.

“As fate would have it, I discovered my calling! I qualified as a barista and then joined Starbucks where they fostered my spirit and encouraged my growth even more.”

It may sound simple enough, but the process of brewing coffee is a delicate one. Each and every cup of coffee is the result of precise attention to detail. Extensive taste testing is needed to determine the fineness and amount of ground beans, and the brew time needed to achieve the right taste.

“The first thing we have to do in the mornings is calibrate the coffee to the right taste before we begin serving it to customers. Beans aside, consistently great tasting coffee depends entirely on how the espresso shots are pulled.”

Being under the scrutiny of the customers can be stressful too, admits Teddy, as mistakes are obvious, and remembering the differences between a cappuccino, latte, mocha, long black and iced drinks can be a headache – but his passion for excellence has kept him at the top of his game, and he’s certainly earned himself enough unwavering admiration.

“Every day, without fail, I think about the journey of each cup of coffee I brew. I spend my spare time keeping up with coffee trends and listening to music, and I dream of the day I might be fortunate enough to open my own place. When I can’t sleep, I brew myself a cup of coffee,and think of cool signature drinks – my most recent one being a Mint Crisp Refresher – a double espresso with cold foam. They say I’m crazy about coffee. I guess I am. I still live with my gran, two sisters and brother in our cosy family home in KwaMashu, and when I brew coffee, everybody gathers. They sit around me and we talk about life and coffee, just like at the coffeehouse. They share their stories, and I educate them a little about coffee, hoping they’ll learn to love it as much as I do. Right up there at the top of the list of the rewards of being a barista are two things: enjoying my own daily fix of coffee, and watching others do the same.”

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