Matt Perger stands on the world stage before seven judges, a live audience, commentators and cameras. He tests his microphone in preparation for a 15-minute performance.
He is not in the entertainment industry, but the product of his routine could be described as art.
He is a barista.
Or perhaps, ‘barista’ is too limited a title for the brewer, roaster, green-buyer, consultant and international competitor. At 23 years old, Perger, an Australian Barista Champion and partner at Melbourne’s iconic St. Ali family is among the most accomplished “coffee guys” in the world.
In addition to having placed first at the 2012 World Brewer’s Cup Championship in Vienna, he has represented Australia at The World Barista Championship (WBC) where only national champions are eligible to compete. He placed 3rd and 2nd in the world in 2011 and 2013 respectively.
Since its inauguration in 2000, the WBC has grown as a global event for world-class baristas to pursue excellent taste and showcase innovations in coffee making. For Matt, the best part of the championships is “being forced to improve technique; working with the same coffee until I nail it.”
During the 15 minutes there are a total of 860 awardable points to strive for. Three rounds of drinks are served: espressos, cappuccinos, and a signature creation. While taste is the most important consideration for the four Sensory Judges, texture, presentation, professionalism, and cleanliness all contribute to the overall performance. Two more judges scrutinise technique, and a head judge correlates. The routines are set to music and the barista verbally guides the judges through the process in the manner of a true hospitality professional.
Despite the pressure of competition, there is a “friendly and competitive atmosphere” between the baristas, says Perger.
2014 is proving to be another big year for Matt Perger, and preparation for the competitive season began months ago. “In January I started brainstorming to come up with something. The idea is to showcase coffee with your ingredients; to have synergy with the coffee”. In the same month he launched his own website, mattperger.com, to the joy of coffee aficionados everywhere. During February he travelled to Colombia, working with “Virmax, who work with thousands of farmers to improve their coffee, then export it around the world to high-end roasteries.”
Having placed in the Victorian State Barista Championships in early April, Perger is the favourite to represent Australia at the World Championships in Rimini, Italy, this June. The Australian National Championships this year again took place at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo in May, which celebrated its third year. With 150 exhibitors in 2014, the event is likely to be an annual fixture in the city’s calendar.
While speciality roasteries continue to proliferate in Melbourne, data from Euromonitor International released this year indicates that coffee consumption per capita in Australia does not rank as highly as one might expect. The biggest coffee drinkers are in The Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, with Australia trailing in at number 42. Despite this, the third-wave revolution has forever altered Melbourne’s coffee culture. Consumers are spoilt for variety, and higher quality beans are becoming the expected standard.
The question is no longer if you take your coffee black, but whether you prefer single origin to a blend, or espresso to coffee brewed on a Clover—unless, of course, you prefer the pour-over method. If you have advanced from hipster appreciation to being seriously nerdy about taste can even differentiate between the notes. Is it floral, cherry or vanilla? Perhaps you detect caramel, or orange rind?
While the wealthier nations indulge in coffee drinking to the highest degree, over 90% of the world’s coffee supply comes from developing countries. “Kenya is the best coffee-producing country,” says Matt.
As western markets increase demand for higher grade beans, so too increases the quality standards and harvest yields required at the origin, particularly in countries throughout South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. This means time-consuming selection processes for pickers.
Matt believes one of the highlights of his career are his travels, which have taken him not only to developed countries, where he participates in events and runs classes, but also to the developing nations, where he is involved in “sourcing supplies from farmers, sometimes providing microloans, and getting them in touch with marketing agents to help create better product and sell.” Thankfully for us however, Matt still calls Melbourne home for now.
While he acknowledges his wish won’t be popular among the coffee-consuming crowd, if Matt could see a change in Melbourne’s café culture, it would be “consumers willing to pay more for their coffee.” Quickly, he clarifies, “Not for us,” gesturing to the staff at St. Ali in South Melbourne, which is bustling with customers at 3pm on a Thursday. It is clear that the National Champion’s concerns are for the farmers, and sustainable practices in areas where the economies rely so heavily on coffee production and trade.