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Turkish delight

It’s that time of year when you might get a little more than you bargained for from your regular barista. When your request for a flat white is acknowledged with a perky reposte, a super-slick performance from behind a gleaming espresso machine and a treble swan, phoenix rising from a cloud of latte art, you know competition season is fast approaching.

Yes, for many baristas across the country, now is a time that will be dominated by hours of practice, perfecting of techniques and make-or-break bean decisions. All for the chance to win a title guaranteed to command respect from adversaries and comrades alike. The title UK Barista champion is the crema de la creme, the winner going to the World Coffee Events finals to fight for the title of World Barista Champion.

Of the various competitions, The Brewers Cup is always one to keep an eye on: with filter brewing such a hot topic these days, past winners have been rising stars of the coffee world; The Cup Tasters Cup and Latte Art competitions both recognise singular skills and always generate a niche crowd; and the Coffee in Good Spirits prize is a funny one – never overly subscribed, it still garners suitable interest.

Copper Pot Coffee

This leaves just the Ibrik/Cezve competition, a bit of an awkward moment among the whole proceedings and all too often glossed over. When I say Ibrik/Cezve, I’m referring to the small and attractive little copper (though not always) pot in which coffee is brewed, typically in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and what is generally referred to as Turkish coffee by Westerners. It was the style of coffee brought over originally from Yemen and widely drunk in the first documented coffee houses found in Istanbul in the 17th century.

Back to the competitions, and what ensues on stage is a display that is so culturally different from the rest of the competitions as to render it almost a theatrical parody to the uninformed; all swords, belly dancers and foreign costumes.

It was with surprise then, that 2009 World Barista Champion Gwilym Davies, hailing from the not-so-exotic wilds of Yorkshire, jumped up to the mantle last year, diving head first into the competition at the last minute, procuring equipment, brew method and rules on the day, and finishing in a respectable third place. When I asked him why, his quick and succinct response was “to challenge myself”. He tells me he approached the ibrik brew method in a similar way to that when he first faced espresso, with a completely open mind, at first eschewing tradition, simply transferring his existing knowledge of other brew methods and coffee extraction. “I knew nothing about ibrik except that it always tasted terrible,” he says. “That was until the Russian ibrik champ made one from Square Mile Coffee at 5am and it was lovely.”

Gwilym explains that ibrik is an immersion brew method, not unlike the cafetiere, clever dripper or the cupping process, where, in this instance usually very finely ground coffee is mixed with hot water and left to steep. He chooses Kenyan or Ethiopian coffees as his preference, lightly roasted and as a washed process because they can take the higher extraction this method produces without tasting too bitter. He then applies what he knows from other methods, adjusting variables to the method in hand: water is 150-160ppm; the coffee to water ratio is around 8:85g; the grind is not pulverised, as can be typical, but just finer than espresso; time is not too long – around 1.5 minutes; turbulence is kept to a minimum; and he lets the temperature reach around 96C before removing the ibrik from the heat. He then finishes by filtering the brew and transferring to clean serving cups.

Gwilym explains that he’s not trying to homogenise or own an ancient technique but to produce a drink he defines as tasty. To ignore any brew method, he continues, is to ignore a chance to learn. He admits that between 2009 and 2011 he dismissed espresso as a “fundamentally flawed method of brewing that was a blip in the history of coffee and was destined for the bin. I was wrong, I now think the future of espresso is bright. In the 1990s, filter coffee was terrible, but we did not dismiss it, we tore it apart and rebuilt it.”

He goes on to say that “despite being one of the oldest methods of coffee preparation, and used by huge areas across the globe, ibrik remains either ignored or denigrated by the speciality world and is the runt of the competition litter.”

He concludes that “there is the potential to engage with large areas of the coffee-consuming and preparing world that had previously had no contact with the speciality movement” and that it is such a “waste of opportunity to exclude a large part of the world because of their brewing method – let’s engage them.”If the mission is to spread the speciality word, then “ibrik is a good vehicle”.

I’ll admit my own knowledge of ibrik is limited to those extravagant displays I’d seen at The London Coffee Festival and a vague knowledge that Turkish coffee is heady and strong, typically thick and sludgy, possibly spiced and, more often than not, sugary. When Allegra’s (organisers of LCF) market research tell us that the Turkish drinking population is on the up in London and that the coffee scene in Turkey itself is positively booming, I’m disappointed to hear it’s not with the local cafe’s serving the coffee that binds together the cultural heritage and social traditions of the country, but with the insidious invasion of faceless chains.

Deep Ritual of Turkish Coffee

I decide to ask World Ibrik champion, Turgay Yildizli, his thoughts. I clearly struck a nerve as his response was quick and thorough: having been brought up a Turkish citizen in Istanbul but born in France where his father worked, Turgay was raised on an interesting mix of Turkish coffee and French espresso and clearly developed a love for both. He tells me how it’s the social and traditional element, woven so tightly into everyday life, that’s so important for him to maintain. He translates a rather romantic local Turkish saying as “one cup of coffee contains 40 years of memories”.

His hope is that “despite the ingrained expectations of bad coffee, with the emergence of new speciality cafes in Turkey and events organised around speciality coffee, the quality of coffee used will begin to improve, while preserving the deep ritual and culture of Turkish coffee.” However, Turgay’s fear is that WCE has turned its back on Cezve/Ibrik, not even mentioning the competition, or competitors in their annual report.

“Last year’s champion, Zoltán Kis, from Hungary, Stavros Lamprinidis from Greece and Vadim Granovskiy from Ukraine and I are all extremely involved in speciality coffee. In fact, Zoltán and I are both roasters. Together, we have worked hard to improve the quality and develop true standards for this brewing method, unfortunately because there are no high-profile sponsors for the competition, it will not be continued by the WCE, despite protests from the Speciality Association of Europe. Cezve/Ibrik is used in many countries. Improving the quality of this method and the coffee used would improve the foundation of speciality coffee as a whole.”

Of course, when Turgay breaks down the key elements of the brew process, it’s very close to the instructions Gwilym gave me. The focus is on good beans and water, and then grind, weights, temperature and time combine to get the best from the brew method.

Turgay refuses to give up easily; around a year ago he moved to New Orleans where he’s in the process of opening his own cafe, Three Chairs Coffee Roasters. Here he’ll be roasting coffee (he roasted his wife’s beans when she finished third in the same World Cezve/Ibrik competition that he won, when she represented the US) and serving speciality standard Turkish coffee alongside espresso, pour-overs and cold brew.

He tells me his “audience will be anyone who loves good coffee and is interested in having a unique coffee experience. New Orleans is new to the third wave of speciality coffee and we hope to be a large part of diversifying the coffee experience here. Our focus is not just Turkish coffee, but it is a part of who I am and a passion. I hope that I can help people fall in love with this brewing method and introduce them to the ritual.”

There’s certainly an audience for Ibrik/Cezve in London, and I wonder whether at some point we might see ibrik-style coffee popping up in speciality cafes across the capital. I’d certainly welcome seeing a merging of cultures and acceptance of different methods adhering to the same speciality principles. I spoke to Alex Macintyre, from Macintyre’s Coffee on Hoxton Street, as I knew he’d spent time in Turkey and had grown to love the culture. He had also mentioned that he’d like to see Turkish coffee served properly in speciality cafes here. I asked if it might be something he’d consider, bearing in mind he’s never conformed to stereotypes. His characteristically unfazed response was “sure – once I figure out the tastiest way to do it.”

Speciality coffee may still be fixated on the dark art of espresso but let’s not relegate ibrik to a place where it has no relevance to us. Who knows, it may enjoy it’s own time in the spotlight when we rediscover it as the next greatest technique one day. We owe it the space it deserves as a brew method and the competitions are great way to keep this alive.

Chloe Callow works for Bespoke Water and blogs at www.faerietalefoodie.com