We followed the journey of Charlie Needler from a young barista with cerebral palsy to the UKBC stage. He chose a coffee beyond trends and rarity to tell his personal story through flavour.
Here, you’ll read the story of Charlie’s coffee - an Ethiopian Natural sourced on Algrano - and how he challenged jurors to experience coffee just as he would.
The coffee has a balanced acidity, so I went for a short yield to bring out the tartness. It reminded me of a black forest gateau. - Charlie
Going to UK Barista Championship 2023
Early this month, 23-year-old barista Charlie Needler of Gather & Gather joined the rank of competitors at the SCA UK Barista Championships (UKBC). Originally from Halifax, Yorkshire, he competed at the Northern Heat, hosted by Heart & Graft Coffee, Manchester.
Months before, Gather & Gather approached our UK Sales Manager and veteran coffee coach Emma Haines to help them choose the green coffee Charlie would present on stage.
Charlie, who entered UKBC for the first time this year, finished in sixth place (watch his routine here). We still don’t know if he’ll go ahead as regional heats are still happening, but he made his team (below) very proud.
The UK Barista Championship tests the skills of top baristas. At the regional stage, competitors have seven minutes to prepare two espressos and two milk drinks whilst delivering a compelling and impeccable presentation.
Baristas prepare their presentations to the finest detail. Everything is timed to the seconds. And that’s what judges expect. There are so many rehearsals beforehand that, by the time they get to the stage, many struggle to deliver a performance that is both precise and emotional.
This didn’t happen to Charlie.
Telling a Personal Story Through Flavour
One of the reasons Charlie’s presentation stood out, beyond technical skill, is that it was personal. And he found a coffee that captured exactly what he wanted to talk about: a Grade 1 Natural from the Birbirsa Cooperative in Jimma, Ethiopia.
Birbirsa is represented by Asnake Nigat (with the checked shirt below) of Kata Muduga Multipurpose Farmers Cooperative Union.
Having worked as a barista since he was 18, Charlie has cerebral palsy. CP is a motor disability that affects movement, muscle tone and coordination.
He even joked he wasn’t the smartest, because “why would a guy with CP choose to become a barista?” Typical Yorkshire sense of humour.
Charlie’s presentation was all about accessibility in coffee. From a personal perspective, he wanted to show that anyone can become a top barista if they feel motivated and work hard.
This was a lovely message in itself. Because even though the SCA strives to make competitions more inclusive, it’s still rare to see someone with a motor disability take to the stage.
“The Coffee Was Me”
From a sensory perspective, Charlie wanted to showcase a coffee that he and anyone could relate to and understand easily.
“From the first slurp, I was like… Wow! I can see it, I can talk about it, I know what it is,” he remembers. “The coffee was me."
In other words, Birbirsa Natural was a coffee Charlie could understand and that he knew anyone could appreciate. It was easy. He believes that “if the coffee is too complicated, people get lost”.
Before the competition, Emma had selected a wide range of samples for Charlie to cup blindly, not all of them from Algrano.
She included some crazy coffees with wild processing methods. There were lots with a price tag of more than US$20.00/lb!
There is so much information about this kind of coffee that a barista can easily spend seven minutes talking about post-harvest alone. And we all know that matters. This kind of coffee has become expected in competitions.
Taking “Charlie’s Cheap Coffee” to The Stage
When Charlie put his foot down on Birbirsa, his team couldn’t believe it.
Birbirsa is a Grade 1 Ethiopian coffee with a very fruit-forward profile that works really well on espresso. But it’s not your typical competition coffee. And it was a lot cheaper than everything else on the table.
In a short space of time, the team started referring to Birbirsa as “Charlie’s cheap coffee”.
And “Charlie’s cheap coffee” did great at UKBC.
Whilst most people think that honouring a producer is to share their story (and they’re right!), Charlie chose to honour Birbirsa by making the coffee a part of his own story.
Because of CP, Charlie doesn’t have all the movements on his right hand. When he was still a baby barista, he could barely hold a portafilter.
To have come to where he is now, in charge of a three-group espresso machine serving coffee to a jury, is a testament to how accessible the barista profession, and specialty coffee in general, can be.
Before the jurors could taste his coffee, he threw them a curveball:
“May you please put your right hand behind your back and may you put your clipboards face down on the side? I asked you to do this because I want you to experience this coffee just like I would, not having a choice of which hand to use.”
Charlie’s presentation and choice of coffee signal that the industry is moving towards inclusivity and recognising the value of accessible coffees, lowering the entry barrier for specialty. Bravo.
This coffee came from a small selection of spot offers from producers on Algrano. If you can't wait until July to get new crop Ethiopian coffees, click on the link below to see what's available now.
Charlie’s Competition Coffee
Espresso Roast Profile
Roaster: Aillio Bullet R1
Batch size: 650g
Charge temperature: 240℃
Drop temperature: 205.6℃
Roast time: Around 10 minutes
Development time ratio: 20%-23%
Comments: The coffee was further developed to highlight the chocolate and caramel sweetness whilst maintaining the fruitiness
Competition Espresso Recipe
Coffee in: 19.5g
Coffee out: 40g
Extraction time: 26 seconds
Milk: Charlie used 50% semi-skimmed and 50% whole milk
Flavour notes: Tart raspberry, black cherry and dark chocolate (black) and raspberry, dark chocolate truffle and roasted almond (milk)
A big thank you to Charlie and Gather & Gather, who sent us the competition team and UKBC training photos.