Coffee Chat with Tim Williams from World Aeropress Championship
Published on under the Coffee category.
The photo for this article was provided by the interviewee.
World Aeropress Championships are renowned in the coffee community for being a fun, light-hearted competition, but with a serious side too. Competitors aim to brew the best cup of Aeropress coffee they can. Aeropress championships are open to anyone, from beginners who have never used an Aeropress before (as you will see in the interview!) to seasoned coffee brewers.
In this interview, I chat with Tim Williams, the organiser of the World Aeropress Championships. We talk about turning the WAC into a professional organisation, creating a cohesive community between events, who hosts Aeropress championships, and more. I hope you enjoy the interview!
Can you tell me about yourself and your role at the World Aeropress Championships (WAC)?
I am nearly 40 which is old in coffee years. I have been working in coffee since I was 18. I was heading off to uni and needed a job to pay for all of the other things that go on outside of actually going to uni. There was a job advertised for a coffee maker at a market that is here in Melbourne. I thought that sounds really easy. I thought I probably know how to do that already.
So I applied, I slept through the interview, and I called the guy later that afternoon when I had woken up. He said there was not much point in coming down but you can come down anyway if you want to. I ended up working there for a couple of years and I am still in touch with that former boss today. That was my first introduction to not just coffee but into food, hospitality, and being around markets and edibles. Over the last 22 years in coffee, I have worked as a barista on the front-line, as a roaster, more recently as a coffee buyer, as a retail manager in the States, and I have also done a bit of work cooking and that kind of thing.
About six years ago, a friend of mine was running the World Aeropress Championships. It was still very much a grassroots organisation and it had become too much work for one person to look after. There was no money involved. That was a great thing in one way but it also meant the championships were unsustainable. I came on board to help make the championships sustain into the future and to help grow the championships into a whole bunch more countries around the world. I think there was 15 countries involved then and over the last six years we have grown to over 60 countries and about 4,500 competitors.
My role now is to be the organiser and the air traffic controller between a whole bunch of different people and interested parties. Every day is pretty different and we get a whole bunch of really strange requests all of the time. We try to stay focused and prioritise what we really need to get done before a particular phase in the season. The championship being what it is, the competition is very calendar-based. Then completely out of left field someone will get in touch wanting to talk about a project in 2023 in the Middle East and we are like: how are we even going to deal with that conversation right now? The role definitely involves a lot of juggling and more juggling.
What were you involved with when you first joined the WAC? How did you start making the moves necessary to make the WAC into a more professional organisation.
There were a few things that needed pretty immediate attention when I got involved. It's probably important to note as well that the only reason that I was able to get involved and help bring the competition to where it is now is because of all the grassroots work and the very informal nature of it that had built such a big following up until that point.
Without wanting to be a capitalist about everything, the first thing we had to do was get some funding to make the competition viable. There is a lot of travel and time commitment involved in running the event and answering all of the questions and organising everyone. When I got involved, sponsors and hosts did not put any money in. The bigger the event got, the more it cost to run and no-one was paying for it.
We got some sponsorship agreements in place and we talked to some of the partners who had been supportive of the competition. We said "the last five or six years has been great and we appreciate the help. We need to professionalise the competition a little bit which means we need your support and a financial contribution." Most sponsors were totally fine with that and are very accustomed to sponsoring events in terms of a cash contribution as well as providing product and support. We got a really great bunch of sponsors on board and all of a sudden we had some funding to then make the championships bigger and to be able to accommodate more countries.
We then put a bit of structure into the competition. Previously, you did not have to win your national championship to compete in the worlds. You would just come along and take part. It was pretty loose. We needed to structure the competition a bit more and make it that national champions were the people who came to the world final to compete. We also needed to put some frameworks in place for how those national championships would run. Something like Israel would be completely different to what happened in Ecuador and Argentina would do something different. We needed to standardise the competition a little bit so it was more translatable from region to region.
We got that kind of structure in place and wrote a code of conduct, a set of rules, and a hosting framework.
The World Barista Championships (WBC) have a similar structure in that local champions advance to the world championships. Was there any influence from the WBC competition?
There was definitely influence in the scale we were going for. I had been involved in the World Barista Championships just prior to my getting involved in the Aeropress championship. I coached a couple of people who went off to do very well in the World Barista Championships. I was in that world and parts of it I thought were really great and parts of it were so exclusionary. You needed a lot of money to get involved and you needed to be able to take a lot of time off work. There was a very particular type of person that would do very well in that competition.
It started to get more serious and stuffy and as a result less fun. For a lot of people, the World Barista Championships is great but we wanted something more lighthearted for the Aeropress championships. We were aware of what was happening with the World Barista Championships and we said: how do we scratch the itch that the Barista Championship does not scratch anymore? That's what we tried to focus on.
I started brewing with the Aeropress last July or August and I thought there was something interesting about the device. What I have noticed is that the Aeropress is a pathway into something bigger in coffee that did not require much of a commitment.
Absolutely. I think that is true of the Aeropress the brewer and the Aeropress championship itself. I feel like the two have that same function. One of the great things about the Aeropress and the championship is that if you started brewing with that in June you could have participated in the world championship in June, if we had hosted one.
I cannot remember if it was in a national or a world championship but someone won who had never brewed on the Aeropress before. Her boss gave her an Aeropress in a box and said there's some instructions, have a go, see how you go. She did really well. That's just not possible in the World Barista Championship. You cannot walk up to an espresso machine having never used one before, play around with it, and then win a title.
Let's say someone wanted to host an Aeropress championship. What support would you provide the organisation? How would they interface with you? How would you make sure they are running an event which is in adherence to the community principles of the WAC?
We definitely have evolved our approach to this over time. Early on, we were very casual about it. If you got in touch and said "I want to run an event in Scotland" and there was nobody else running it, we would say "This is the hosting guide, this is our expectations of you as the host, you need to fly your winner to the world championship, you need to adhere to these guidelines. If you are okay with that, you will pay a license fee that goes towards the running of the championship."
From then on we are on the other end of the line when you need us. We would send you trophys, a hosting kit, and do some centralised promotion of your event. We are looking for the host to raise their hand when they have an issue and to come to us with questions, rather than us checking in with the host and saying "it's your three week check-in, have you done this, that, the next bit."
One of the ways we were able to grow the championships to 60 countries relatively quickly was by choosing hosts who we felt aligned with our values and then letting them run on with the championship in their territory.
We had another period of the championship where some hosts took things too far in different directions. Some hosts charged competitors to compete. We had to deal with that issue and make sure the accessibility of the championship was maintained. Through that phase of the championship, we had to put a few more checks and balances in place for hosts. That took a lot more work-load for us. Hosting fees had to go up to accommodate that.
I think what we managed to do was re-establish the standard for hosts and we brought in some new hosts who were more aligned with our approach. And so we have been able to be a lot more light-touch over the last two years. Sometimes we are taking a bit of a gamble when we choose someone. If an event goes well, the next year they will host again, and the year after that.
In addition to the 65 nationals, we would often have up to 85 regional events happening too. There could be anywhere up to 100 to 120 individual organisations that we are in partnership with and you only need two emails a week from each of them to add up to a lot of content to respond to. Trying to give everyone a framework and letting them do their thing has been really important.
What kind of organisations do you usually partner with to do an event? Do you partner with roasters, cafes, other coffee festivals, etc.?
Traditionally, the hosts have been coffee roasters. That is really what has made the most sense because roasters tend to have a space big enough to bring a bunch of people together to host the event. The event is a really great opportunity to showcase your coffee as a roaster. If every competitor in Latvia has to use the coffee from the Latvian host and they are a coffee roaster, it is a good opportunity for people who really cares about brewing filter coffee to get to know your coffee and to come to your roastery to take part. That has been a self-selecting thing in that it tends to be a lot of roasters who come forward.
In some countries, the national chapter of the Speciality Coffee Association has come forward. It has been very strange to operate a standalone championship and then have the national chapters come in and operate as hosts for those. It is really cool. In the countries where that has been the case it has worked really well. Occasionally, it is a coffee festival who are looking for a way to bring people into their event. There haven't been so many of them recently.
In a few cases, we have individuals host an event. Literally, a single person who really loves coffee community takes on hosting responsibilities and they bring together a whole bunch of different parties to operate the event. In Spain, we had a former champion who won the Spanish championship come to us and say "I think we can do some more events but I am just a person, can I be the host?" We said lay out a plan for us and that sounded great.
We were definitely taking a bit of a gamble with that one. He has grown the Spanish championship to seventeen regional events and drives the events with a lot of enthusiasm. We have a couple of instances where we have individuals running things. That's been really cool.
Let's say I wanted to participate in an Aeropress event. What could I expect as a competitor?
You are going to want to expect the event to be a bit rough around the edges. If you've competed in anything highly organised before, it may not be the case. It really depends on where you are competing because some events are really polished and some events are a party where there is a side room where you can wait until you are on stage. And then you are on stage. It's night time and there is beer and a whole bunch of things going on. Where you are competing will make a whole bunch of difference.
Let's say the event starts at 6pm or 7pm, which is often the case. In an ideal world, you as a competitor will have arrived at 4 o'clock and the host will have run a briefing. You will have been part of a big group meeting with all the other competitors who get to meet people and the host will take you through what is going to happen in the event. Ideally, the host will give you practice time at the space so you can practice with the local water and freshly-roasted coffee that you are going to be competing with.
After practice time, there is usually a bit of a break of half an hour to an hour while the venue opens up and people start arriving. Then there is a round-by-round progression where three competitors compete at a time. And in each of those rounds, two of those competitors will get eliminated. In an ideal world, you will make it all the way to the final and in the final you get on stage and brew the best cup of coffee you can. The judges will ideally point to your bowl and then you will advance onto the world championship representing your country.
I see you are doing an online championships this year. There are of course trade-offs for each model and obviously judges cannot be in the same physical proximity as competitors. What structure have you come up with for online event to preserve as much of the in-person events as possible?
The real challenge with COVID is that entire Aeropress championship is based on getting a whole bunch of people together in the same space, tasting coffee out of the same bowls, and then flying a select group of those people to another city or country and doing it all again. You could not imagine a better scenario to spread COVID if we just chose to run it in its traditional format.
We didn't do a World Aeropress Championship last year and I think we the Aeropress community really felt that absence after 13 years. So we spent a bunch of time working out how we are going to make sure we can bring the Aeropress championship back. One of the ways we can do that is by adding an online format to the championship.
The online format works in a really different way. Competitors still sign up to compete. Instead of showing up to a venue on the day, all of the competitors are shipped the competition coffee for them to brew with at home. They then use a standardised online form to submit the best recipe that they came up with. That recipe is then brewed for the judges at the judging event. Either, the competition is run in the knock-out round format or is based on scores. The brewer with the best recipe is crowned as the champion.
It looks like most of the national events for this year will be traditional, in-person events. The biggest challenge is flying everyone around the world for the world final. That is why the world final this year is going to be competed online but judged in Melbourne at an in-person judging event in December. We're going to do the final slightly differently where every national champion is going to be paired up with a surrogate barista here in Melbourne who is going to learn their recipe and brew their recipe for them.
Funnily enough, that's actually not a new idea for the World Aeropress Championship. Way back before there was any budget or funding for the championship, no-one could afford to fly to the worlds to compete so they would send a recipe and one of their friends would brew for them. So we are actually bringing back that slightly older version of a way to compete for the championship this year.
As a few people have pointed out, that is not as good as before. We are aware of that. We are aware there are some compromises we have had to take on. We looked at 2020 as a year where we couldn't have any events at all. We looked at 2021 as a year where we had an opportunity to run a different format of event or nothing. I believe we have come up with a format that is the safest and the most viable and hopefully still a reasonably fun event to take part in.
I only have one more question. Have you noticed any trends in terms of the direction recipes are going?
The trend has been toward significantly higher doses and very coarser grinds. That makes a very distinct cup but for the last four years that has been what everyone has brewed with in order to win their events. That's been fine but that has stifled a bit of the exploration of Aeropress brewing.
This year, one of the biggest changes is that there is going to be a limit on how much coffee you can use in your recipe. In the worlds and national events, competitors will be limited to 18 grams of coffee. They need to get the absolute best they can out of that coffee rather than up-dosing to 35 grams and under-extracting the coffee for a high-acidity, high-intensity coffee. That's been the biggest trend. We always want to keep the competition evolving. We feel like that is one of the ways we can do that this year and challenge competitors a bit more.
Read more about the World Aeropress Championships on their website at www.worldaeropresschampionship.com or on their Instagram page @aero.press.
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