Auckland Barista Championships 2010

It was a day where a few shone and many did not.  It was a time yielding evidence that practice makes perfect, or at least that practice is helpful.  Out of 23 competitors at this past weekend’s Auckland Barista Championships, at least half went overtime with their set, some even up to 2 minutes.

But all hope for the coffee industry in New Zealand is not lost.

In the battle of Auckland baristas this past weekend, it was the seasoned vetran, David Huang, who came out on top once again, with second place going to his sidekick from Espresso Workshop, Kayoko Nakamura.  Also making the top six was our friend from Gravity, Andrew Pearson.  The first barista we met in Auckland, Ben from Toasted, competed as well.  We are proud of our friends for working so hard, months beforehand, preparing so diligently for this event.

Carl Sara, the former NZ Barista Champion, mc’d the event this year, and did a fantastic job of encouraging the competitors after their set, even if things didn’t go as planned.  Carl Sara is passionate about coffee and is earnest about brining the third wave of the specialty coffee industry to NZ, and supporting the industry in NZ by sourcing high quality green.

For those of you who are new to the whole barista competition scene, let me fill you in.  Each competitor has 15 minutes to serve 3 drinks to each of the 4 sensory judges: An espresso, a cappuccino, and a signature drink (which is basically a drink you make up yourself).

The panel of the 4 sensory judge, plus a head judge, are the only people who get to taste the drinks during each round, and there are another 2 judges who simply look at the technical aspect of the barista’s performance.

The technical judges will be checking for things such as:  Consistency of extraction, evenness of tamping, wastage of coffee and milk, how long it takes to pull a shot of espresso, cleanliness of work station, etc.  With that being said, the competitor is under immense pressure and is critiqued not only on how their beverages taste, but also on their performance and presentation as well.

A number of creative signature drinks reached the judges palettes on Saturday.

Everything from fizzy drinks, to custards, and layered martinis were prepared for the judges to sample and critique.  The most common ingredient used to compliment the signature drink this year was honey, followed closely by berries, as well as citrus.  Some flopped, while others got rave reviews.  In my opinion, the coolest sig drink I saw was a fizzy drink made of espresso and some kind of raspberry syrup, served in a cool glass bottle with a straw.

Would have loved a sip of that one.

I reckon that competitors should all set up stands and sell samples of their sig. beverages after their performances.  After hearing competitors explain the components and complexities of their drinks, even someone like me, who is not the hugest coffee drinker, was pretty keen on trying some of the beverages presented.

Brendon had a great view of all the action, as he volunteered for the day as the official timer of and runner of station 3.  Let’s hear from the one who’s really the coffee expert here to fill you in.

Overall impressions were probably that of disappointment.

As Mel has alluded to already, there were many competitors who were not adequately prepared for competition.  Although there were bright spots, as a whole, the Auckland Baristas disappointed.  As another blogger commented, there was a clear line between those who are baristas and those who make a lot of coffee in a cafe.  The difference in the way people went about forming their sets were drastic. The top baristas got to know their coffee and what was great about it, and accompanied it with other ingredients that highlighted the coffee. Others just did what they thought would be impressive and taste good. The level of knowledge about the coffee was not that good.  Most everyone went overtime and most people clearly had not practiced their 15 minute set up time. There was a higher level of competition at the Prairie Regionals in Calgary last year.

All that being said, as an event, it was flawless!  The New Zealand Coffee Roasters Association ran the championships, and Emma, a former NZ barista champion and WBC certified judge, ran a tight ship.  Despite not having too many volunteers, the day ran smoothly and things turned out great. There was 6 WBC certified judges present and the judges apparently had a very high standard for the national championship by only allowing the top two from each region, and only selecting one of a possible three wild card spots for the country.  So at Nationals will be 7 competitors, and any of them could win!  It will surely be a high level of professionalism, skill and knowledge.  Also, they will be sending the top three to London, not just the winner.

David and Kayoko are now off to Nationals, which will be held here in Auckland on the 17th of this month.  Nice job, Espresso Workshop.  We wish you the best of luck as you represent this fine city of ours in the next round of competition, and will undoubtedly be there to cheer you on!


‘Oh precious vessel, won’t you enchant me with your beautiful voice once more?’

We recently enjoyed a taste of NZ art and culture by attending a gallery opening for an art exhibit by David Blackburn, the son of our friends, Nathan and Leonie.

David’s exhibit, entitled “This is Not a Rehearsal,” is currently on display at the Satelite Gallery in Auckland City, and features a collection of unique sculpture pieces reflecting the human condition that we found to be very thought provoking.

A series of 6 sculptures were featured in violin cases fashioned by the artist himself.

The first piece in the collection, featured below, is entitled “‘Oh precious vessel, won’t you enchant me with your beautiful voice once more?’”

This piece was a favorite of many, including the artist’s parents.  The next piece is entitled “Nurse.”

In contrast to the others pieces in violin cases, which were open and filled with thoughtful detail, the unopened violin case sparked much interesting discussion among us.

Most people would just pass by it after comparing it to some of the other pieces, but we drew great meaning from the closed nature of the piece, reflecting that of many people.

The green olives were also nice.

The bag with the wheat, entitled “Patient’s Property” was pretty cool, as it was so different from anything else in the collection.

A few of the pieces were about or belonging to the fictional character ‘Selena.’  The piece below, featuring Selena’s picture, is entitled “Switch.”

One of the most memorable pieces in the gallery was the last piece in David’s collection, entitled “Luer.”

Yep, that is definitely a baby doll hooked up to an IV cord.  The artist’s incredibly cute 4-year old son proudly told us that his dad “made that little baby over there.”

We haven’t been to many gallery openings, so it was a fairly new experience, but we had a good time trying to pry the deepest of meanings from each piece.

A fitting review of David’s exhibit can be found on the Satelite Gallery’s website.

Rangitoto Island

We were invited by a new friend and Mel’s teaching colleague, Sharona, to join her and her friends Kelly and Jess on an excursion to Rangitoto Island, a dormant volcano that sits just 8km off the coast of Auckland.

We caught the ferry from the Waitemata Harbor at 10:30am on a Sunday morning, and floated away for the first time from the land mass of Auckland.  The ferry ride lasted only 25 minutes, and before we knew it, we were walking on a mass of igneous rock.

The landscape of the island was unlike any place we had been before.

Between boulders of rock which used to be molten lava, lush greenery has sprung up.

A class of university students was there with their notebooks and measuring tools, collecting data about the plants that grow in such conditions.  Reminded me of high school bio camp… good times… haha.  Interestingly, the 2311 hectares that compose Rangitoto Island support over 200 species of moss, plants and trees including the largest Pohutukawa forest in the world.  And another tidbit for you: Rangitoto itself was formed about 700 years ago by a series of volcanic explosions, and its name has been translated to mean “the day the blood of Tamatekapua was shed,” relating to a major Maori battle at Islington Bay about 1350.

It took only about an hour and a half to reach the summit, which sits at 260m, so the hike itself was not too strenuous.

The cool breeze at the top was refreshing, and the summit held breathtaking views of the city of Auckland and surrounding islands.

The view is certainly not justified in these pictures, by any means, but let me just say how cool it was to look around in all directions and find yourself separated from every other land mass by the blue pacific.

Rangitoto Island contains a number of lava caves to explore.  You needed a “torch” (aka flashlight) to explore them because they are so dark, but since we didn’t have one, we used our cell phones to shed a bit of light on our path.

We inched our way through the dimly lit caves, which were luckily vacant of rats, snakes, and mice.  (Before boarding the ferry, they ask you to check bag for any of the above animals, in order to avoid bringing them to the island.  After a thorough check, we told them we were gratefully free of these critters).

Several minutes later, we emerged out the other side.  My favorite part was a hole in the middle of the cave, shedding some light in the tunnel of darkness.

Before leaving the island, we explored the coastline lined with dark, igneous rock.

We found a few “baches” (cabins) built along the edge where people actually live.

There’s not much on Rangitoto Island, other than washroom facilities, so I imagine actually living on the island would take a fair bit of planning, as far as food supplies are concerned.  But I suppose it’s just a boat ride away from the city, and might even be faster than the commute some people make in their cars.

Rangitoto was the first of hopefully many island excursions in our time here down under.  Also on our list are Waiheke and Great Barrier Islands, along with the big South Island.

Two Months in the Zeal

It has now been just over two months that we have been here in Auckland. For the most part, the transition has been easier than anticipated. It definitely helps living in a place with so much warmth and natural beauty to explore, and having met people going through a similar transition.

I feel so fortunate to have been getting lots of relief work teaching at the nearby primary school where I was originally asked to teach dance.  Term 1 in the school year is typically slow for relief teaching, so I am so thankful to be getting as much work as I am.  The principal at the school has been very kind to me, and has gone out of her way to help me get my foot in the door as a teacher here in NZ, giving me opportunities to observe in other classrooms and hooking me up with resources to further my understanding of the curriculum. I have had the experience of teaching a wide range of levels, and the learning curve has been steep. I’ve been mistakenly calling school bags “back packs,” and the children also give me puzzled looks when I tell them to go put on their swimsuit. They call them “togs” here. I love the little Kiwi children and their adorable accents. They say their soft “e” sounds like “i”s, and their r’s are very subtle. The line from the song Octopus’ Garden that goes “resting our head on the sea bed” sounds like “resting our hid on the sea bid”… I love it.  I have to say that I am also a fan of the use of school uniforms- it keeps me from being misidentified as a student.  I do hope that a teaching position comes my way in the near future, but for now am very grateful for the opportunities that are coming my way for me to learn and gain experience within New Zealand schools.

Although we do hope to move into our own flat once I get a teaching position somewhere, I have to say that I have enjoyed our little neighborhood here in Henderson.  I have loved going for runs in the warm Auckland mornings, down streets lined with palm trees.

There is a stadium with a track nearby where I often run as well. Right on our street, there are also an abundance of flower shops and fruit and vegetable stands.

I enjoy going weekly with Brendon to pick out fresh produce from these nearby shops. It’s almost like having the privilege of shopping at a farmer’s market any day of the week.

Speaking of produce, I am amazed at how flavorful and fresh the fruits and “veges” taste. The dairy has taken some getting used to, and is hard to describe, except to say that there seems to be some sort of “New Zealand” flavor to it. It’s a richer, creamier taste, and I almost wonder if this is what more natural, less processed dairy products taste like… Or perhaps it’s just the special essence of the New Zealand cows.

Brendon has done most of the driving since we arrived here in NZ, and though I have made some shorter trips in the driver’s seat to get comfortable with driving here, I haven’t really needed to go anywhere too far away on my own. I recently took on the streets of Auckland solo style, on my first “roadtrip” with a mission to deliver several applications to schools scattered around the Auckland area. Being a city that is quite spread out, it required driving for a couple of hours altogether to make it to all of my destinations. There were no crashes or near collisions, and the windshield wipers only came on a few times unintentionally, so I’d say it was a success. I think I’m finally getting used to this driving on the left thing.

When in Rome…

Through a mutual friend, we were connected with another couple from Edmonton who is also living here in Auckland.   We met up with Jessie and Jarret Wall at a Movie in the Park.

Within seconds of meeting each other, Jessie made the connection that we were certainly not strangers.  Jessie and I had in fact figure skated together in St. Albert back in the days of elementary school!  Meeting up with an old acquaintance on the other side of the world certainly does make Earth feel like a small, small place.

Jessie and Jarret work with Athletes in Action over here, and Jarret invited Brendon out to play some rugby.  The team Jarret is playing with is a semi-competitive league for men under 85kg, meaning that the risk of getting injured from a tackle by a large Maori man is slim to none in this league.  Thinking it might be fun to throw a rugby ball around and get a feel for the game, Brendon accepted the invitation to come out to a rugby practice.

The practice was a definitely a lot more hard-core than anticipated.  The head coach ran the players through a lengthy series of drills and exercises that began with some intense running.  Crunches, pushups, and more crunches and pushups preceded some intricate throwing and catching drills.

From the perspective of a spectator, it was quite difficult to tell that Brendon was a rookie at the sport.  His years of experience and training in football truly leant a helpful hand to make for a smooth transition into the foreign sport of rugby.

One of the last drills, and in my opinion, the most exciting one, was a tackling drill.  Although Brendon was undoubtedly wiped of all energy by this time, he did a great job of taking down the blue bags with strength, skill and vigor.

Here’s Brendon to give us his perspective on the first rugby practice of his career:

My first rugby practice revealed 2 things: 1) I am not in shape by any measure   2) I don’t know anything about rugby.  At this point, I am not entirely sure what kind of commitment I want to make as far as rugby goes, but I think it would be a pretty cool experience to play rugby a place where it is so huge.  Rugby in New Zealand is like hockey is in Canada. So it would be a cool experience. When in Rome I suppose. I did talk to a guy today who was explaining to me that this semi-competitive league is still a good level of rugby usually guys who are too small to keep playing in the higher divisions play in the 85 kg leauge, so maybe I should just watch for a while till i get the hang of it. I guess the last thing I want is another head injury. So I guess I will keep you all posted on whether or not I get drafted by the all blacks!

Latte Art Throw Down

This past weekend, our friend, cafe owner and reigning Auckland barista champion, David Huang, hosted a bbq and latte art throw down for Auckland baristas.  About 20 people, including 10 of Auckland’s top baristas, turned up to enjoy some grilled delicacies and go head to head with their latte art skillz.

With the pressure on, many competitors were slightly disppointed with their work, and in the end, the seasoned veteran won.

David’s winning latte art is featured on the left below.

I (Mel) got to be a judge, and let me tell you, there were some tough calls that had to be made.  When juding latte art, the 3 things you are looking for are:

-contrasting colors between the milk and the crema (espresso)

-cemetery of design

-visual aesthetics (definition, intricacy)

I personally felt there needed to be a more definite ranking system, stating which criteria has priority over others, for such instances when Cup A has more definition but is lacking a bit in symmetry, but Cup B has great symmetry but is less intricate and defined.  It’s a tough job being the judge of a latte art competition, especially when you’re husband one of the competitors!

I even had the chance to give a first attempt at latte art myself.

I went head to head against another rookie, and believe it or not, came out on top.  (It was the strong contrast between the milk and the crema in my design that won the judges’ vote).  Trying it once made me want to practice again and get good at it.  Maybe when Brendon starts working at a cafe, I’ll come in one nite with a jug of milk and get Brendon to teach me all of his secrets.

Beware of Team Neilson at future Auckland latte art throw downs.

A Student Once Again

Well school has begun in ernest here in Auckland. And to open the first day of classes, Laidlaw College held a Powhiri, a traditional Maori welcome ceremony. Two groups of chairs were set up facing each other in the room; on the one side sat the returning students and staff of the College, and on the other side sat new staff and students. First, an elder or some kind of chief of the Maori spoke words of welcome primarily in the Maori language. The principal (president) of the college then spoke a few words, followed by another Maori man who has affiliation with the college. All three of these speakers represented the whole group, and after each was finished speaking, there was a short Maori chorus sung. Following this, the floor was given to our side of the room to receive the welcome. Three Maori men spoke, thanking the men who spoke on the welcoming side, and accepting their welcome. One of the men was wearing a Canada hockey jersey in honor of the big win. We stood and sang a chorus in Maori after each speaker. This whole process took about 35 minutes, and then the Hongi (traditional Maori greeting where you press noses together) line began. So all of the new students and staff were greeted and welcomed to Laidlaw College in this traditional manner, by the leaders of the school.


I was at first a bit unsure about this greeting and ceremony… It seemed almost like it would be a breech of boundaries or something, but I sincerely felt welcomed and honored by the leaders of the school. I suppose by having intimate contact with someone you hardly know breaks down barriers while recognizing and affirming the humanity and similarities of each other. It was a very cool experience, which I will remember for a long time, and it really did give me a sense that I do belong here.

I have met a few classmates, and have been set up in the exclusive research room of the library, where I can read and write alongside my fellow Masters students. My first classes do not begin until March 15, so I have a couple weeks to prepare and continue reading and getting ready for my first assignments. I am taking two classes (they call them papers).  One is the Mediatory Research Writing and Methods class, and the other is entitled ‘Spirit, Church and World’, which explores the relationship between the Spirit and Jesus. Interesting semester it will be, indeed.

Anyway I will keep you all posted on the progress of the semester as time goes by, but as for now, we are doing alright I think!  Thanks for your support.

A Quarter Century in New Zealand

On March 1, 1985, a young Brendon Kenneth entered the world.  “We got our boy,” a proud Ken Neilson said.  “My baby,” said his confused 2-year old sister, Nicole.  Yesterday, Brendon Kenneth turned a quarter century old, and I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than with a birthday scavenger hunt.

A series of notes around the Laidlaw College campus led Brendon to a number of birthday treats and surprises, including a fresh chocolate eclair and a savory cheese biscuit for breakfast during the Gold Medal hockey game (the game was on in the morning here), a picnic lunch in a park, and a wine tasting at a local winery.

For dinner, Brendon chose a fine local restaurant for us to dine at called Molten, which is situated beside a dormant volcano called Mt. Eden.

Molten is a small and intimate restaurant located in the heart of Mount Eden’s village, which features a sophisticated menu with intriguing taste combinations, and uses all local ingredients.

Brendon chose the thick Pokeno pork belly with summer salad, spiced tomato ketchup and pommegranite dressing, and I went for the rolled chicken thigh with mozzarella and parmesean, potato gnocci, and jumbo raisin caramel with lavender oil.  We both left feeling very satisfied and impressed with the chef’s abilities to prepare such tasty and complex dishes.

We finished off the evening by enjoying a slice of some pretty stellar gluten-free chocolate coconut cake atop a dormant volcano, as we watched the light fade from the day as the bright moon and city lights took over.

Here’s to an amazing man and my Best Friend:  Happy 25th birthday, Brendon Kenneth!!