The purpose of these posts is to honestly recount my experience during the four days I spent in St Petersburg representing Ireland at the 2011 European Team Coffee Challenge. Other than that, I have little motivation for the post. The dearth of publicity surrounding the event, considering that it is an international event, speaks volumes to the low regard in which it is now held. This is a pity, as in terms of potential this competition could have been one of the better events in the SCAE’s calendar. It has been allowed to fall into disrepair, to remain rudderless for far too long. Whatever potential it had may never now be realised under the weight of its own beleaguered history.
What can I take from this trip? I can’t say I drank much great coffee – sorry Russia most of what I tasted had a lot of Robusta (though I accept I did not make it to any of the better destination coffeeshops). I can’t say that I learned a whole lot, or came away inspired with new ideas. What I can take, without resorting to maudlin, saccharin cliche, is the meeting of lots of great people – our hosts, our fellow competitors, people from the Russian coffee community. As a purely social experience there is much to take from the event. I literally could not name all the great people we met (partly due to being bad with names, and also due to my desire not to impose the inevitable tedium of reading such a list). That, however, is not enough, it is important and should remain a key aspect of this competition if it is to prevail, however, it must be backed up with a worthwhile competition that is both thoughtfully structured and efficiently organized. Fun is a key component of this event, but it has to be able to be fun, without being a joke.
Team Ireland (Vicky, Julie, Karl and I – and “coach” Jackie) assembled at some ungodly hour in Dublin Airport’s shiny, new Terminal 2, one of the last vestiges of the Celtic Tiger. As it turns out Dublin Airport is a lot quieter these days, and would be even quieter were it not for the hoards emigrating from our economic crisis. With a trip to the West Coast of the US fresh in my mind, the flights to Russia via Amsterdam seemed relatively painless, at least in terms of retaining feeling in my posterior. Arriving in St Petersburg, weary from the mountain of paperwork we had to complete in order to have some hope of seeing our bags again, we found a city that looked little different from many european cities, with the addition of the cyrillic script on all the signposts reminding us of where we were. Apparently St Petersburg does not thaw out until May, this resulted in several missteps, slips and a general lack of grace among the traveling teams. Primary among those who would succumb to the conditions was the UK’s John Sherwood whose late night slip resulted in a trip (pardon the lazy pun) to the hospital and some stitching to the top of his cranium.
John’s head was yet to be blemished when, playing to stereotype, team Ireland positioned itself in the hotel bar from the mid-afternoon prior to our evening meeting. Well lubricated we were split up for the evening’s dinner, per the rule – only one person per country per table. How I ended up at a table almost entirely composed of Russians and Ukrainians I’m not sure, but nevertheless this would turn out to be the culinary highlight of the trip, and the closest we came to eating “Russian food”. I couldn’t really say that I had any prior idea of what Russian food was, nor do I now. What we had I suppose was food whose culinary style I was unfamiliar with, and I presumed Russian or at least Russian fusion. During the course of the evening we drew Aeropress from a hat as our assigned brew method, dodging a couple of bullets that would have been Ibrik/Turkish or to a lesser extent Moka. Things were looking up.
The evening was to conclude with a table quiz, though this never materialised. Tired from our flight and good cheer we didn’t really care, instead we were happy to expedite our journey to our beds (via the hotel bar for some ludicrously expensive negronis). Though we thought little of it at the the time, the absence of the table quiz would prove to foretell the degree of organization that we would become intimately familiar with over the next few days.
To be continued…