Tilly Sproule is Australia’s top female barista and is using her position on the dais to not only connect coffee drinkers with the origins of their favourite brew, but also to encourage more barista sistas to join her on the national stage, where they can really let off some steam.
“I remember the first Ethiopian coffee I had tasted like a blueberry muffin and I needed to know why the coffee tasted like this, why did it not taste like coffee, I was blown away by the flavours and needed to know more.”
Tilly Sproule talks about coffee with an effervescence I’ve never experienced before. I love coffee, and consider myself quite an aficionado, but Tilly takes it to a whole other level. As we chat, her eyes beam and her smile widens; she’s truly found her passion (or is she just really caffeinated?).
“I do drink a lot of coffee,” she laughs. “There is a lot that we taste for quality reasons and for palate training and development. I sit down to enjoy two to three a day but that doesn’t count all the other coffee we’re tasting, then if it’s a sampling or cupping there are little slurps here and there. So I couldn’t put a number on it, I’d be scared to!”
Tilly’s coffee adventure started 10 years ago when she was a full time uni student in Brisbane, studying urban and regional town planning at UQ and working at a coffee franchise in the city.
“I fell in love with the fact I was somewhat responsible for changing someone’s day and I really loved that customer service side of things, more than the coffee at the time,” she says.
Having been promoted, Tilly deferred her degree after two-and-a-half years to pursue her caffeinated career, and she’s never looked back; in fact, she’s helped drive the coffee culture forward over the past decade, making the transition from commercial into specialty coffee, joining Tim Adams Specialty Coffee five years ago.
“Now being in specialty coffee, it’s about the whole education process; from the producer at origin all the way up to the customer. When I started in coffee, that connection was not there but now we’re seeing it more and more,” she says.
“One of the coolest parts of the coffee industry is it’s so progressive, there is always change, new techniques, or new coffees to taste and it is an industry that is never going to stop learning. We’re never going to get to a point where we’ve found the best way to brew coffee, the right way to taste it, the right way to extract it, we’re sourcing the best – end of story.
“There is always something to reach for and there’s this neverending goal, which is what makes coffee so exciting and such an unknown, who knows where it’s going to be in five years or six months?”
One of the cultivators of this progression in the industry is the Australian Barista Championship, where revolutionary techniques are applied and new equipment is invented, including the ONA Coffee Distributor (OCD), a prototype of 2015 World Barista Champion, Sasa Sestic, which is now used by everyday baristas worldwide.
In September last year, Tilly won the Queensland Barista Championship and competed in the nationals in March. The competition is not what you could ever imagine, it’s more than knowing how to make a mean cuppa, it’s about innovation in all areas of coffee, from partnering with the producers at origin right through to pushing the boundaries with the invention of three drinks (an espresso, milk-based and signature beverage), performed in a perfectly-timed presentation.
“The competition is at a level we’ve never been at before, it’s phenomenal the lengths baristas are going to,” she says, explaining the theme for her presentation this year was ‘connection’, a word encapsulating the very essence of why she’s devoted her life to coffee.
The coffee Tilly used for her espresso course was from producer, Jamison Savage from Panama, whose coffee has been widely used by competitors all over the world.
“We used an experimental lot, which had increased the clarity and sweetness of the coffee like you wouldn’t believe. It was so delicate with flavours of apricot and candied styles of oranges, it was so floral and stunning, so elegant, it was beautiful,” she says.
Jamison’s coffee was processed using washed carbonic maceration, which Tilly says is quite common in wine production, but unique to coffee.
“It’s a way of sealing coffee inside stainless containers. You charge it with carbon dioxide to remove oxygen, which means the fermentation of the coffee really slows down and you can control the rate and the temperature, and you get a sparkling type of acidity. It’s controlling variables, we do it as baristas at a machine level but now it’s happening at origin.
“Then we got this amazing coffee for our milk-based. This carbonic maceration process is now happening in Ethiopia. It’s very rare, there was only 12kgs of this coffee made and we bought 8kgs of it – the coffee tasted like Turkish delight.
“There are a lot of producers working together now to experiment and perfect this processing method in order to share it with the world. It’s about trying to relay the message of why we do what we do and the connection between origin and the consumer – you’d be surprised that not a lot of people know coffee is a stone fruit and it grows on a tree and what we want are the seeds inside the fruit.”
At the Australian championship, Tilly broke new ground with her signature drink, charging the espresso with argon gas.
“Argon is used more commonly to preserve qualities in wine, if you open a bottle of wine and you pour a glass and cap it and store it, because of oxidisation you get tannins and sediment starts to form and it gets a little fermenty as you keep opening and closing the bottle, because of the exposure to oxygen,” she says.
“It got us thinking about espresso, when you brew a shot, you have crema that sits on top of the espresso and as the crema starts to oxidise and aerate, it breaks down slowly and the temperature starts to change.
“With this coffee we’re brewing, it has exceptional flavours to a certain point until they become good, so where is that point in time that oxygen affects the coffee enough to start impacting the flavour? Because as temperature drops, acidity increases and you lose the texture of the coffee.
“Argon is odourless and flavourless, so it doesn’t affect the coffee but it’s heavier than air so it settles on top of the coffee and stops any effects of oxidisation; it seals it. In wine, you charge the bottle with argon and put the cap on and it preserves the qualities, so we’ve done the same thing for the espresso.
“There were new flavours coming out of the coffee we didn’t know were there. When the espresso is brewed and hot, you stir it three times as protocol for espresso drinking and sip. There was an interesting ‘red’ quality to the coffee, not overly definable but there was something layered in there and when we charged it with argon and tasted it after six-and-a-half minutes, it was red apple – argon had exposed a quality we didn’t get the full potential of as just an espresso.”
Just as coffee is seasonal, so too is milk depending on how much rain we’ve had, and Tilly works closely with Maleny Dairies for all of her competitions to find a milk that will best complement the coffee and has the highest percentage of butter fat.
All of Tilly and her team’s preparation paid off, with her coming in fifth place and the only female in the final – making her Australia’s top female barista.
“Fifth in Australia is pinch yourself, but being the top female I still can’t believe it,” she says.
“We’re seeing more females compete now, which is really amazing and I feel so blessed if I have played a role in that. There are a lot of female baristas, but at this next level it’s interesting how male-dominated it is; it’s something that’s relevant with the industry at the moment, but on the same token, I wouldn’t be where I am without my two male bosses and mentors, Tim Adams and James Pedrazzini.
“I’m all for equality, but to empower women in coffee has been really powerful, to encourage everyone that there is more to coffee than pushing a button, texturing a jug of milk and making someone’s day.
“There are a lot of women behind the scenes, from baristas to our coffee producers who are doing great things, but it is interesting that they’re not on the pedestals; the CEOs of big coffee companies and roasters are males. I really believe we have a touch that the males don’t have, we have something a little bit more personable, more gentle and graceful about what we do and we all do it for different reasons.
“I want to keep pursuing to the top and maybe one day be the world barista champion. We saw the first ever female World Barista Champion crowned in Amsterdam in June, and the last female Australian Barista Champion was in 2005!”
For someone with such a profound knowledge and appreciation for coffee, I’m keen to know – How do you take your coffee?
“Nothing beats that indulgent standard flat white, a single shot. It’s a harmonious balance between espresso and milk and it’s so comforting and dessert-like; beautifully textured milk and amazing espresso extraction, that cup is a treat,” she says.
“But I’m also partial to a long black because black coffee is so complex. Hot, it has a very different quality to cool, so I love to drink a long black over the space of an hour and let flavours develop as it cools – let it open up and aerate it, oxidise it, and like wine; swirl it in the glass.”
Why does specialty coffee have different flavour profiles; like blueberries, apricots and jasmine?
There are hundreds of different varietals of coffee. With wine you have shiraz, merlot and pinot noir, these are all types of grapes, so coffee has its own variety, there’s bourbon, caturra, geisha and the flavour is going to stem from what variety of cherry it is. Then there is the soil condition, climate, altitude, and how ripe the cherry was at picking. Then how is the fruit removed from the seed? The processing of the coffee impacts the flavour and draws out different qualities depending on whether it’s a natural process (the whole cherry is dried in the sun and absorbs all the sugars) or washed (coffee is pulped, fermented and cleaned quite vigorously), then you also have to roast the coffee and develop those qualities and take it to a certain degree where all of that hard work from the farm is exposed in the espresso. Then it comes down to the barista; we need to follow a recipe to ensure we get the best result in the cup doing justice by the pickers, producers, farmers, roasters and everyone in between, to serve coffee at its full potential for our customers to enjoy.