Interview with Zach Mazrim, Cafe Culture China
How did you first get into coffee, and what was the journey you took before becoming a champion?
I started drinking coffee during college, mostly in coffee shops. However, as a college student, I couldn’t afford buying coffee every day. So, I began brewing coffee by myself. Somehow my coffee didn’t taste nearly as good as that of cafés, so I started to explore the reason for my poor quality coffee. Through exploring, my sense of achievements accumulated, and my coffee started to taste better. While I was still studying, I refitted a coffee cart and began to sell coffee on the street. Many people came to taste my coffee, especially during holidays, and their reactions encouraged and helped me gain precious experience. It was also during that period of time that I encountered many coffee experts, including the first Taiwan Barista Champion Dongyuan Lin. I first met him during an audition, and I came to respect him while watching him compete. In 2008, I attended the WBC held in Denmark. A few years later, my wife and I were in the United Kingdom while she was studying for her Masters degree. I was fortunate to attend the WBC held there again. I realised that the WBC was superior to other regional barista competitions, and it stirred my passion. Since then, I started to compete in various contests, and last year I was finally able to reach my goal and win the World Barista Championship.
What differences have you noticed between competing in the WBC and working in a café?
I think in competitions we are more focused on potential and innovative aspects of coffee. If you pay close attention to international contests, you may find that many attendants are eager to bring new ideas, as well as new skills, varieties and processing methods never before seen. These are rarely seen in the daily coffee business. Through competition, we want to spread new thoughts and ideas; and once accepted by judges and audiences, we will be able to seek cooperation with equipment manufacturers to put these new techniques into practice. This won’t happen in the short term, but after a year or two, we may see baristas practicing these new techniques in coffee shops.
What is your favourite aspect of coffee?
I believe the best part of coffee is making friends. Coffee is definitely a lifelong career for me, but sometimes when facing obstacles and challenges, you may lose your passion for your career. When this happens, the best way is to chat with your friends who have the same experiences and beliefs as you do, and their words will enlighten you, giving you the power and the passion to carry on. Coffee has always been a communal experience – people coming together over a cup of coffee and encouraging each other, working through difficult things, and propelling humanity forward.
What struggles have you faced along the way?
Of course there were tons of struggles, but when I was met with challenges, I would try to recall the reason for attending competitions and the reason why I chose to enter the coffee industry. I always tried to think about those moving moments that have given me motivation to devote all things to coffee. I kept reminding myself of memories and experiences to this point, and then all difficulties and confusion would slowly fade away.
What has been your best memory from coffee?
I can think of one thing that was crucial for my coffee career; that was in 2001, when specialty coffee in Taiwan started to flourish. I was still a student at that time, and I was trying to brew coffee by myself. I had done a significant amount of research to get to know more about coffee. For example, I read that Ethiopian coffees would typically have strawberry and blueberry flavours, but I had never detected such hints until I attended a coffee sharing session held by a café located in Tai Zhong. I went there with my wife, who was still my girlfriend at the time. Although there were only three of us that day who attended the session, including another coffee lover, Mr Xu Baolin from Orsir Coffee still patiently drew a map of Ethiopia on the blackboard, and introduced us to the two types of coffee we would taste, Yirgacheffe and Sidamo. Although they were both from Ethiopia, their profiles were totally different. It was on that day that I had for the first time detected the overt strawberry and blueberry flavours. That experience blew my mind. I came to realise how beautiful coffee could be, and there were still lot of things I needed to explore. That is when I truly fell in love with coffee.
Do you have any encouragement or advice for new baristas or café owners?
If you want to make coffee a lifelong career and start a business, it is essential to remember one thing: dealing with customers and the market. It’s not only just about making or roasting good coffee. The coffee market is extremely complex, but can be roughly divided into three parts. The first is obviously your product, which is about making good coffee. The other two are managing your business and interacting with your customers. You should not put all your efforts in your product while ignoring the basic business skills and customer service. These are the most fundamental things that you need to pay attention to when running a coffee business. Only when you put all your resources and energies equally into all three facets can you achieve success. If you were to fail in one area, the whole business would fall apart.
In your opinion, what attracts so many people to coffee?
To me, it is the culture surrounding, which is more developed in western countries, because it dates back centuries. To them, coffee is not just a beverage; it is symbolic. In the early days in Taiwan, coffee shops were not only about coffee in and of itself, but also about the connections between people. Many people came to discuss current events, art or culture. People used to love this feeling. Nowadays, everyone cares about the quality of coffee; they are aware of specialty coffee. I think it is a good sign. I hope that people continue to combine the pursuit of both quality and culture of coffee in the future, and that more people can respect the value of coffee.
Now that you have become the World Barista Champion, what do you see for yourself going forward?
Although I have been crowned the most recent World Champion, which seems to be the highest honour in the coffee industry, I still think my coffee is not and will never be perfect. Although I received the highest competition score, points were still deducted in some areas. Besides, the WBC is only one specialty coffee competition. There are many other sorts of competitions, all possessing their own uniqueness.
I will never be satisfied with myself, and I will always try to achieve a better me.
As for my future, I will always be focused on what I am doing at any given moment. Whether it is running my coffee shop, roasting coffee, or conducting training sessions, I will keep striving to do it to the best of my ability. I do not want to show off that I am a champion. I would prefer to return my focus to furthering my understanding and improving my execution of the most foundational aspects of coffee, thereby validating my title as world champion.