CALGARY—When Jill Hoff got a job as a barista five years ago, she was mostly looking for a way to get out of the house.
“I was a stay-at-home mom, actually,” she says of her decision to join the team at Monogram Coffee, now a well-known Calgary institution. “I loved coffee, I wanted to make some friends and meet some new people.”
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she recalls, laughing.
Hoff is now fresh off a win at the National Barista Championships, where she brewed 12 themed espresso drinks in 15 minutes, as a cluster of judges scrutinized ever stir and steam.
It’s not only Hoff’s first win, but it’s the first time a woman has taken top honours in the high-speed competition, which pits baristas from across Canada against each other.
“When I first got hired at Monogram, I noticed that the industry was very male dominated,” Hoff said. “And when I started competing, I looked around and I noticed that there had never been a female to represent Canada at Worlds. So I gave myself a goal, that I wanted to be the first woman to win.”
Hoff is in good company at Monogram, where co-owner, Jeremy Ho has won once, and co-owner Ben Put has been national barista champion three times.
“I think that he has kind of raised the bar in Calgary in terms of competition baristas. And so because he has sort of elevated that, we have to follow suit,” she said.
The barista competition revolves around espresso-based drinks and speed. Each competitor must serve three courses — an espresso course, a milk based course, and a signature drink. Each course must include four servings, one for each judge. The barista must describe each drink as they go, and explain how they fit into the chosen theme.
And it must all be done in 15 minutes.
“It goes by really, really fast. There’s a lot to think about in that 15 minutes,” Hoff said.
Hoff built her course this year around the idea of memory.
For her espresso course, she used a coffee from a farm in Panama that has been producing coffee for a century. She spoke to one of the producers there and he explained what it had been like for him to taste that type of coffee for the first time, and Hoff played that audio for the judges as she made the drinks.
“For me, it was really cool to be able to hear someone from Panama, like a totally different part of the world, talking about them tasting that exact coffee,” Hoff says.
For her milk course, she used a type of coffee from the same farm, but one that had been processed in a way that reminded her of the very cup that made her fall in love with the industry — “a really delicious, super fruity coffee that tasted really good in milk.”
Hoff says most baristas have had an “ah ha” moment where they realize that coffee can be more than they’d realized. Hers came shortly after she started at Monogram, when she was pouring a coffee that tasted like blueberries.
“Up until that moment, I never had tasted anything like that. And once I tasted it, I was like, ‘Whoa, this is so cool. I wish that everybody had a chance to try something like that.’ ”
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Lastly, for her signature drink, Hoff made her own blend of coffee, made with ingredients found on that same farm, like hibiscus and a close relative of mint, and then had the judges serve each other.
“In my opinion, coffee is always better when you’re sharing it with someone else. And I thought that it would really enhance the experience in their memory to be able to create and enjoy a drink with each other,” she said.
Getting that routine down — complete with descriptions — in under 15 minutes took weeks of preparation.
To do that, Hoff says she makes her courses over and over, using coffee that’s old or spoiled so as not to waste the good stuff.
“My friends know this, my family knows this, when a competition is coming you won’t see me for like a month before,” she says. “There are so many things that could potentially go wrong in 15 minutes, because you’re making so many drinks so quickly. You really have to practise your movements, practise your speech, what you’re saying at what point in time, figure out your timing.”
Coffee is a ritual for so many people, Hoff notes.
“You grow up seeing your parents drink coffee, and everybody kind of drinks coffee first thing in the morning,” she said. “It’s something that can be really comforting.”
When she won, Hoff said people from all over reached out to congratulate her.
“I think they’re proud to see someone who works really hard and is a woman win because I’ve been in the finals every year since I started competing but never quite there yet,” she said, adding that there are a lot more women competing than when she started.
She said she doesn’t expect it’ll be long before there’s another female champion. But it’s still cool to be first.
“I feel quite proud of myself. Not only did I win, but I achieved what I had hoped to achieve when I started.”
Now, she’s turning her focus to the world competition, which is scheduled to go ahead in Australia in November. She plans to use the same courses, but “I’m going to try and improve it.”