OCCASIONALLY, after he’s served a customer a cup of coffee, barista Anthony Smith says you might see him wince.
“Each drink is a work of art,” he says. “It smells and looks beautiful, and sometimes I just wish it could be admired. When I hand it over I think: ‘Your mouth is going to ruin my coffee’.”
Just wait until he starts talking about the £600 Savinelli machine he’s had installed at home.
“It’s better than a girlfriend,” coos the 25-year-old of Meadowhead. “It’s always there when you need it and it’s beautiful to look at and touch. Give me some beans on a Saturday night and I’m in heaven.”
His actual girlfriend, he assures us, understands the comparison.
For this is a passion which should stand him in good stead next month. Then, Anthony is set to compete in the UK Barista Championships. He is one of 120 bean-brewers from across the country hoping to be named the best in the land. His heat, in Newcastle on February 15, will see him pitted against 29 others for a place in a London final. He will have to make 12 cups in 15 minutes for judges who will rate on taste, smell and technical ability.
“I’ve been staying behind at work for two hours a day to practise,” says the former Meadowhead School pupil who does his stuff at Coffee Boutique in Causeway Head Road, Dore.
It won’t be the first time he’s competed – but he’s hoping to do rather better than when he made his debut last year. Then, the night before he was due to wow judges, his equipment was stolen from his hotel room.
“It was my worst nightmare,” he says. “I went out for dinner, got back, and my stuff had gone.
“I ended up having to use a mineral water bottle instead of a jug the next day. I won’t be staying in that hotel again.”
Reaching the final – to be held in April – would be the culmination of an obsession that started as a teenager.
“I was working at a hotel near Meadowhall when I was 18 and they had a machine installed,” he explains. “It was like ‘Bam’. I’ve loved coffee ever since.”
Not that he can drink too much. Ironically, Anthony suffers with lactose intolerance. Too much milk makes him unwell. “I’m an espresso man,” he notes.
After he left the hotel, he worked for a coffee chain before taking his present position back in 2011.
And now, that contest?
“I’m not a showboater,” he says. “But I wanted to pit myself against the best. I think I’ll be up there.”
Wake up and smell the coffee
Chose the right beans. Anthony will travel to Peterborough to pick the beans for his competition. “Getting the ingredients right is key,” he says.
Compress the coffee nice and tight. When the coffee meets the water, there should be resistance – “otherwise you end up with muck”.
Take your time. “When I worked for a chain you had to knock out hundreds of cups a day,” says Anthony. “You can’t make it nice that way. That’s why independent shops do the best coffee.”
Remember it doesn’t have to be drunk. “It sounds ridiculous but sometimes I’ll make coffee just to look at it and smell it,” admits Anthony.