Coffee Conversation with WBC Coach Federico Bolanos

Federico has been working in specialty coffee since 2005, but we've only met in person in 2019. We struck up a conversation backstage at the World Barista Championships in Boston, where I was the competitor on behalf of The Netherlands. He was coaching the soon-to-be World Champion: Jooyeon Jeon from South- Korea, who's routine had blown me away. Federico has seen his fair share of competitions, he has coached an impressive line of competitors including 3 (!) WBC Champions - most recently the new crowned champion Diego Campos- as well as 2 WBC Finalists and 18 (!) national champions. So obviously I wanted to ask him some questions. A LOT of questions.

Tell me a little bit more about yourself, what do you do in your daily life when you're not coaching champions?

I have been in specialty coffee since 2005. For me it all started with one cup of coffee… a single tasty cup of coffee disrupted everything I knew about coffee… it was unbelievably delicious, it had no bitterness, it tasted a little citrusy and I will always remember the sweetness was so reminiscent of milk chocolate. This simple yet powerful experience blew me away and that is how I began getting interested in coffee, researching about it and eventually involving myself in the specialty coffee industry.

In my daily life, I manage my specialty coffee roasting company ALQUIMIA COFFEE (instagram: @alquimiacoffee), located in my hometown El Salvador. First thing I do every day as soon as I arrive at the roastery is brew my cup of coffee. I love the brewing coffee… I enjoy the ritual and enjoy the resulting beverage even more! Most of the time I’m doing QC by cupping production roasts for developing roast profiles for new coffees coming in. Another big part of what I do is training the baristas of my wholesale clients (cafes, restaurants, etc.).

How did you become such a successful competition coach? What was your journey like?

Back when I started learning about coffee brewing, I wanted to become the first barista champion of El Salvador, not a coach! hahaha! but destiny had as different plan for me. I trained myself and other 2 baristas of my cafe for the 1st national barista championship and they finished 1st and 2nd place and I finished 3rd. But the experience of competing taught me 2 things: 1) that I wasn’t very good at handling the pressure and nerves performing under the spotlight and the scrutiny of judges and 2) that I enjoyed more coaching others to perform and giving their best out there.

From that point on, I began coaching baristas from El Salvador and other countries for national and world championships. I have been coaching since 2008, and during this time I have trained 2 world barista champions, 2 world barista finalists, 5 world barista semifinalists, and 18 national barista champions from 7 countries.

Being a competition coach is a huge responsibility. Its is all about developing and unlocking someones’s maximum potential and helping them reach their goals. But a coach is not a magician or a miracle maker (at least not me!). I believe there is no substitute for hard work, passion, persistence, commitment and dedication. There are no shortcuts to success… and if there are, I’m not interested in them because I don’t believe in triumph without honor.

What does it take to win a huge coffee competition like the WBC, in your eyes?

It requires many things, but a very important thing is understanding that great achievements usually require a long process and a lot of focused efforts. Winning WBC is a almost a miracle. No one wins it by chance, it involves reaching a level talent, excellence and craftsmanship that only very few people are willing to attain because it demands a huge amount of time and effort. But a great barista is just an ingredient of the winning recipe, because no one wins by itself. Baristas that win WBC always have a a great team of people that have devoted time, provided resources, given all sorts of support and valuable advice. So, assembling a great team is paramount. Finding a phenomenal coffee is also obviously important as well, but not all great and rare coffees are ideal for earning high scores… some are too wild, exotic and unbalanced. The challenge is to find something extraordinary and uncommon but that provides a harmonious taste experience without overwhelming sensation spikes that dominate the cup. Finally, but not any less important, is the concept or theme of the presentation. Having a compelling, and forward thinking concept that gives depth, context and substance to the presentation is the final ingredient of a championship performance.

What does it take for a person to become a great coach?

A never ending quest of learning, and studying coffee is the path of a great coach. Experience is also paramount. Making a lot of mistakes and learning from each and everyone of them is also very important. Leadership. Guiding the way, inspiring and pushing forward as part of the team.

You must have seen a lot of competitions over the years. Can you tell what the most common mistake is that competitors make?

One of the most common mistakes I have seen is baristas not researching enough about the concept they are talking about during their presentation. This reflects in the depth of what they share and shows little knowledge of their craft. Another common mistake is choosing the wrong kind of coffee. Baristas too often and unnecessarily choose award winning auction coffees that are very expensive, but this is not always translates to high scores on the score sheets. The reason is that score sheets currently reward a balanced sensory experience, not a wild or exotic attributes that jump or dominate the cup.

What role do you think coffee competitions have in the specialty coffee industry?

Coffee competitions are a source of inspiration and a treasure chest of forward thinking ideas for the specialty coffee industry. Many competition baristas have shared concepts on stage that later have pushed the industry forward or improved coffee brewing around the world. Many equipment manufacturers have created innovations in their products based on the ideas and creativity brought by baristas at championships.

What is the hardest thing you have had to learn in your work as a coach?

The hardest thing is keeping cool and relaxed during the competition performance of a barista I’m coaching. Competitions are a game of precision, so this means that little things can make a big difference in the outcome. But despite how hard it is to feel calm, I absolutely enjoy the experience!…it is like a mixed feeling of nervousness and excitement at the same time!

If you could give aspiring competitors one piece of advice, what would it be?

Compete! Don’t be afraid to compete. Even world champions were beginner at some point. You will learn a lot about coffee and about yourself by competing.

Is you enjoy the adrenaline, the pressure, feelings and emotions of competing and discover that this is your thing and it develops into a passion or a dream to achieve, put all your heart into it and give your best, but dont get discouraged if things dont turn out like you wish… the road to the top is long and bumpy road, so stay focused, resilient and driven.

If you could go back in time 10 years, what would you say to your younger self?

Dreams do come true! I was relentlessly chasing a dream that seemed almost impossible, but never really prepared for the scenario of actually achieving it and when it actually happened I didn’t have a plan of what to do to capitalize it fully.

Find Federico online (also check out his FEDTalks on Instagram!) here: @federicobp

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