Coffee Conversations - with Nicole Battefeld

Nicole and I met over our shared love for coffee competitions. This German powerhouse of a woman is Berlin bad ass on the outside, and a kind and gentle soul on the inside. She has competed in the German Barista Championships serveral times, winning them in '18. In 2019 she switched to Coffee in Good Spirits, in which she became national champion and finalist at the World Coffee in Good Spirits in the same year. Besides being addicted to competing like me, she also speak up about women in coffee. With her platform She's The Barista she wants to help women in the coffee industry empower each other. Total. Badass.

Tell us a bit about yourself; how did you get into coffee, and into competing?

My name is Nicole Battefeld and I am 32 years old. When I was 18, I graduated from school and before I went to study I decided to work for one year in an Espresso Bar in my hometown, Goerlitz; mainly to have a study break and to earn some money.

The shop I was working at wasn’t a specialty coffee shop, but I think we can all agree that that wasn’t really a thing 14 years ago anyway. We had a pretty good setup, including a La Marzocco GB 5 and two Mazza grinders with the classic dosing chamber. No one thought that it was important to weigh espresso and measuring TDS was never heard of at this time. Long story short, I loved it there. I loved producing a product and receiving immediate feedback. I was fast and clean and had fun with my coworkers. It was one of the best years of my life.

When the year ended, I moved to south Germany and started studying something really boring, including a lot of German laws…. I was miserable. There was no fun in what I was doing and only 8 months later I dropped out and went back to work in the Cafe again. Since then I wanted to become better in everything that has to do with customer service and hospitality, with food and drinks and I decided to become a chef.

After 2 1/2 years of apprenticeship and top marks I got a job in a French bistro that was owned and joined to a French Michelin star Restaurant in the middle of Berlin. Work was hard and the hours cruel, but I loved to define a dish and how many people work together to create something purely wonderful and delicious. How much thought goes into every dish and how incredibly long some ingredients take until they are ready and still, they are only one of maybe 30 components on a plate.

What killed me was that I wasn’t as good as the others. All the chefs I worked with had years of experience and worked only in star restaurants.

So again, I felt like a loser and after 1 year in the kitchen I wanted to go back to do coffee, the only thing I’ve ever done that made me truly happy.

I started at a small roastery and after a year of semi-professional roasting I applied at Roeststaette Berlin. Back then they were the most professional coffee shop, roasters and machine distributor I’d ever seen.

When I first started, I did a bit of everything. The dishes, the register … everything BUT coffee. It took me a really long time until the head barista at the time allowed me to work on the machine (keep in mind I already worked as a head barista one year just before I started there). So in 2016, I was slowly allowed to work behind the coffee machine. I really wanted to prove that not only could I do this job, but that I could do it well, - so, I said that I would compete in the German Barista championship. The most rational decision ever, right?!

I had no idea where to begin, so I started to watch every video I could. I read the rules, train, get (crushing) feedback, cry, train more, write the text, learn, repeat. It was so hard to hold up the facade that I thought I knew what I was doing … and then I competed and placed second. Since then, I have continued to compete in various competitions, develop my skills behind the coffee machine and in training, and have no plan to stop any time soon!

What is it you like about competing so much?

This year, 2020, has shown me how much I miss competing. I miss the feeling of total commitment, the adrenaline, the frustration, the growth, the tears, the laughter, the moment when you think you’ve solved your biggest problem in the world basically by putting the grinder on the other side of the machine. It’s infectious. The parts I love the most are the conventions, the people you meet and the barista parties. For me, competitions will always be the one thing in my life that has shown others and myself that I am worth something.

What is the best lesson you have learned from competing? And what was the hardest lesson?

The best lesson I would say is, that I have to be disciplined but also easy on myself. That I am incredibly creative when it comes to making a routine, it has made me a better host to my customers and a better teacher to my students. Competing has given me confidence and it has taught me how to think outside of the box. And it showed me how incredible people are. How much everyone helps and supports and even if it's just a phone call when you’re having a nervous breakdown because you can’t find the right spoons, my friends, bosses and my husband have always been there for me.

The hardest lesson was how to lose. For the past year, I was living in Australia but I still decided to compete in the German nationals. I had to fly across the globe with all my equipment, spend thousands of euros, train for months, get the best coffee I’ve ever tasted and then I just didn’t place anywhere near the place I would have thought I’d get. After the competition I cried for 3 days straight. I woke up with a crying fit and it felt like I’d lost my purpose in life.

I have learned that even competitions are just games. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes it doesn’t make sense, but you still can’t change it.

In general, what do you think is the most common mistake competitors make in coffee competitions?

Not reading the rules properly or focusing too much on a romantic story when actually, it’s about the coffee.

New competitors should be organised and not afraid of asking for sponsorships, this stuff is expensive and unless you’re rich, you should put your pride away and go out there and ask for support.

Your main expense should always be your coffee, not your cutlery.

And if you go to the nationals, I would always suggest to speak English as you will have to do that anyway once you’re going to the World Championship.. It shows that you have the ability to be an ambassador for your country on the world stage.

You’ve been building really hard on your platform ‘She's the Barista’. Where has this idea come from, and where do you want to see it go?

In 2019, I started a group called the ‘Female Barista Society’, with the central goal of advocating for gender equality in the specialty coffee industry. This group began with a few people meeting and talking about ways in which we can encourage and empower other women in the industry to not only have equal opportunities, but to take it upon themselves to feel worthy of such opportunities.

While I was in lockdown in Australia, I began communicating these messages through a podcast, which I called ‘She’s the Barista’. In this podcast, I have interviewed several renowned people in the specialty coffee industry, talking about their journeys, achievements and asking about the women who have influenced their lives and work.

No matter what, I think we should all be allowed to learn from and with great baristas. Building a strong, young generation of new baristas will help us to have confident, smart and capable and well trained professionals in the future - if we work together, perhaps we change the world and make it a better place, with more equal opportunities. I want to encourage and inspire people to see no difference in people, based on their sex or gender. We should all have equal opportunities and sometimes all you have to do is, tell that to others. My goal through ‘She’s the Barista’, the Female Barista Society and in my work in general is to share this message, and help both men and women find ways to make this industry more equal.

There aren’t a lot of female baristas competing, but that’s mainly because a lot of women don’t think they can do it. Let me tell you, we can do anything we want to! I will always support and push and motivate women that just need that confidence boost. We are all fabulous humans. Or as I like to say it: “you’re smart, you’re strong, you’re a Kelly Clarkson song”.

What differences do women face in competitions from men, according to you? And how do you deal with these differences yourself?

So far, I have never faced any different treatment in competitions. On stage and backstage, we are all even - we all freak out and we all want to do well. And that’s maybe an other point why I love competing - its a room full of people that are shitting their pants, regardless of sex and gender. At the end of the day, the scoresheet doesn’t have any sections that mention your sex or gender, so it shouldn’t matter.

Unfortunately, there have been other times at conventions and coffee events where my sex and gender did lead to me being treated differently, either as a commodity or as someone of less value. However, I always make sure that I stand up for myself and correct this behaviour - if we don’t say anything and try to influence this change, it won’t happen.

Who inspires you, and why?

There are so many people in the coffee industry that I look up to, and I am fortunate enough to call many of these people friends. I think that the two most influential coffee heroes to me are 2017 World Coffee in Good Spirits Champion, Martin Hudak and 2018 World Barista Champion, Agnieszka ‘Aga’ Rojewska.

Aga has shown me that giving up is not an option, and she is just the kindest and most beautiful soul. She always takes herself the time to chat with you, to compete more with that against you and I had the honour to have her on my podcast and it was the most amazing chat I’ve ever had. Thank you, Aga, for being an inspiration to me and so many other female baristas across the world.

Martin is…well, he’s not a normal human. He is a superhuman whose only purpose in life is to bring joy to the world. Every time I have visited him at his bar, Maybe Sammy, he provides the most fantastic and genuine experience. His energy is infectious and his charm and flair unreal. Thank you Martin for being a person that just makes this place we are all living in a better world.

If there is something you could change about the coffee industry, what would it be?

There are quite a few things that I think we can do better, but fortunately the coffee industry is all about reaching higher and looking to improve ourselves. If I could change one thing today, I would make it so that there were more women working in coffee machine companies and in leadership positions. Women have consistently shown to be incredible leaders and incredible workers - it’s about time we were recognised as such in the coffee industry.

And finally: if you could go back in time 10 years, what would you say to your younger self?

I would say “Nicole my dear, you should really start weighing out these doses.” I would also say, “Don’t take your 20’s too seriously … you will bloom in your 30s!”

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