Ask The Expert: Three-time South African Barista Champion Ishan Natalie

Tori Taylor
October 14, 2021
ishan natalie ask the expert

Over the last few weeks, we’ve been asking readers to put their coffee-related questions to three-time national barista champion and operations lead at Starbucks South Africa, Ishan Natalie.

As an MTPak Brand Ambassador, Ishan provides regular insight for our Education Centre on everything from barista championships to the latest coffee sector trends.

Here, he answers all your questions, including how he prepares for competitions, what it’s like working for Starbucks, and what essential skills all baristas should have.

Ishan’s coffee journey began 20 years ago

Who am I?

I started my coffee journey in 2001 while I was studying accounting at university. In between studies, I didn’t want to go back to work at the family business, so my mum found me a job as a waiter/barista at a coffee shop near my home.

One of the founders, who was from Seattle, had worked between being a stock exchange trader and a Starbucks barista before opening his own café in South Africa. Up to that point, I’d never experienced coffee the way he did it – just the dedication to quality, the craft, and the passion behind each cup. I was intrigued and my passion continuously grew from there. 

In the end, I fell so in love with coffee and saw such great potential in it that I decided to leave my studies in the third year to pursue a profession in coffee – without really knowing what that looked like.

It has led to immense success in my life and a career filled with passion and community. I’ve won three South African Barista Championships, two All African Championships, and I’ve represented my country at an international level. In 2012, I also won the first Aeropress Championship in South Africa.

For six years, I’ve worked for Starbucks, while also managing and coaching many baristas, including the current Starbucks EMEA barista champion.

It’s been an awesome journey and career, and such a privilege to be in this industry.

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Being a barista is about much more than making coffee

What are the key attributes for baristas?

I think the fundamentals for baristas would be pride, passion, dedication to craft, and an obsession with quality and customer connection. I feel like they’re the most important things that will make an all-round barista who can deliver to every standard asked of them.

Being a barista is not just about making a cup of coffee. If you think about it, by making a cup of coffee, you make someone’s day. You don’t know what people are dealing with on a daily basis, so that cup of coffee is not just a cup of coffee, it’s an experience.

Therefore, a barista shouldn’t be someone who just makes the coffee and keeps their head down. To be a good barista you need to have social skills, be able to read people’s emotions and mannerisms, and engage with them in a natural, free-flowing way.

Ishan initially turned down the opportunity to work for Starbucks

How would you describe your experience working for Starbucks?

It’s been a really humbling experience. I was approached by Starbucks six years ago because they wanted to open the brand in South Africa. They’d heard about me in the industry and were keen for me to lead operations.

I originally turned it down. But I was approached again and, this time, someone flew all the way from London to sit with me and give me a bit more information about the company and what they stood for.

“Someone flew all the way from London to sit with me.”

That really intrigued me and, after about three weeks, I decided to join. I’d been part of TriBeCa Coffee for 16 years and had helped build it up. But the biggest coffee company in the world had approached me and I knew it would give me opportunities abroad.

I was very privileged to go to London for my first few months to train in Starbucks stores and their support centre. When I was there, I remember I was sitting down in the pause area and I got to see that it’s not just smoke and mirrors: the employers are called partners and the president of Starbucks EMEA was sitting on the same floor with everyone else. It was a great sense of community and I got to see the mission statement actually being lived.

I’ve also had the opportunity to learn about the work Starbucks does with coffee farmers behind the scenes. I was lucky enough to go on an origin trip with the Starbucks team to coffee farms in Rwanda to see first hand the impact we make on communities and the farmers within them.

I’ve lived it everyday for six years and it’s been fascinating. I’m a Starbucks fan for life.

Ishan has won three South African Barista Championships

Do you have any tips for someone who wants to compete in a barista championship?

The best thing to do is really study the scoresheets.

Sometimes we get carried away with the elaborate coffees and presentations, but we don’t look at how it fits within the scoresheet. You might have a great idea, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into points when it comes to the competition.

“My biggest wins were focused a lot on the technical side.”

So, whenever I train anyone for barista championships, I always tell them to focus on scoresheets first to understand what the judges will be looking at. Then we work on how to put their ideas – along with the coffee and the concept – in line with the scoresheet.

My biggest wins were also focused a lot on the technical side, and then layering great coffee and a story over the top.

If you have great technique and great coffee, then building a concept over it will make for a brilliant 15-minute presentation.

AeroPress launched their first championship in South Africa in 2012

How did you prepare for the AeroPress championships the year you won?

It was our first ever championship and it was just a last minute thing that we threw together. I was training to be a head judge at the national barista championships and AeroPress had decided to host a competition.

They opened it up to everyone, including consumers, baristas, and judges. They said: We’re going to give you a random coffee and an AeroPress on stage, and you just need to brew us the best AeroPress coffee you can.

During the prep times, I was just having fun – I think that’s what made the difference. There was no real pressure to win. I came up with this weird recipe on stage. It was an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, and it tasted like jasmine and green tea.

Two out of the three judges selected my coffee. One judge didn’t because they felt coffee shouldn’t taste like tea! That profile was very unique and it brought through the beautiful floral essence of the Yirgacheffe.

Packaging must capture the attention of consumers, says Ishan

What does the perfect coffee packaging look like?

The number-one rule in retail is to capture the attention of customers. The look and feel of a bag is important and how it’s positioned in a retail space.

So packaging has to be exceptional quality to preserve the freshness, but also to generate excitement and sales it has to look great. The design and quality of the bag are crucial.

For information about our sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

Photo credits: Ishan Natalie

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Tori Taylor
Tori Taylor

Victoria is a highly experienced content creator, writer, and editor based out of South Africa. With the experience gained by working in newsrooms and writing for lifestyle magazines, she is now focussed on creating insightful and relatable content for the specialty coffee community.

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