Zambia's champion barista strives for the perfect mix of spicy and sweet

Syria Mwanza, Zambia's champion barista, hopes to win accolades for his signature drink, which includes red chiles, ginger, cinnamon, and chocolate.

Jens Nørgaard Larsen/Reuters
Mikkel Pilgaard Madsen of Denmark prepares a drink that includes rum, maple syrup, coffee, and lime juice at the World Barista Championship in Copenhagen June 19, 2008.

Who would have thought that a good cup of coffee could be a ticket to see the world? Certainly not Syria Mwanza, an unassuming, soft-spoken waiter at the Zebra Crossings Cafe in Zambia.

But since becoming Zambia’s barista champion, he’s gotten his passport, traveled on an airplane for the first time, and visited Mombasa, Kenya, and London – the former for the African Barista Championships and the latter for the World Barista Championships.

“Imagine! I never thought of it that one day I’d be on a plane, going to London, just for coffee,” says Mr. Mwanza, who has now won Zambia's national title two years in a row. “It’s like a dream come true.”

Next he’s headed to Arusha, Tanzania, in February for next year’s African contest. There he hopes to best his third-place finish from Kenya by “scooping first,” he said. His goals for the 2011 World Championships in Bogota, Colombia, in June, are more modest – top 20. Still, it would be a big step up from London, where he finished 49th out of 53 competitors.

His boss and Zebra Crossings Cafe owner Serena Ansley is rooting for him. “It’s a good goal, Syria,” she told him. “I’ll give you a good bonus if you come in top 20!”

I met Mwanza on a quiet afternoon in Lusaka when I landed at the cafe for its good Internet connection and, as I was soon to learn, great cups of joe. He took some time out to tell me about his coffee competition adventures.

At the national, regional, and world level, he explained, contestants make 12 drinks in 15 minutes – four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks. Judges evaluate the results on appearance and taste. The first competition, sponsored by the World Barista Championship organization, took place in 2000. Mwanza first competed for the Zambian title in 2008.

Mwanza obliged with an impressively thorough explanation of the qualities that go into a championship espresso. The perfect espresso color, he told me, is dark with hints of red, and its taste should be a complementary trio of sweetness, bitterness, and acidity. Cappuccinos shouldn’t be too milky and should never be heated beyond 65 degrees Celsius (149 degrees Fahrenheit).

Mwanza even offered to make me his signature drink, the one he’ll put to the test against the world’s best in the coming months. It’s called the “Diablo” for its mixture of spicy and sweet.

To create the Diablo, Mwanza first takes small, fiery red chilies known in this part of Africa as pili-pili. He throws a few thinly sliced pieces, about a teaspoon, into a saucepan. Then he adds another teaspoon of freshly shaved ginger and two whole cinnamon cloves. On top of that he drops a thick, gooey glop of his homemade chocolate sauce. Finally, Mwanza pours in farm-fresh cream and throws the whole pot on the stove. He doesn’t boil the mixture, but heats it just long enough, three minutes, so that the flavors combine.

While the chocolate, cream, and spice mixture cools slightly, Mwanza makes his espresso. That’s a 30-ml shot (about 1 ounce) done in 25 to 30 seconds. Any longer, Mwanza told me, and you’ll dilute the shot. Any shorter and it will be too bitter. He finishes the Diablo off by combining the espresso with the chocolate-cream mix and a dash of cinnamon on top.

To drink the Diablo, Mwanza instructed me (as he will the judges in Tanzania and Colombia) to first smell the cinnamon. After a couple twirls of his spoon he directed me to throw it back.

It was good – really good.

“In Africa, if he gets everything right, he has a very good chance of winning,” says Teija Lublinkhof, chairwoman of the Zambia Coffee Grower’s Association and a World Barista Champion certified judge, noting that the Diablo is a “great drink.” Lublinkhof, who also owns a coffee roasting company, said the Worlds will be tougher, hinging, she feels, on how well Mwanza explains his drink.

But Ansley, his cafe boss and an enthusiastic fan, didn’t seem worried. After joining our taste test and sipping Mwanza’s Diablo, she had just a few words: “It’s perfect.”

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