This Dubai Barista has been making a splash globally

Michaela Ruazol-Recera has been leaving quite a mark at the coffee competitions that test her brewing prowess

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By Anu Prabhakar

Published: Thu 3 Nov 2022, 7:41 PM

Last updated: Fri 4 Nov 2022, 3:54 PM

Michaela Ruazol-Recera works with the precision of a scientist and deftness of a magician. In the final round of the 2022 Cezve/Ibrik Championship which was held in Milan, Italy — clips from the championship are up on YouTube — judges watch her closely as she flits between stations to grind the coffee beans and brew coffee in an ibrik. She fills glass bottles with water and enormous syringes with strawberry and pineapple reductions before adding the meticulously measured fluids to the coffee with rock-steady hands. The championship requires competing baristas to serve ‘simple Cezve/Ibrik’ coffee and a ‘Signature Cezve/Ibrik’ coffee drink within 15 minutes, while also introducing and describing the drinks in detail. So while performing what Michaela calls her ‘barista dance’, she also talks about the coffee beans in her drinks (Geisha from Janson Estate in Panama and Mandela from Cafe Granja La Esperanza in Colombia), its ingredients and flavour profile, and her method to concoct them.

She adds dry ice to freshly brewed chamomile tea with a flourish and pours it into the signature drink. “On your first sip, you will get a warm, sweet and creamy mouthfeel… and the flavours of green grapes and passionfruit,” she announces to the judges. “On your second sip, you will get mango, papaya and high quality champagne, which is my favourite.” The third sip, she continues, will have the flavours of oolong tea and grapefruit. The accurate description seals her win. “If I am not mistaken, I am the first female barista to win the championship,” says the Dubai-based barista champion, when we chat later via Google Meet.

So far, Michaela has won the UAE National Barista Championship twice, in 2018 and 2021. She has also represented the country twice at the World Barista Championship (WBC) in 2021 and 2022 — in the former, she stormed into the semifinals and became the first competitor from the UAE to do so at the competition.

In pursuit of the best coffee

The 28-year-old prepares for championships with her team, which includes her husband and coach Lyndon who used to compete in championships before giving it up in 2018. “It’s an amazing, priceless feeling when someone you coach wins a championship,” he says.

Michaela, who came to Dubai from the Philippines in 2016 to work in a café, met Lyndon through mutual colleagues. “He introduced me to specialty coffee from Brazil, Kenya, Ethiopia, Panama, Colombia and I was really fascinated by its floral and fruity flavours. I used to drink normal coffee so I was surprised to see that coffee could taste so good,” she says. Initially, Lyndon taught her to make coffee using V60 filter and gradually encouraged her to compete in championships. “Michaela is super chilled out in competitions and forms an instant connection with the judges and audience through her routine,” Lyndon observes.

She started out by participating in ‘throwdowns’ and friendly competitions organised by the local barista community. “It boosted my confidence and luckily, Lyndon pushed me to compete in the 2018 UAE National Barista Championship, which I won. Now, I want to try judging competitions so that I can understand and analyse how judges score a routine. It will be an added advantage for me when I compete in competitions.”

The world of coffee competitions

Preparations for a championship can last for weeks or months and every single decision about the routine — right from the script, to the coffee beans and the special ingredients in the signature drink — is taken after trial and error and several rounds of discussions. “We get samples of specialty coffee beans from all over the world, extract espressos and taste it every day because as the beans age, they taste different. Once we even conducted a blind testing,” elaborates Lyndon, who works at the Dubai-based Gold Box Coffee Roasters. “But you shouldn’t pick the coffee that you love — you have to pick the coffee that’ll get you scores.”

Competitions like the WBC ask participants to prepare three types of drinks — an espresso, a milk beverage and signature beverage — in 15 minutes. Michaela likes her drinks to have a common link so at the championship last year, she added butter to her signature drink to help recall the flavours of her milk beverage. “I also like it for that residual buttery, silky taste and feel. Butter also retains and enhances the aroma of the drink,” she explains. “And at the Cezve/Ibrik Championship this year, I added strawberry and pineapple syrup to my signature drink because my espresso had those flavours too.”

Yet, in spite of having such foolproof systems in place, surprises can crop up. When Michaela and Lyndon went to Melbourne this year to compete at the WBC and practised their routine a couple of days before the competition, they discovered that the coffee did not taste nearly as great as it did back in Dubai. “The coffee was super dry and had high acidity,” says Lyndon, shaking his head. That’s when a barista’s skill is put to test, adds Michaela who also runs Typica Café in Dubai and Ras Al Khaimah. “I had to recalibrate the coffee, change the temperature and quantity of the water and change the grind size,” she says. “I roasted my coffee in Dubai and then travelled for 14 hours. Moreover, the climate in Melbourne was very different so all this could have had an impact on the coffee. In the final practice session an hour before we went on stage, the coffee tasted better than it did in Dubai.”

The right temperature can also help in making the perfect cup of coffee so keeping this in mind, Michaela says she has formulated her own ‘tasting protocol’. “When I served the espresso at the WBC this year, I told the judges that on their first sip, when the coffee is still hot, they will be able to taste cherry, brown sugar and cacao nibs. I asked them to evaluate the taste experience on the second sip. I wanted the coffee to cool down and the flavours to open up so I told them that I will be back for the third sip. And when I did, I told them that they will now get the flavours of pineapple and pink guava.” Clearly, it’s both an art and a science.

The duo are parents to a nine-month-old boy so apart from participating in the upcoming UAE National Cup Tasters Championship, they also plan to focus on their family and work. “There is no room for mistakes in a barista competition,” says Lyndon. “For me, the most stressful part of the competition is waiting for that first shot of espresso to flow out of the machine. If it flows well and is the perfect extraction, I feel relieved knowing that the coffee is going to be good.” Michaela nods, adding, “We don’t join competitions only to gain experience. We also want to win.”

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