Most of us drink tea, or coffee, or both on the daily. Second to water and few other beverages, they extend far beyond just our daily fluid intake – they are part of our nature. To further explore these beverages – or ourselves – WO chats with Dmitriy Filimonov, Ukrainian winner of the 2017 Tea Masters Cup International in Hubei, China, and Slava Babych, Ukrainian winner of the 2018 Cezve/Ibrik World Championship in Dubai, UAE.
We meet the pair one Saturday morning at Come & Stay, a snug café in downtown Kyiv. Charismatic, vivacious Babych and refined, reticent Filimonov – the descriptions pair well with the brews they produce. The pair take us on a private gourmet tour.
What inspired you to pursue this career?
Filimonov: I grew up drinking black tea with my family. However, I developed a real passion for the drink after somebody treated me to a properly brewed Chinese tea. This changed my perception of what high quality tea was. About a year-and-a-half ago, Good Wine announced a vacancy for the tea department head. I applied though I had built a strong IT career at that time. Now I am a category manager for Good Wine, and my responsibility is to find, select and buy teas from various regions, including China, India, Japan, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Georgia.
Babych: I became a barista accidentally – a friend once asked me to replace him at the bar counter. At the time, I knew nothing about this business – vending machines served better coffee than I did. Cappuccino was my first order coming from – as I learnt later – Ukraine’s barista champion. She drank what I concocted and said, “Thank you for the espresso with milk but I ordered cappuccino; now I will teach you how to whip milk.” Now she is my wife.
What institutions prepare tea/coffee experts in Ukraine?
Filimonov: Unlike the job of barista, my occupation has not been clearly defined or named. You can use the British post-colonial term ‘tea-taster’ or the Chinese term ‘tea-master’ or the trendy word ‘tea-sommelier’. I am all these things. I think this profession will take shape in the near future, as fuss about oriental tea ceremonies fades away and people require a simple, pragmatic approach to teas, without legend or mysticism. For now, there are no tea schools in Ukraine. Some tea clubs attempt to provide tea classes, yet nobody teaches you to be well-versed in the tea technology process. I learn in practice when visiting plantations and trying multiple teas.
Babych: My wife first gave me some basic knowledge. Some years ago, I moved to the capital and studied the ways of a barista by myself, in hit-and-miss fashion. I even had to remember my high school chemistry and physics lessons. Now, I think, every big city in Ukraine has barista schools, there are at least five of them in Kyiv. However, there are no state-run institutions.
What are some easy tips for making the perfect cup of tea/coffee at home?
Filimonov: Of course, you should prepare a certain tea in a way that suits best its individual characteristics. Still, there are some easy universal tips for everybody. Put black tea in an already warm ceramic pot, pour in water heated to 90-95°C and let steep for three-four minutes. For green teas, the temperature should not exceed 80°C.
Babych: Forget about Robusta, it is bitter and contains a lot of caffeine. Take freshly roasted Arabica that can be found in any coffee shop or bar. Like good black tea, Arabica has a good taste, sweetness, acidity, and aftertaste. Use a mill or blender to grind coffee beans to powder. Pour hot water (95°C) over it and leave it for four minutes. It is an ideal cup of coffee for lazy people. There is a more advanced way: put coffee in a cezve, add cold water (25°C), place the cezve in a quartz sand-filled pan and cook it on low heat for four minutes.
What drink secured your victory at the Championship?
Filimonov: I won the Tea Preparation nomination and came third in the Tea Tasting category. My method is called ‘differential extraction’. I use the same tea leaves – First Flush Goomtee Estate Darjeeling – in three glass drippers placed on top of each other. I pour hot water in the top dripper, let it steep a bit, and it flows down to the middle and bottom drippers. Afterwards, I blended all three infusions in one cup to showcase a rich bouquet of various flavours, including a touch of astringency, reached at high temperatures, and fruity aromas, reached at lower temperatures.
Babych: For the Championship in Dubai, I chose Kenyan Arabica with tones of black currant, pomegranate sweetness, and low acidity. We prepared an exciting show where I acted as a coffee museum guide. I used ceramic tailor-made Ukrainian-style cups stacked on rotating stands with lighting. Apart from classic cezve coffee, I presented the beverage – Kenya’s Ruby. I filtered it through an aeropress and emphasised its taste with blackcurrant puree, an infusion of pomegranate, sugar, and vinegar, strong cigar bitter, coconut sugar, and five drops of orange water. I embellished it with an edible golden powder to create an effect of sparkling Sahara-like sand. I covered the cup with ‘a dome’ and told the jury if they wanted to drink it, they had to steal it like a precious gem from the museum. When they lifted the lid, the alarm unexpectedly rang. Our show impressed them all!
What kind of water is best for tea/coffee?
Filimonov: Water with high calcium concentrate does not let tea leaves express their full potential. Water is vital as it influences the efficiency of tea extraction.
Babych: Water high in magnesium is good for coffee and tea also.
How many cups of tea/coffee per day do you drink?
Filimonov: I drink two pots (0.5l) of black tea, one pot of green tea (in the morning) and one pot of some other tea, for example, pu-erh. In addition, I try numerous wet samples every day.
Babych: I drink black coffee only; my daily dose equals at least seven cups (three cups in the morning). I never drink cappuccino or something of the sort with hot milk, though, of course, I make all these drinks. I like coffee originated in Central America and I work with Ukrainian roasters who are very cool.
Dispel some myths about tea/coffee.
Filimonov: Among all teas, black tea is the most undervalued beverage. The thing is, good quality black teas do not reach Ukraine and we end up drinking very common CTC (crush, tear, and curl) or bagged teas. Consequently, black teas are associated with something bad, cheap and oxidised, whereas green teas are considered subtler and better. This is not true. Darjeeling black tea is my favourite due to its rich taste and full-bodied flavour. It comes from North India, a premium region in the country. I have also found fantastic black teas with a natural intense chocolate taste harvested from 300-400 year old wild tea trees in North Vietnam. Last year, I discovered Georgia as a producer of top wild black teas.
Many people think white teas are the lightest. On the contrary – like black teas, white teas undergo a process of further fermentation and oxidation. Thus, their taste can change as time goes by. In comparison – freshly picked green tea leaves are immediately treated with high heat to prevent fermentation. They are either wok-roasted – a Chinese school (teas with specific nut and spicy notes), or steamed – a Japanese approach (Sencha, Matcha, Gyokuro, Kabusecha teas with floral aromas).
Babych: People think coffee must be black, strong, and bitter. Arabica contains a lot of amino acids and vitamins. If it is bitter, it means it has lost all useful elements except caffeine after being roasted. Coffee should have a touch of acidity, bitterness, and sweetness.
The idea that you will have problems sleeping if you drink coffee after 18.00 is nonsense. It is self-programming.
People think a quality cup of coffee does not matter for cappuccino. This is wrong – coffee always counts. European cafés even feature two different machines, one for espresso, and one for cappuccino. By the way, milk may curdle if you use coffee with a high level of acidity.
What is the most original tea/coffee you have made so far?
Filimonov: Currently I am experimenting with Matcha teas in combination with alcohol, whiskey, or rum.
Babych: I was the first to make Capuorange in Ukraine – it is cappuccino based on fresh orange juice, without milk or sugar.
“The idea that you will have problems sleeping if you drink coffee after 18.00 is nonsense”
“Put black tea in an already warm ceramic pot, pour in water heated to 90-95°C and let steep for three-four minutes. For green teas, the temperature should not exceed 80°C”