Interview with Tim Wendelboe
The full interview with Norway’s infamous Tim Wendelboe
Hello, I’m Tim Wendelboe and I’m a Norwegian barista. I was world barista champion in 2004. I am owning a coffee shop in Oslo, Norway, where we also roast coffee, we import coffee. I also have a coffee farm in Colombia which is called Finca El Suelo and I’ve also written a couple of books on coffee in the past.
My career started in 1998 where I actually just finished high school. I was 19 years old and just needed a job and didn’t really know what to study and so on.
After searching for a job for a while, I got a job at a coffee bar chain that’s called Stockfleths that was located downtown in Oslo. I didn’t really drink coffee before that, but once I started working with good-tasting coffee, I started to appreciate its taste.
From there I started running one store and after that I also was running the whole chain which had, at that time, six stores. I was in charge of quality control and training baristas and so on. After winning the World Barista Championship in 2004, I decided to move on and quit Stockfleths and I opened my own store and roastery in 2007, so ten years ago we’ve been up and running.
Q: What drew you to coffee?
I think it kind of started more as a geeky thing. I really loved working with the espresso machine and trying different coffees. But now, it’s more because of the people and the variety if things that you can do in coffee. I can work in a coffee shop serving guests or I can do some roasting. I do quality control every Monday. I also travel to farms around the world to help farmers improve their product and so on. So for me, it’s been a crazy almost 20 years, but I never get tired of working at it. I always enjoy what I’m doing and it’s still fun, so I’ll probably continue doing this for a while.
Q: Tell Us About Norwegian Coffee
Coffee in Norway is all about filtered coffee, actually. It’s a very very long history and tradition for drinking filtered coffee in Norway and most of the commercial roasters are roasting quite light and also buying quite good quality of coffee.
I think that’s one of the reasons why coffee has been put on the coffee map around the world as being one of the countries that has great coffee because the smaller roasters who are competing against the big ones, they need to step up their game a little bit, since the big ones actually import quite good qualities. Most people drink coffee in the office and also at home.
Coffee is free always in the office and it’s the only drink that you ask people if they want if they come visit you. You always ask if you want a cup of coffee. So it’s a very, very social drink for us, but also a drink that we drink a lot because we are, I think, second place in the world that drinks the most per capita, so coffee’s a big thing in Norway.
Q: Tell us About Owning & Operating a Farm
The reason I started getting interested in owning my own farm is because I’ve been traveling a lot for the past ten years to visit farmers that I’ve been working with—the same farmers every year—and trying to improve their quality.
It was kind of a natural thing when I started roasting my own coffee, I early understood that it doesn’t really matter how much we do trials and errors and tests and try to improve our roasting technique if the ingredients aren’t good. So, if you start off with poor ingredients or old coffee or something, it doesn’t really matter what you do with the roast, the coffee is never going to taste good.
That’s why I started traveling more to origin, to help the farmers improve the quality and also develop the qualities that I want to drink and I want to buy. And that sort of led to me finally purchasing some land in Colombia. I bought it from a farmer that I’ve been working with since 2012, and the reason I did it was because I’m slowly starting to believe that there has to be a different way of growing coffee in order to improve the quality without using so much pesticides and fungicides and chemicals, because I don’t believe that’s very sustainable.
After I bought the land, I ended up taking some soil biology classes with Dr. Elaine Ingham and that’s the kind of techniques that I’m going to test out on the farm and try to prove to the world that we can grow better and more coffee by using no chemicals or mineral fertilizer….so, by only using compost, compostees, and extracts and so on.
So far, it’s not been a great success. I’m in the third year now of farming and I’m slowly realizing that I really need to be there a lot more in order to make this farm work well. So, the kind of transition period from bare soil that has not been touched to healthy soil with healthy coffee plants needs a lot of attention and, unfortunately, my time is limited at the moment.
I’m pretty sure I will make it work. It’s just a matter of time I hope.
I recently visited a couple of the farms that I work with (Hilva Tu in El Salvador, El Finca in Honduras, down south in Honduras). The reason why I go there every year is to discuss new ideas of stuff we can test on the farm and also taste new varieties that I’ve planted and so on. So we need to follow up every year to make sure that we develop that quality and direction that we want to do together.
Q: How does one prepare for Barista Championship?
It’s been a long time since I did it. I competed in 2004. That was my last time.
But, it’s a lot of preparation first of all. For me, it’s about finding a really good coffee and making that taste great with a good roast, and then you make sure your technique is so good that you don’t really have to think about it when you compete. So it’s all about practicing, practicing, practicing, practicing your 15 minute routine in the barista competition.
You also need to, of course, taste and create a signature drink and so on. And it’s all in the details, so every single detail that you’re going to do on stage needs to be thought through. Anything from the choice of milk to the choice of cups to the order you serve the drinks in, what you say, how you say it, when you say it, and so on. It takes a lot of practice. You need to have some good presentation skills for sure. But in the end it’s all about making sure the judges are having a great time and serving them a fantastic coffee. And that should be the focus, I think, for competing baristas. Not so much the concepts around the coffee itself, but just making sure that judges are having a fantastic time.
Q: How does one Learn to Taste Coffee
It’s not that difficult actually to learn how to taste anything. I would basically recommended that you start by buying two or three different coffees that are very different, not three different Kenyan coffees, maybe one Kenyan coffee, a Brazilian coffee, and maybe and Ethiopian coffee.
Then, you can brew them on a French press or a V60 or whatever side by side and taste them side by side. It’s much easier to taste or be able to describe flavors when you have something to compare to. It also helps to go to public cuppings on coffee shops or attend any cupping events and tasting coffee with the coffee professionals that are used to tasting coffees and discussing the coffees afterwards. At least, that helped me a lot when I started to learn how to cup taste coffee. Other than that, I just recommend tasting anything, whether it’s beer or wine or cheese or you know, and try to describe what you actually tasting. That’s been a real help for me at least.
Looking at what’s to come at La Marzocco Cafè
So the service we will be doing at the La Marzocco café in Seattle will be quite similar to what we’re doing in Norway. We tend to … we don’t do any food or anything in our café, so all the focus will be on the coffee itself. We will have two different espressos, one more sweet and less acidic coffee from Colombia, from Finca and then we will have Ethiopian washed Sidamo coffee from Hunkutu Cooperative. That’s more floral and quite bright and acidic and very citric.
We will also do only aeropressed coffees for the black coffee serving, and there will be a coffee menu so you can choose from different coffees. I think we will have four coffees on the menu that has very different taste. We will also have an aeropress tasting flight, so you can come with friends and buy a taste flight and you will be able to taste four coffees made on the aeropress and have a good explanation from the barista what to look for when you taste them and so on.
Of course we’ll do all the lattes and cappuccino drinks, but we will do them in the format that we actually do in Norway, so with whole milk only, organic whole milk, and served in small glasses, not in the huge buckets that you can find somewhere in the the U.S. So eight ounces is our largest size actually, and that’s our latte. And you might ask, why do you do the small sizes? Well, we want the milk drinks to actually taste coffee, so the less milk you have, the more coffee you’re going to taste.
Bi-weekly Video Blog
So, I just launched our new video blog as well that will be published on YouTube and also on our website, and the whole idea with it is that, we do get a lot of requests on the Instagram and Twitter of, whenever we post something, people want to know more. So, I kind of like watching short videos myself and had been thinking about this for a while, and also I do get a lot of request like, why can’t you film from the farm and so on. The first video we posted was an interview with a friend of mine, Diego, who helps me translate while I’m in Colombia and also helps me work on my farm in Colombia.
I did the interview last year, so the video was supposed to come out last year, but we published it now and in the next video we’ll be publishing some material from my recent visit to Kenya, where I was sourcing coffee. We will be posting a video from my farm in Colombia, where I have been working making compost. I’ll be posting videos from my trip here in Honduras, in El Salvador, and also here in Mexico, to show you how I’ve been working to select coffees for Noma.
And I’ll say in the future we’ll probably do some videos from our bar where we show you how we serve coffee. It can be from our roastery, it can be anything that’s related to coffee that I find interesting and that I want to share with people. So hopefully we’ll get some followers who will enjoy watching those videos.
Q: What would your career be if you weren’t in the coffee business?
Before I started in coffee, I always dreamt about being a chef. I really enjoy cooking. So I think maybe that would be a job that I could do. I though I wanted to do marketing, but I very early realized after going to marketing school for a year, realized that that was not for me. So I think being a chef, or even being a carpenter actually, because I really like to work with my hands and build stuff and fix stuff. So, maybe a carpenter making furniture, or cook in a good restaurant. That would probably be my top choices.