Daniel Horbat interview

Tell us a little about your history in coffee? How did you get started?
My coffee career started 15 years ago when I started working in a restaurant where they used to serve coffees too. I worked as a barista in Romania, Greece and Ireland for different companies, from small independent cafés, to some of the very large players on the market.
It was a few years ago, that I’ve been introduced to the speciality coffee industry, when I found out about origins and how every bean is different in taste and aroma from one another, depending on numerous factors.
From that moment on, I became fascinated by coffee and its delicious complexity.
I went for my first competition, Latte Art, in 2015. Back then I didn’t even know how to properly hold a jug in my hands; none of all this knowledge about sensory and cupping either. But something must have had ignited inside of me, because year after year I was challenging myself to get better and better, to compete more and more.
When I discovered my love for sensory, I started training and went for my first Irish Cup Tasters Championship, which I won in 2016. For my first World Cup Tasters Championship, in Shanghai, I managed to place 22nd.

In 2017 I took a year off and then came back in 2018. I won again the Nationals, and represented Ireland in Brazil where I placed 12th. I could have done better, but I changed my mind on a few cups instead of going with my gut, my first choice.
2019 was my year! Once again I won Nationals, with a perfect score, every round 8/8 in a record time. This gave me the opportunity to represent Ireland again, this time in Berlin and after so much hard work and dedication I was fortunate enough to bring the trophy back home.

We have to know more about your prep routine. How did a normal practice run for the World Championships look like?
Not one training session was the same as the other. I didn’t just focus on one kind of practice, I played around until I got where I wanted to be. Let’s just say it’s been a long journey.
I tried to prepare myself in very challenging ways, every time I tried to come up with new types of recipes for my cupping session.
I played around with things like origins – from light to dark roast, defects, different types of blends, until I managed to achieve 7/8 or 8/8 in all my training sessions. I can’t reveal all my secrets, but let’s just say I trained for 5 months until my taste buds got comfortable with all types of coffee profiles

I know that some of them are probably not that common for the world stage, like defects, but I didn’t want anything to take me by surprise.

Your Cup Tasters routine seemed very well-practiced. How did you prepare for the competition and did all that practice help you from getting nervous on stage?
Diet was a key factor for me in preparing for the competition. I gave up everything that I thought would negatively influence my palate. Salt, spices, too strong flavoured foods, sweets, alcohol and smoking, they all had to go.
I know, it sounds awful and tough, but having the experience from the previous competitions I knew that this is an important factor in order to be successful, so I gave them all up.
Basically, I ate like a caveman for months. Chicken and prawns, rice and vegetables, fruits and nuts – flavours that you will naturally find in the coffee.
All that extensive training was the key to success. It gave me confidence in my tasting buds. So yes, all these various practices saved me from getting nervous on stage – the time I achieved during the finals is a reflection of the confidence I felt when I was tasting the bowls in front of me.

How were you feeling walking on stage for the Finalists announcement at World of Coffee? Did you have faith that your name was going to get called?
The beauty of the Cup Tasters Championship is that you don’t have to wait for the results, everything is happening in the moment, live, according to how many cups you missed or found correctly everybody knows who’s going further into the final.
When I lifted the last cup and realised that I qualified into the final – something that I never managed to do before – I just burst into tears. Such an unexpected reaction, but in that moment I knew that I could do it and it helped me stay focused and not get nervous the next day during the final.

It’s fair to say based on your reaction that you were surprised that you won. What did it feel like when you heard your name called and you realized that you were the new World Cup Tasting Champion of 2019?
The final was such a competitive one, the level was really high, and the other competitors were incredibly good. It was such a controversial round, like a race, going from third place to first place in only a few seconds.

The answer to who the winner is, depended on if there was a dot or not on that last cup. The adrenaline that was rushing through my body at that very moment was intense. It felt insane to be named the new world cup tasting champion.

Happiness, relief, gratitude are just a few things that I felt in that moment. Now I am more motivated than ever to take on new challenges!

Do you have any advice for those wanting to compete next year?
Just do it! It’s such a fun, unique and challenging competition like no other. Don’t overthink the cups and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. It’s all about you and your taste buds! And don’t forget about the diet. You can’t munch on chilis and then expect miracles.

If you could share a coffee with any person, living or dead, who would it be with?
There’s no other person in the world that I would like to share my coffee more than with my fiancée. Always and forever!

How did it feel to become a World Champion? Are there any people you want to thank?
It felt amazing, like a dream come true. A goal that I was aiming for so many years. Nothing beats the feeling you get when you are finally handed the trophy that you yearned for such a long time. And you know that all the sacrifices were not in vain. I was also relieved that it was over, that I can get back to my normal life, no more crazy diets and exhausting training sessions. As for the people that have been in this with me – they know who they are – I wouldn’t have made it without them and there’s no words to thank them enough.

Lastly, a few words of wisdom for the coffee community in Romania.
Hard work and motivation will get you there…eventually!
Don’t give up and believe in yourself. Yes, it’s not going to be easy, you might lose sometimes but don’t let this stop you from chasing your dreams!
You are all beautiful people and I am very proud to call myself a part of the Romanian coffee „family”.

Article by Ronița Dragomir
Photo: Kristaps Selpa for WCE
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