She's an artist and a bit of an alchemist - and she's the first to admit that she can't get enough of the dark, roasted stuff. Christine Allen chats with Brittany Cox, head barista at Down the Road Local Eatery and Deli in Whangarei, who has been placed sixth in a national barista champs.

Brittany Cox has been working as a barista for about 10 years but said her passion for coffee started to percolate five years ago and started steaming with passion since taking on her role with the new Whangarei team last November, when Down the Road opened.

She finished sixth out of nine national baristas to make it to the two-day finals of the Meadow Fresh New Zealand Barista Championships 2018 in Wellington on the weekend of April 17.

They had to present four espressos, four milk-based beverages, and four signature drinks for assessment.

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"There are some unique challenges when you're a barista. You have to really understand the technical elements and what's happening to the coffee at all stages of production, it's a bit like chemistry," she said.

"But I also really enjoy latte art and the creativity that it brings.

"In terms of industry, you will be hard-pressed to find people as passionate as coffee geeks. We can talk for hours, we love sharing new ideas and including newbies in everything interesting that's going on."

She said the industry has been moving at lightning pace.

"There are always new trends, techniques, better equipment, methods, developments and so on. It can be really hard to keep up. The way coffee is prepared now is completely different to 10 years ago and you have to adapt quickly."

Cox admits she gets a kick from watching customers take a sneaky photo of the latte art.

"I've also developed some fantastic relationships with people. I've had regulars who have brought their newborns in to meet me on the way home from the hospital. I get to interact with people from all walks of life on a daily basis and that's really special."

Northlanders and coffee
What makes a good coffee?

"That's tricky because taste is subjective. If you like it - it's good. I would also add that a coffee always tastes better when you slow down to really enjoy it.

"Northlanders have a love affair with coffee. People are also paying more attention to their coffee. Over the last two years I have seen a trend with people going from a standard latte with two sugars to a piccolo, or a macchiato. This tells me we are getting more discerning about flavour."

She said the recent championships have pushed her out of her comfort zone.

She started by deciding which coffee she would work with.

"I contacted MAX coffee roasters in Kerikeri in January and they sent me something that they thought was pretty special … a gorgeous FTO Honduras that surprised me with how clean the flavours were."

Then she started tasting and recording everything, such as how it tastes like an espresso, how the flavours change when you add milk, the ideal ratio of coffee to water, grams in versus grams out.

"This is all vital for the judges to know because they don't score you on taste preferences or if they personally like the coffee. It's about nailing the profile of the coffee."

From there, she needed to figure out a signature beverage.

"You also need to understand how your coffee got to you - roasting methods, farming practices, processing and harvesting. Once on stage you need to communicate as much about your coffee as possible, so your judges know what to look for."

She said judges watched for everything from taste, how she handled the equipment, as well as consistency, accuracy and hygiene. All of this in a 15-minute stage time.

Cox said she was stoked to be placed so highly on the national level and to promote Northland.

"A huge thank you to my supporters, there are far too many to name individually but their time, skills, encouragement and dedication to helping me has been humbling."