A Story of Hope: Ukranian Barista Champion Ruslan Demonenko wins hearts of the coffee world

Friday, 7 July, 2023

Words by Katie Burnett

Team images by Katie Burnett

Stage Images provided by SCA/World Coffee Events

“My name is Ruslan. I am 18 years old and just finished school. The last few months have been crazy. Coming from Ukraine to take part in this competition wasn’t easy at all.”

Ruslan Demonenko stepped up to the World Barista Championship stage with a story only he could tell. For more than 17 months now, the world’s eyes have been on the Russo-Ukrainian War. On the 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in an escalation of a war that began in 2014. 

The Ukraine has deep cultural and political ties to Russia, being a former Soviet Republic. As Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, the final pillar of the Soviet Union fell and the Ukraine began her long fight for her identity. Many Ukrainians moved towards forging alliances with Western institutions such as NATO and the EU, while some remained fiercely devoted to Russia. This left a country divided, and vulnerable to the family ties that Russia has been pulling on since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

So begins Ruslan’s story. Ruslan and his brother Vladyslav (Vlad) Demonenko (2023 Ukrainian Brewer’s Cup Champion) were coached by Nicole Battefeld-Montgomery and Jordan Montgomery. Nicole ran video call training sessions with Ruslan in Dnipro and coached Vlad, now a Berliner, in person. As we sat waiting for Ruslan to begin his first-round set, Nicole relayed stories training sessions interrupted by threats of bombing and time spent in bunkers. She told us about the air raid sirens that became the background noise to their meetings and how she would often leave these sessions with overwhelming desperation for her friend and colleague. 

Ruslan stepped onto the WBC stage in Athens, Greece and began to prepare his station. Laying out glasses, place mats, printed display boxes and dialling in his coffee for the last time. We had been to dinner with Nicole the previous night and heard the saga that she, Ruslan and Vlad had been through trying to get their hands on the coffee they had propositioned for the world stage. Nicole had tasted a coffee a few months before that she knew would stand up at the competition. After weeks of back and forth with the producer, communication with three different roasters and a one-day trip in and out of London to try and get their hands on more of this coffee, the team found themselves two days away from calling “time” and coffee-less. 

Back at Jordan and Nicole’s AirBnB we were met with a very calm Vlad, tasting through dozens of samples and coffee options. It was difficult to imagine that he was also taking to the stage the next day in the World Brewers Cup Championship as the Ukrainian representative. As the clock ticked down to his time on the World Brewer’s Cup stage, all he could think about was setting his brother up for success. He spent the evening talking about espresso and milk and left to get some sleep before an early start the next day.

Ruslan’s setup time was up and he began his set. Ukrainian-flag-draped spectators lean against the stage barrier and Ruslan served his espresso course. As he went to dose his next espressos for his signature drink, the dose-by-time feature on his grinder malfunctioned and didn’t stop grinding. Ruslan immediately called for a technical time out and his brother Vlad joined him on stage as the equipment technicians flock forward to assist. Ruslan doesn’t speak a lot of English, so Vlad played translator with the technical team. After almost 50 minutes of intermittent debate, it was agreed that Ruslan could start his set again with a new grinder. 

As the technical team worked to get Ruslan back on stage, I couldn’t help but notice the exceptional calm and understanding the brothers were showcasing. Ruslan, seemingly unrattled, continued to smile with the judges and make jokes with the crowd. Vlad fielded the technical problems with grace and patience. After the work he and Nicole had put into getting Ruslan to this point, I was impressed by his calm demeanor. I asked Jordan next to me, who had worked with Vlad for a few months, whether Vlad is a particularly relaxed person. Jordan answered that through what the brothers have gone through, a perseverance and resilience forms. In his daily life, Vlad is reserved and level. The emotional desolation of the war has forged a resilience that becomes difficult to put into words. It felt like the brothers were standing on stage and exhibiting exactly that.

It is important here, to remember the coffee-choosing situation from the evening before. As Nicole and Vlad pored over a coffee for Ruslan to use on stage, they built a blend of two coffees that they had a very limited amount of. This coffee had a distinct forest honey flavour. Honey melon, passion fruit and orange blossom in the espresso and a medium long aftertaste which was heavier on the orange blossom and passion fruit. World-class and delicious. The next challenge was making sure he had enough coffee to finish his second attempt after the grinder devoured half of his hopper. 

The crowd around the stage was building steadily, and the support for the young Ukrainian champ seemed to increase with every minute spent fixing the equipment. He plunged into his set again only for the grinder to malfunction once again. The disbelief in the room was audible. At this point, concern for Ruslan forgetting his set was growing. In barista competitions, the barista must present a 15-minute presentation where they speak about the coffee, what it means to them and what it means to the world. At the best of times, the pressure of the world stage can rattle the most competent presenters. Ruslan had learnt his set verbatim and had been shepherded around the English words for the past few months. With multiple interruptions and distractions, none of Ruslan’s coaching team knew how the 3rd attempt on the 4th grinder would go.

Now, Ruslan had barely any coffee left and a storyline that had been watered down by two extended interruptions. Yet, Ruslan was the only person in that room that could tell the story he was about to tell. Coffee and the people in it had brought him to this moment in a way that no other competitor could relate to. Every barista that comes to World Barista Championships has a story worth telling, but Ruslan came prepared with a story that would capture the hearts of the crowd in a way that was fundamentally human. Here was a young man from a tormented country, standing in front of us and telling us how important the industry that we love is. A story like Ruslan’s doesn’t need the pithy punch of a perfectly planned 15 minutes on stage, it is one that is timeless and incomparably touching.

One hour after he took his first step up to his machine, his time starting ticking again. “I would like to remind you what is important in a difficult time like now. Be brave. Be honest. Be free. Be united”. 

Later that afternoon, Ruslan was chosen as one of the top 16 baristas in the world! He made it to the semi-finals and was set to present again the next day. He became the best-placed Ukrainian barista of all time and would ultimately be placed 14th at the World Barista Championships 2023. 

You can watch his moving set here and hear Nicole cheering in the background :)

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