Interview: Mike Ralph, A Shot in the Dark Champion 2023

Thursday, 23 March, 2023

An unexpected victor emerged in the A Shot in the Dark 2022 Championship! We caught up with Mike Ralph after he had time to process his victory...

What was your approach to the Final round, with both the cupping coffee and espresso blend.

As soon as I received the coffee I roasted a generic profile for each of the 3 coffees to get a baseline for cupping, I was familiar with the Tanzania from the 1st round so was happy with the profile but I decided to roast a little darker for the Espresso blend, I wanted a bit of “oomph” to the blend without taking anything away from the Rwanda Rugali. The Timor Leste I struggled with, it is an awesome coffee but compared to the Tanzania and Rwanda, it was my least favourite hence the least amount of coffee in the blend, still adding to the flavour but not taking away from the others. 

For the Rwanda Rugali I roasted as I would normally, then I changed the drum speed and air flow taken from Mike MacDonald’s feedback on the 1st round which made a significant increase in sweetness and acidity, Thanks Mike!
For the blend it was all about making copious amounts of Espressos blending different ratios of the 3 coffees, it was difficult but in the end, and with my time running out in SA, I went with my gut feeling with a ratio of 60% Rwanda Rugali, 25% Tanzania Kongoni Estate and 15% Timor Leste. 

You had to take a bit of a risk considering that you work abroad and that you knew your coffee would be submitted early, tell us about that!
I departed South African on the morning of 12th February 2023, and knowing the judging was taking place beginning of March had me worried, so I left the final roast till 9th February 2023 to be able to still cup on the 10th and roast again if needed. I was happy with the coffee, but on the day of the announcement I had messaged my wife about me worrying the coffee is stale.

How did you determine your espresso ratio?

The only people to have tasted the coffees prior to submitting was my wife, mother in law, father in law and myself. Nicola had to endure many coffee tastings, even if her personal taste did not enjoy the coffee her feedback was invaluable, when she tastes and says it's sleg (bad), means I have to try again until she says it's not too bad. I would also like to thank Winston Thomas for sharing his knowledge with us during a 5 day training course in 2022, he taught us so many things about getting the right ratios for espresso.

What do you do in Saudi Arabia?

I am working offshore in Saudi Arabia for an Oil Well drilling company in the Health, Safety and Environment Department, ensuring safety systems are in place, been adhered to etc., I am on a 28/28 day rotation, working at least 12 hours a day, so coffee is a necessity! The coffee culture is big in Saudi Arabia. My Saudi colleague owns a few coffee shops in town and when I have a few hours to kill in town, we enjoy visiting the roasteries around Al Khobar and tasting the various coffees on offer. In fact, I try to sample coffee where ever I go, both local and international. I usually order both an espresso and a milk based drink as I sit down. Since being in the coffee serving industry, I also try to sneak a look at their espresso machine. You can tell a lot about the coffee culture by how they treat their machine. Are they just pushing out caffeine or do they actually care about what they are serving.

When I’m not offshore and after a good sleep I am home spending time with my awesome family and roasting enough coffee to take back to Saudi to get me through the next 28 days. On the rig we are supplied a big brand dark roast coffee, sleg, so when I started taking my coffee to Saudi it would only last a week. Last hitch, I took 15kg of coffee, I had to send a separate bag by boat to the rig due to baggage restrictions on the Helicopters, most of this coffee was finished in the first couple of weeks, leaving behind the Shot In the Dark blend that nobody touched, which also had me worried. But it was just down to the crews enjoying the more “Coffee” Coffee flavours like Honduras, Colombia, Brazil, Eswatini etc, and anything slightly fruity was a no go. Good for me!

What were you doing when the broadcast of the Finals announcement was happening?
The 3rd of March was a Friday, which is a weekend in Saudi, so not much of a busy day but catching up on Admin and preparing for the next week. I had setup my phone 5 mins before scheduled broadcast to stream on instagram to play in the background while I’m working, at this stage still not convinced thinking my coffee is stale and hoping to at least stay in the top 7 and not loosing a position. The broadcast was delayed due to loadshedding in SA, it was a very long 30 minutes of refreshing to make sure I didn’t miss anything. The WiFi onboard is not good at the best of times, it is via satellite and signal is hit and miss, but this day was even worse with the video buffering, and it decided to buffer just as the 10th spot was announced, it started playing again from 9th spot. Not catching the 10th position I assumed it was me, especially as it started getting closer to the top 3! I had two colleagues also watching with in the office, I think they were just as nervous as I was! With all the buffering of the video, what I was watching was not live, just before the top 3 was announced Nicola sent me a whatsapp saying “No Way!”, this is also all I could say for a while after the winner was announced! The family was in a restaurant at the time and my sons proceeded to tell anyone that would listen that their dad won!. I am pleased to also serve as an example to my children. Passion, determination, listening to advice, hard work, self-belief, it all plays its own little part.

What are your plans going forward with roasting?
Unfortunately we closed down the roastery as a business at the beginning of 2023. With going back to work in Saudi and spending as much time as possible the family when I am home, I couldn’t give 100% to running the business, which it deserved. I trained Nicola on the roaster and she was roasting in my absence, and to be honest probably better than I can, but she also runs her own company plus homeschools our twin boys. We still do contract roasting as well as supplying existing customers and continue to hone our roasting skills. There is always that mission to roast the next coffee, experimenting with the next green bean, unlocking the magic it holds.
The goal remains to reopen a coffee roastery and you never know, I might be competing in the Shot in The Dark Middle East Edition soon!

Winning the Shot in the Dark 2022 is an insane achievement and I still can't believe it.

Scorpio Roastery was born from gut feelings and determination, in 2020 when lock down started and with no way to get back to Saudi, we had to come up with a plan. I ordered a roaster from Bideli on Alibaba, which was a risk in itself (Was the roaster going to be rubbish, will it break after a week, would it actually work?, there were many questions and doubts), the shipping from China to SA in lockdown was insane and cost more than the roaster itself! When I received a call from the shipping company saying my roaster was being delivered that day I had to scramble to find a forklift, which was unsuccessful, so we decided to wait till the truck arrived then make a plan. In my mind I had a picture of a flat bed truck with a big crate. Luckily we did not arrange a forklift as it arrived on the back of a Ford Bantam bakkie! (I was a little disappointed, what an anti-climax! But glad we hadn’t arranged a forklift! That would have been slightly embarrassing. With the help of Nicola and our body builder neighbour we lifted the roaster off the bakkie!

I have always enjoyed a good cup of coffee and dreamed of having my own roastery however this was all new to me, after many hours of YouTube and lots of less than delicious coffee (Good job coffee prices were still fairly low back then), we found a rhythm and all the doubt disappeared, this was real and we were roasting some good coffee! David Rosa very wisely advises that no matter the passion, it is most likely that in the coffee industry, your sales will be more or less 30% from freshly roasted coffee and 70% from serving hot beverages. This has led to an adventurous three years of mostly serving at events (the perfect venue remained elusive). Lots of early mornings and late nights. We also had some amazing friends who became involved, allowing us to serve lekker coffee at multiple locations at the same time. I will admit that it is tiring and together with my return to Saudi, added to the decision to downscale.

It goes to show that if you put your mind to something it is achievable, you don’t need top of the range equipment (Although I would still like to get my hands on a Genio) as long as you have passion for what you are doing and people around you that provide honest feedback, that is all you need!

I would like to thank Coffee Magazine for such an amazing event, all the sponsors for the coffee and goodies, the judges giving their time and expertise to the coffee community and Stevo Kühn for pulling the shots!  We had the honour of Stevo visiting our roastery when we were in Stellenbosch, it was our Barista’s Birthday that day (Siya), I told him he doesn’t have to be at the roastery on that day, but he said meeting Stevo and having a coffee with such a legend was the best Birthday gift ever! A role model for all Baristas, thank you Stevo!

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