With the US Barista Championship Qualifying Event quickly approaching here in Kansas City, you may find yourself packing bags and boxes with competition wares in mind. During my competition career I found myself packing boxes full of comp gear for cross country and international flights over 10 times, and I believe I have some valuable insight for you.
The following tips are useful whether you are driving across the country or flying around the world:
1 - Pack boxes tightly
If you have ever received a fragile package that was shipped across the country (or world), you have probably dug through a whole lot of bubble wrap, packing peanuts, or custom shaped styrofoam. The fight to protect valuables through the shipping process is a true struggle, and knowing the amount of love and care given to your possessions by package handlers can help you understand how to plan your packing...
You may not have access to custom molded styrofoam, but bubble wrap and packing peanuts can be a real life-saver (smallware-saver?) when packing your gear. Always wrap ceramic mugs separately, and saucers with a paper layer between. I like to stack the saucers and then wrap the whole set in bubble wrap, making sure they are taped tightly so that nothing has a chance to move. The same can be said for your box. Make sure there is no excess space so that your items cannot shift during shipment. I prefer heavy cardboard boxes, as they are relatively cheap and have the flexibility to be over-stuffed a bit which makes the inside contents snugly stuck where they are. For many types of glassware, using a wine box (the type with separators between each bottle slot) is a great option to prevent breakage. You still need to pack the contents nice and tight no matter what type of box you use though.
It is always a good idea to layer padding on the exterior of the box so that it will take the brunt of impacts. Keep in mind that you will not be able to fit as much stuff into each box, as you will be filling a lot of that space. Whether you are going to ship boxes with a delivery service like DHL or check on a plane, the final test is to simply pick it up and drop it on a hard surface (or basically throw it against a wall). If you are confident your equipment can survive that then you should feel relatively safe that everything will survive the journey.
Another thing to consider is when to pack wares, and when to hand carry them on a plane. Highly breakable items can be wrapped relatively lightly in paper and carried in a small carry-on sized bag. Overhead bins are often at a premium, and I have witnessed other passengers jam their items with no regard for others' property, so always take care that your bag won't get crushed. Keeping a bag of fragile glass under the seat in front of me has been the best way to ensure a safe arrival. Call me paranoid, but it works.
If you decide to hand carry fragile items on a plane, keep in mind that smaller city destinations like, say, Kansas City, tend to use very small regional jets. If your bag is too big to fit on these tiny planes you may be forced to check it at the gate, which is typically not the safest thing for a bag full of fragile glass. Using a smaller bag with flexible material helps ensure that you can keep your items safe. Oh, and don't willingly take a bulkhead seat on those planes either if space is a concern!
2 - Consider your ingredients
If you are competing in the barista competition, chances are that you will need at least a few ingredients when you arrive. Will you have good milk? If you practiced your new "milk drink" with a specific extraction and a specific volume, will your drink taste the same with a different milk? If you are using some fresh produce for your sig drink, will the same quality/freshness/varietal be available where you are going?
There are tons of options inside the US to get great milk, whether it is a local small dairy or bringing your milk from home. There are plenty of logistics involved with bringing your home milk on a plane, so make sure you can pack liquids or have it shipped. We once shipped a cooler of our local milk next day air to an event, and needless to say we had the most expensive milk in the country that year. Of course if you are driving to your destination things will be much easier. All you have to do is ensure the temperature is appropriate so your dairy doesn't spoil or freeze.
Produce can be an extremely difficult detail to cover remotely, as everyone has very different expectations. If you have a reasonably shelf stable fruit/vegetable you can potentially buy extra at home and bring it with you just in case you can't find the right quality at your destination. If you are traveling internationally things will be much more difficult, as customs may forbid bringing in fresh produce. In either case, having a trusted friend living in your destination city can certainly help you find what you need as quickly and painlessly as possible.
3 - Create an inventory
I am a huge fan of checklists for backstage at competitions. They help organize your mind and double check all of your wares so that you know for certain that everything is in its place. Nothing is worse than starting your presentation and realizing you forgot your grinds towel. Checklists also come in really handy for another reason.
Before you even start packing all of those smallwares into boxes, you should have your checklist handy to double check that you have indeed packed all of your items. As you are packing boxes, simply notate which box (give them numbers or names or something) each item(s) went into. This way after you have finished packing your boxes, you can create a list of all of the items that went into each box. Why is this useful? Because you can then account for each item as you unpack at your destination and know when/if you need to dig through more packing peanuts for that one lost item.
Inventory lists can be extremely useful for another reason, which brings us to our next tip...
4 - Plan your return
Unfortunately, packing for barista competitions is not finished when we arrive at the destination. If you have any sentimental attachment to your smallwares, or at least don't want to throw away a pile of cash, you are probably going to be bringing most of that stuff home. When you packed your items you hopefully packed in a way to minimize breakage, so why send it back as a disorganized mess? By keeping inventory of what items were packed into which box, you can then repack for the return trip without too much extra effort. Note: Keep your packing materials in each box as well so you don't have to worry about finding it later.
This inventory is also very useful if you are sending boxes via a package carrier or if you have a concern about going over weight checking them on a plane. I would often pre-print return shipping labels using the outbound weight, so all I had to do was repack the same items in the same boxes, tape them up, and drop them off at the local FedEx. Sometimes a corporate account will simply adjust your price based on weight changes when it ships, but it is good to know how much you are spending on shipping before hand.
Lastly, keep in mind that you don't always need to bring every item back with you. I would often buy fancy wares for the stage, but super cheap items for prep work behind the scenes. That $3 box of weird glass bowls that I used to stage ingredients in often wouldn't make it back to my home because it was a pain to pack. Of course you should consider the value of items, and if there is a chance you may want to use them again it is a pretty good idea to just bring them home. The amount of money spent on competition smallwares is a real concern for most of us, so don't waste money when you don't need to.
5 - Give your coffee a fighting chance
Something that is often overlooked by competitive baristas is the environment conditions of their coffee while traveling. Flying on a plane is one of the most detrimental things a beautiful coffee can experience. Many of you may already have put thought into the aging of your coffee for ideal brewing, but if it isn't protected during travel it might just be stale anyway.
First of all, let me just say it. Put your coffee in a heat sealed bag with a one-way valve. Craft bags are really cool and totally inexpensive, but they do not protect your coffee in any way whatsoever.
Ok, maybe from sunlight.
When flying, the air is extremely dry and the pressure is quite tough on your beans. The one-way valve is your first defense. Ideally it would be nice to use a bag with no valve since the interior gasses would be preserved in a completely sealed environment. Sadly if you are flying with 10-30lb of coffee you likely don't have space for the bags to turn into giant balloons, since the air expands in that sealed environment during flight. If you have ever taken a half-full bottle of water on a plane you may have seen this action. The bottle swells during ascent, and if you open it at elevation (or a one-way valve releases the air), it scrunches up on descent. This is why your bags of coffee tend to look like they were vacuum sealed after you fly with them. Just so you know, if your bag didn't scrunch up after a flight then either your bag wasn't fully sealed, the one-way valve failed, or your coffee had no gas when you packed it. None of these scenarios is a good sign.
So what do you do to protect the coffee better??? Unfortunately this is always a problem. Potentially, large sealed mylar bags with no valve can be placed on the exterior of your normal bag, but the gas will still escape your valve bag into the larger one. You can attempt to place a small amount (1kg/2lb) into a very large bag with no valve so that there is plenty of room for gas to expand and contract. Or you can just trust the one-way valve bag and do what everyone has been doing for years. In some cases, especially WBC, people will fly with their green coffee and roast early at their destination. This of course has the potential to be the best case scenario, but it could also backfire if you are not able to adapt to the roasting machine you are borrowing.
One final note about coffee transportation. After flying, I have very commonly found that the coffee will still taste at its peak for a competition when you open the bag, but the quality level quickly drops after a day. It is still tasty coffee, but since you want the absolute best you can get for competitions it is important to note that the flavor will likely be its best for only a very short time. So try opening one bag at a time, and keep some sealed if you are in a multi round competition such as USBC or WBC.
6 - Scout out your destination
Unless you are very familiar with your destination it is a wise idea to know as much as you can in advance. Chances are that you will need to pick up at least a couple of items before your competition, and nothing is worse than scrambling at the last minute to find something you thought would be available anywhere. If you always buy items from a specific store, check to see if that store is also at your destination just in case you need to buy replacement items. In addition, if you have a specific store and product in mind you may be able to purchase that item at your destination rather than packing it to take with you (this of course depends on if you need to practice with said item).
In the past I have always scouted the location and driving time to specialty grocery stores, dairies, smallware stores (like Crate and Barrel), the competition venue, big box stores, shipping locations (FedEx), and even restaurants. When you know your area in advance it helps remove the stress of trying to find what is around at the last minute, as well as letting you know what options are and are not available from the start. My planning usually involved a list of places and what we needed to buy from each so that most of the running around was taken care of right away.
Sometimes a local company will provide lists for your convenience upon arriving, but this has been inconsistent. If you have a friend or two in your destination city, you should see if they can be available to help out. Locals always tend to know how to get around, and might just know about a small locally owned store that you might never find otherwise.
One last thing I recommend is to buy light and healthy snacks while you are visiting grocery stores. You aren't at home, and often we get so focused on the details of competition that we forget to eat properly. You might not think it's a problem until later, but you will feel terrible if you drink tons of coffee with no food. So grab enough to keep your body going on the road. Things like coconut water, bananas, yogurt, dried fruit, and nuts can be life savers.
If you prepare for your upcoming trip properly, you can ensure that you will be physically and mentally focused for competitions on the road. There will always be uncertainties when you are away from home, but the more you know can be remedied easily the more comfortable you will be. Also remember that the barista community is full of great people who are happy to help you out when they can, so just ask for help if you need it! Hopefully these tips will get you on your way safely and effectively. If you are interested in more advice to prepare for competitions, check out my previous blog post with 4 competition tips for success.
See a lot of you soon in KC, or elsewhere in the world!