The professional barista role needs to be defined, and in my example I will call it the Varista
The fight for better barista wages is a tough one. The solution requires redefining our positions in the cafe.
Welcome to day 16 of 30. Today I am on flights to Tokyo for the SCAJ show and a special store opening for Maruyama Coffee. We have had a few US barista competition preliminaries already this year, and while I am in Japan we will have another this coming weekend. It seems like there have been a lot of changes, some of which might be because of my previous blog post about how competitions need a refresh.
So in the spirit of competitive coffee events, and since I already talked about latte art throwdowns the other day, I would like to explore some alternative coffee competition ideas I have had rolling around in my head for a while.
Currently we have all manner of official competitions that cover various skills, such as latte art, manual filter brewing, roasting, triangulation cupping, coffee and alcohol, and overall barista skills. I don't think we have a problem covering a variety of skills with competitive events, but rather that the specific tests of skill are becoming stagnant. This is partially because of rule changes over time as well as an unwillingness to make truly big changes to the formats. There need to be major changes in some of these because they really weren't perfect when they were conceived (as few things rarely are).
But I digress. This post isn't about what is wrong with competitions (I've already put my thoughts on barista competition out there), and the implementation of the "preliminary" competitions we can see that the SCA is trying to implement some new concepts in the form of a compulsory coffee skills round. While this initial version may not be perfect since it is not connected to the actual qualifier, national, and world events, it is a great start and essentially a proof of concept that could get adopted with future rule changes.
So let's talk alternative ideas. I personally think that the more types of competition we have the better for baristas of all interests and skill specializations.
My first idea is something that can reproduce an active cafe environment in action. This would require a small team of staff to compete and serve specific set drinks. We saw this concept implemented in the form of "America's Best Coffeehouse" competition a few years ago. I was a part of getting that one going with Chris Deferio and Jesse Harriot, and let me tell you, it really showcased teamwork and real barista skills in action. A few things I would change would be streamlining prep and cleaning time, standardizing the drink requirements for a fair competition format, and make it more about creating the correct drinks properly in the time allowed. There would have to be a taste panel to evaluate one of each type of drink, but there could be so much room for innovation and creative service. Think of this one as a combination of speed drills and active service, with a tasting expectation to boot.
The next idea, speaking of speed drills, would be exactly that. We see these in bartending competitions all the time and I always wonder why we don't have them in coffee. This would consist of a barista in a small bar setup, perhaps a few simultaneously, with a predetermined list of drinks and a set amount of time. You could implement penalty points for spills or incorrect drinks served, etc. This would be strictly a speed and execution based win. The fastest person to make all drinks (or say, 10 lattes) with the proper criteria (latte art, full cup, no spills, etc) wins that round. It's a speed competition so it makes sense to keep it fast paced and exciting. I think this could both be pulled off pretty easily, and be interesting for an audience at a trade show to watch. Live scoring is a must, and perhaps a vocal emcee as well.
The last idea I want to put out there today is a sensory based cup tasting event. This one is a bit of my own brain child, at least I'm pretty sure it's not copying anyone. The competition would be a coffee professional test with a line of cups of coffee (say 6-8). In this concept I would have 3 rounds. The goal of each round is to correctly identify each cup for specific characteristics. The most correct and fastest times move on, and the characteristics to be identified get harder each round. For example, the first round would be to identify the processing method, second round identify the origin country, and third round varietals or regions of one specific country. I could see this as a real test of coffee professionals' ability.
So there you have just a few of the many competition (or even throwdown) ideas I have floating around. There are so many great possibilities we could pursue to make events that are not only a competitive format, but also a way to push the boundaries of what is expected of the professional barista. Most of these would also help eliminate any real or perceived bias in judging. Any time we can make a competition where the scoring is primarily based on objective goals like correct identification and/or execution as well as time, we can make more fair and approachable events for both professionals and viewers
While competitive coffee is certainly not for everyone, these types of events give a lot to the industry. It is because of barista competition that we have such high standards in equipment these days, as well as high expectations of flavor. There has been some innovation which has been positive, if for no other reason than identifying problems in either equipment or standards. Of course there is another unfortunate side to competitions, which is the proliferation of "pocket science" as Gwylim Davies likes to call it.
This unfortunate side will be my topic for my next post, so stay tuned!
If you would like to work with me in implementing some of these or other competition ideas, you can reach me via email.
It has been a couple weeks since the 2017 US Barista Championship in Seattle, which was in conjunction with the annual SCA Expo. As usual I found myself judging this competition, and had coached/trained a number of competitors. I will leave my pride at the accomplishments of all of the people Holly and I trained this year for future posts, as there has been a lot of discussion about the championships in general lately.
Before we get into it, I want you to know that I believe the judges of all of the competitions have always had the best intentions in mind, and have been trying to make something that is valuable to the industry. So there is no question to me of the integrity of the judges or their intentions, but I do think there have been gradual changes that may have not have had the effect that was originally intended. This post is intended to give my thoughts on how we can make the competitions better overall, and is not motivated by anyone who has been vocal lately. The truth is that I have been brainstorming some of the following ideas for almost a year now.
Issues I see
In order to have a good idea on how competitions can be improved, we need to understand some of the things that are not performing as well as they could be. I have come to these conclusions through years of competing in and judging the regional and USBC, as well as watching the WBC and various national competitions.
1. The stakes keep getting higher, but the game is the same
Over the years the prizes and prestige of winning the WBC have grown, and at the same time the rewards for the national and even qualifying events in the US have gotten pretty worthwhile. Commercial espresso machines, new grinders, origin trips, as well as publicity and endorsement opportunities have become common rewards for top placements. It is no longer a slightly amateur effort going up to bat, and competitor teams will go all out with training, equipment, and coffee in order to win the big prizes.
These rewards are excellent motivation for the competitors, and they can be life changing for a winner, but while the competitors are becoming highly experienced presenters and taking the competition to new levels every year, the judging has largely stayed the same. Judges are asked to volunteer huge amounts of time and must require nothing for their time other than a "good job" and the knowledge that they did something good for the industry. Experienced judges are constantly dropping out of pools as they still need to make a living and be successful with the businesses that support their judging habit. If the expectations of competitors are going to rise, then keeping a consistent and highly trained judge pool should be a reasonable expectation as well. If the competitors become more knowledgeable on rules and expectations than the actual judges, it opens the door to problems.
2. The geisha competition 2.0
Anyone who has paid attention to Brewer's Cup in the past few years has likely recognized it as a geisha coffee competition when it comes down to the top 6. Because of this I started calling it the "Geisha competition" or "Best of Panama" as a bit of jest toward the nature of winning it (Stephen Leighton has some interesting thoughts on Brewer's Cup here). Unfortunately, this is the path that the Barista championships and WBC have been going down lately. The top 3 places in the 2017 USBC were all using geisha coffees, last year's WBC and numerous national winners all used geisha coffees, and the trend is only growing. Why are these coffees scoring so highly? More than them scoring well on a cupping form, they are "loud".
According to the rules of barista competition espresso evaluation, we are expected to evaluate the balance (acid, sweet, bitter), specific flavor calls, and specific tactile experience of the coffee served after taking 2 consecutive sips (and not going back for a third). In the timing of this evaluation we must also pay attention to the barista if they are talking and, depending on the barista, we get between 0-120 seconds to do all of it. Understanding delicate nuance and subtlety is incredibly challenging when judging, and for that reason geisha coffees stand out. The flavors are easy to identify (bergamot, apricot, black tea, anyone?), the quality is easy to affirm as high quality, and the tactile is generally smooth and easy to confirm as high quality as well. When everything is obviously great and the flavor sticks out like a sore thumb, it is clear why they are scoring so well. The way that the current rules and regulations work rewards this type of coffee, which means they will be the new standard if you want to have a chance to win.
There are a couple of specific reasons I think this is an issue:
1) These coffees are very expensive. Not only do these coffees represent an incredibly small portion of the industry, but the seeming necessity of using them for high placement automatically creates an exclusive environment which can only be attained by companies willing to spend the money or have the connections to source them. A smaller company, non roaster, or independent barista is likely excluded from the club simply because they cannot pay to play. If you want a competition that truly showcases the best baristas, you have to give more people the chance to compete on a level playing field.
2) The rules and regulations have evolved to entail "calls" as the primary scored category (ie. the most points are awarded to categories that are simply described). Inherently loud coffees, like geishas, will always shine when we are so focused on specific flavors like this. That means that more subtle, yet very high quality coffees are automatically at a disadvantage. This is a problem that leads directly into another issue.
3. Some judging/scoring is convoluted
The example above explaining how the judges must taste and evaluate the espresso course (which just happens to be the section worth the most points, btw) is just one of many issues. A lot is asked of the judges, many of whom do not have a massive amount of experience judging. I do not see this as a fault of the judges, as they want to be fair and accurate. To add onto the problems that come from varying levels of judging experience, there is now the expectation that every course should have flavor notes, which I am very torn on. For a high quality espresso I can understand the desire for a flavor description. For a high quality signature drink experience I almost never feel like I need to know. After all, you don't order a cocktail made with gin, lemongrass, and bitters and then expect the bartender to stand there and give you a flavor call rundown while he is making it, right? Generally it is going to taste appropriately like the ingredients involved, or be an entirely new experience, which is kind of the fun of getting a specially crafted drink in the first place. Similarly, when was the last time you ordered a cortado and expected to get a 3-5 note flavor description of that drink? Myself, not once. Ever. So yeah, who thought this was what the industry needed?
Another thought to chew on is the fact that the judges are taught to look for specific correlations between the terroir/production of a coffee and the cup character. By asking baristas (who are usually the least experienced at the farm level) to make these connections has only led to massive speculation, and sometimes outright untrue ideas. Remember that these competitions are some of the most visible representations of coffee professionalism that people consider around the world. I think we are actively undermining the hard work of the farmers and experts at origin by making this an expectation. I do believe there can be some strong connections, especially when the barista has done work on the farm in the coffee's production, but it should be a showcase of information about that specific coffee rather than a definition of professionalism.
Also, the interpretations of signature drink building explanations, creativity, and synergy are terribly convoluted. Competitors who wants to maximize these scores, which should honestly be pretty straight forward, find themselves spending incredible amounts of time explaining things that no sane person would ever ask. For example, "I used a simple syrup" suddenly gets scored down because they didn't explain how they made said simple syrup. Why would I ever want to hear your recipe for simple syrup?!? Really, any recipe for an ingredient used within a recipe to create a drink just seems like too much to me. I can understand if it is an innovative preparation or exotic ingredient, but this type of requirement in order to get full scores reeks of unnecessary expectations. Synergy is an especially slippery slope. That same simple syrup that you sadly didn't give me a recipe for doesn't seem to have a specific flavor correlation to your espresso. Really? It's sugar! If you are adding a bunch of acids and bitter components to a drink you generally need something sweet to balance it! Also, some ingredients just work and taste amazing with a coffee for very little apparent reason. Instead of rewarding a tasty drink for being well designed, we reward inventing some completely insane explanation out of thin air. Why is it so hard to see that some ingredients are simply great together? On that note...
4. Signature drinks suck!
Ok, I know I can't be the only one thinking this. The current rules and expectations of signature drinks are just awful. The signature drink must have a "predominant flavor of espresso", which leads to using impossibly small amounts of ingredients that typically clash with a vibrant and high quality espresso. Even the interpretation of espresso flavor is tricky because the competitor might be using a completely different coffee than before, or the ingredients and espresso have combined to create a completely new flavor profile (which is actually kind of the definition of synergy), but because it does not taste specifically like a familiar shot of espresso these drinks are often scored down.
The idea that a drink must taste almost exclusively of one ingredient in order to give justice to that ingredient is just silly. A 50/50 balance is not only completely reasonable, it actually tends to make for tastier drinks. You know, like the type customers might actually enjoy? Sure, it is an industry competition, but what is the point in excelling at creating drinks that no one would normally like to drink? The integrity of a coffee should of course still be focused on, just not in such a way that it inhibits creativity and stepping outside the box for the sake of a pleasurable drinking experience.
Lastly, the prohibition of alcohol is perhaps the most comical rule in the competition, especially considering how much alcohol is consumed in our industry. Perhaps someone should listen to my ideas about merging WBC and Coffee in Good Spirits finally.
5. The simple skill of a working barista is being ignored
A complaint that has been echoed for years now is that the champions are rarely "active" baristas, or pulling regular shifts behind the bar. This can be for many reasons, but I will tell you what I have experienced personally. I was a Coffee Quality manager both times that I won the USBC, and when I won the WBC. Many companies are seeing incredible amounts of turnover as baristas are constantly seeking bigger and better opportunities. I know that a lot of companies out there, particularly the bigger ones (like the ones that can afford more expensive coffees), are more likely to support and pay for a person to compete who has a more permanent position in their company. Many of us were baristas who moved up in companies seeking better pay and opportunities to live, support families, or just be happy with life.
At the same time, the higher levels of competition have long required a massive amount of knowledge about the industry in order to place well. The "professionalism" scoring among others, tends to get embodied by knowledge that is simply beyond what a daily barista will likely know. This leads to a sort of chicken vs egg problem. You can't excel in the competition unless you have some serious experiences (roasting, farming, cupping), but once you have those experiences most baristas quickly move to higher positions that no longer include working behind the bar. Their experience is valuable, and it is hard to justify paying the barista more (especially in the US) rather than moving them to a higher position where that sort of pay makes sense. So really, it is no wonder than few of the champions are active behind the bar. By the time you get to that level you almost can't be simply a barista.
All of this is interesting, but why am I going on about it? Because I think an active barista should have a better chance than they currently have. Also, because I think that the technical score sheet that not only showcases a great active barista, but embodies everything we know about great espresso preparation is being slowly phased out. The current technical scoresheets (with 2 technical judges) account for about 17% of the competition score, and it is meant to assume that any problems will be translated to the sensory experience. While this works sometimes, the flavor flaws of poor technical work are often covered by the quality of some of our "loud" coffees. Have you ever watched a winner's video where they were a mess technically? They exist.
What I propose
It wouldn't be too helpful if I pointed out all of these issues without trying my best to give some resolution ideas. The following are ideas that I think could benefit the WBC competition format in particular. What we need is a fresh take on the rules and regulations, much more than changing table setups and espresso machine temperature. We need to rethink what is going on before the competitions take further turns down a path that doesn't represent anyone.
1. Make judging as professional as the baristas competing
Before I say anything else I want to say this: The judges and volunteers involved with barista competitions over the years are some of the most professional, inclusive, and outstanding people I have known. They give their time, expertise, and effort year after year at great expense of their own. They are great people whom I respect, and I do not want the things I say here to sound like a criticism of them and their hard work.
I believe the judges (including head judges, sensory, technical, shadow, etc) have long been doing their best with the rules & regulations as they have been written and the resources they have been given. Some effort has been put into raising expectations in the form of online training sessions, day long judge calibrations prior to events, as well as evaluations of the judges in their discourse during the event they are judging. While I do think these efforts have helped raise the level of expectation for judges in general, we still are reliant on the free labor of whoever volunteers their time. Judging requires a lot of effort to do well, and being calibrated on the interpretation of flavor scores and rules & regulations is vital.
So why are we expecting our competing baristas to be the most professional and refined examples of coffee excellence possible, while basically asking whoever has the willingness to volunteer their time to evaluate just how extraordinary they are? Ok, a lot of judges (myself included) do so because they love the craft and want to be a part of it all. What I am proposing though is to make judging a prestigious position as well as making it equitable to be a part of.
First, as far as prestige goes, I am not saying we need to glorify the judges but rather that the role of a judge should require a relatively large amount of experience. Judging 2-5 competition runs each year does not build expertise to give justice to the sometimes months that competitors put into their presentations. What we need is long term judging groups who are calibrated and experienced. Right now the head judge group essentially serves this function, but there seem to be some specific rules that ensure a turnaround of the group. Why can't we cultivate a long lived group of (at least head) judges who have massive experience and perspective to evaluate our best baristas?
Think of the role as something esteemed. "She is a competition judge?? She must really know her stuff!" When becoming a judge is actually difficult to achieve and can be a badge of honor, it could also reflect the integrity of the competition itself. Along with that, the judges must be accountable for their scores as well as feedback. Often we don't think about the feedback loop coming from the judges to the competitors, but getting actually good and constructive feedback is the only thing most of these baristas are able to take from their experience. This is more than words sounding like they represent the numbers. This is the ability to say that something simply was not as good as expected (hopefully in the form of expectations created by the barista), or specifically why any score is less than maximum.
Of course you can't expect a group of judges to commit long term without it making sense for their jobs, personal time, and professional needs. Beyond being a position of prestige it should benefit the judges in some way. Paying judges for their time makes sense in some ways, such as ensuring they are not losing money by being part of the competition. Providing some travel and lodging expenses could be another way to make it reasonable. Sponsored gifts? An exclusive certification? At the very least there needs to be something that a judge can take away from an event that gives them value for their time.
Now if a judge is expected to have a large amount of experience, how would they get it? That could be taken care of with...
2. A compulsory round
Any time I think of how to make barista competitions better I always seem to come back to the idea of a compulsory round and here is why:
I see the competition as a test of two major aspects in the barista world.
First, a test of technical proficiency and ability. Of course we have the technical judge sheet (which I think is very important still), but this only covers the work of the barista behind the bar, dosing, tamping, general cleaning, and good practices. Why do we evaluate milk drinks? Because they are the most common espresso drink in the real world. Latte art? Reasonable barista skill. Espresso flavor balance, attention to details, professionalism? All versions of real world skills that should be expected from someone who is considered the "best". Previous scoring categories like color of crema, and crema and foam consistency/persistence were all trying to evaluate known expectations based on what espresso drinks were defined as at the time.
Second, the competition is a test of innovation, performance, and kick ass coffee exposure. This is where we can see the idea of a signature drink making sense, use of exotic coffees, non-traditional ideas that (might) have merit, as well as creative ways to push the boundaries. The use of new or unknown grinders helped showcase innovation previously, but with the necessity of using the sponsored grinders (which I am actually not opposed to) now we will see that fast innovative growth slow a bit. This part is where I am seeing troubling issues, as wild ideas are being put out there for the sake of pushing the boundaries and being rewarded highly for doing something crazy. It is all a balancing act of course, as without innovation the craft will grow stagnant. So I still find this sort of test of ideas to be valid and needed.
At this point in our competition progression I am seeing a continual discounting of plain, quality coffee making skill and more and more focus on exclusive coffees and crazy ideas. For this reason I believe we should break these two tests apart and evaluate them separately, thus necessitating a compulsory round.
A compulsory round would use a provided espresso (likely a blend of reasonable quality), provided milk, espresso and milk drink cups, and a blind judging panel. It would consist of 4 espressos and 4 milk drinks (maybe we can just go back to a 5-6oz capp?), the judges table turned around and drinks are served blind if possible (the idea of bias has been a topic of conversation lately, and a "blind" judging would address this if it is appropriate). The whole compulsory round would be 7 minutes, with standard deductions for over time (-1 point per second). The judges would evaluate presence of crema, flavor balance, and tactile quality in espresso, as well as general latte art (identifiable pattern with a brown ring only, not symmetry/contrast/definition), foam texture, appropriate temperature (0/1 points), and flavor experience (mouthfeel, sweet milk, and quality espresso in balance) in the milk drinks. Technical scoring would primarily be done during the compulsory round.
I have considered a few ideas such as fewer drinks served (2 sensory judges), 4 drinks with 2 judges (1 sensory judge, 1 "consistency judge"), full panel of 4 judges (like current USBC rules). No matter what I see the need for at least 1 technical judge. While the scoring for the compulsory round would be done once, that score should be added to every "open service" score as the competition progresses. Consider it a handicap score if you will, but a barista's basic coffee making skills should be the baseline for their performance.
An open service would use the competitor's own coffee served as espresso and a signature drink in 10 minutes. The same coffee should be used for both drinks, as the purpose of the open service should be to show how well/creatively/innovative you can present one special coffee. It would not evaluate crema or flavor balance of espresso, but signature drink would be similar to current scoring (see below for more about what and how things should be scored). There would be minimal technical evaluation, likely similar to the current WBC concept of clean working area at start and finish (since a large technical evaluation would be accounted in the compulsory). If you want to have a place for highly creative and innovative service, this is the opportunity. No restrictions on how the espresso is served, no evaluation of a tactile expectation, leave it up to the barista to convey what makes their coffee great, and the judges can determine if it actually is.
This compulsory round would also be a great time to get newer judges (or judges in training) the necessary experience for the open round, as they could be calibrated using the provided espresso and milk. Speaking of the scores however, let's talk about that...
3. Refresh how and why things are scored by sensory judges
Let's think about flavor calls for a second. Remember my thoughts on the need for flavor calls above? I totally get it for your special single origin offering, but not for a milk drink or signature drink (sometimes). Again, breaking the "testing" purpose into two rounds would help focus the overall competition as well as create a fair and more level playing field for the competitors (as long as a barista can use their own coffee, it will never be a completely level field).
In the compulsory round, the scoring would be based on more objective elements. Flavor balance in espresso makes sense, as it is a test of how well a barista can properly balance an unknown espresso. Evaluating espresso tactile quality makes sense because that tactile makes a large part of any espresso experience. Take out preconceived notions of tactile though. Identify high quality aspects (pleasing smoothness, clean finish, roundness, etc) vs low quality aspects (rough, flat, watery, etc). At the same time, our scoring scale lends itself to a subjective preference and if a judge really just doesn't like something, they just start with a low score and then try to justify it. I think we should start with a max score (currently a 6), and deduct half point increments based on noticeable flaws which must be identified and notated by the sensory judge (which should be doable in a compulsory service). If the judge doesn't have a specific flaw or detractor identified, they must score highly.
In the milk course I do believe a basic latte art and foam texture evaluation should be part of the test, as we would be looking for basic technical proficiencies. Again, starting with a max score and deduction of points would work here, though I have also considered the idea of "unacceptable, good, extraordinary" scoring, which would equate to 0, 3, and 6 points with no middle room between those. It is not a latte art competition, but having the room to reward something outstanding makes sense. Basically an identifiable pattern with an unbroken brown ring should score 3, and a clearly outstanding pattern could warrant a 6. Appropriate milk temperature (not burning your mouth and not too cold) makes sense to be a 0/1 point score, as it should affect the flavor balance too, but I think an improper temperature should be identified. Lastly, milk drink flavor balance should again be a top down scoring. This top down scoring would keep judges accountable for their scores (ie. if you have 5 deductions, that score better equal 3.5!), as well as make it easier to be objective. There would be no professionalism, attention to details, or overall impression score in the compulsory round. To get these numbers to make more sense I have mocked up a "Compulsory Sensory" scoresheet:
In the open service round, the scoring would have more room for interpretation and should highlight innovative and creative ideas in service. For the espresso, leave it open as far as how and why things are served and only evaluate the "flavor experience" as described by the competitor. In an open service I believe a "bottom up" scoring essentially like the current scoring system would still make sense here, as the barista should be able to sell the expectations of the experience. I believe we should also have a coffee explanation score here, which would be graded based on how well the barista can tell the pertinent details of the coffee in the given time.
With the signature drink I believe there should be 3 main scoring elements: Clear correlation to the coffee, Detailed explanation, and Flavor experience. For the correlation to coffee I would use a yes/no (6/0) scoring, because it either has a clear correlation or it doesn't, and the need for that correlation is important. Detailed explanation would take place of the current "Well introduced, explained, and presented" category and be scored similarly with the expectation of a clear explanation of what is in the drink, why it is there, and how it helps the experience. No synergy, no outrageous recipe reciting, just a clear understanding of the drink. Flavor experience should be either based on the way it is described or based on ingredients, and the choice to describe it or not should be up to the barista. The bottom up scoring works here as well. If there is something specific that should be described (such as a unique flavor coming from the combined ingredients) it makes sense to explain, but if the drink tastes equally or proportionately of each ingredient used why should the competitor explain more?
I still believe that the use of alcohol should be allowed within reason to allow full creativity of signature drinks. The expectation of espresso flavor should be no less than 50% of the drink experience, which could be a yes/no (6/0) score box. I can see a strict cutoff being controversial, but the integrity of the coffee is a necessity. For the "Barista Evaluation" section at the bottom of the score sheet, I believe we should assess 2 categories. "Innovation & Creativity throughout" and "Overall Impression, professionalism, and details". Both should be x2 multipliers to give weight to both concepts. Innovation and Creativity are big parts of this section, and I could even see the argument for this being an even bigger multiplier. Professionalism and Attention to Details should be combined into Overall Impression, as the professionalism of a barista and their intentionality make an impression that is a part of the whole service and is simply a reflection of how they speak/present, represent the industry, and represent their coffee. Let's look at how these would look on my "Open Service Sensory" scoresheet:
Speaking of signature drinks and representing a coffee...
4. Highlight those great coffees in a better way
You may wonder why I don't want a milk drink in the open service. The main reason is that a vibrant and highly articulate coffee is something that most people would rarely desire to put into a milk drink. Not only does the flavor of a lot of beautiful coffees get lost in milk, it just doesn't do them justice. The notable exception is natural coffees, which you may have noticed lately becoming a necessity to maximize milk drink scores. The funny thing is that the super clean naturals (like the ones that show no ferment characteristic) actually don't perform as well in milk drinks, which is leading to the acceptance of what might normally be considered a defective coffee. I feel this is encouraging the production of coffees that are actually quite unpleasant on their own, simply for the purpose of scoring better on a drink category.
Requiring the use of one coffee for both open round drinks makes sense. You are giving that great coffee to the judges as espresso for a great coffee experience as well as an understanding of the coffee being used in the sig. As I mentioned above, expecting 50% espresso flavor in a drink makes sense but the current expectation of "predominant" flavor is both ambiguous and severely limiting to making a truly great drink experience. When highlighting these exceptional coffees the use of subtle ingredients, alcohol, or numerous preparation techniques without the need for espresso as the primary flavor would create a far more exciting flavor experience. Baristas should be encouraged to push the boundaries in pursuit of new and compelling methods, extractions, and techniques. Even the massive "checking of the boxes" (all the things you are expected to say) in the current format leads to an amazing limitation of true innovation, because if the competitor wants to still have a chance to win they must make sure all of the obligatory boxes got checked while trying to work in their cool ideas.
An argument I have heard with my concept of a 10 minute open service is that 10 minutes is too short of a time to truly highlight and innovate an amazing coffee. While I disagree with this a little, my primary concern with the 10 minute format is actually more from a logistical event coordination standpoint rather than a perfectly ideal setting. If a 15 minute presentation is a necessity, why not make it "espresso, non-alcoholic sig drink, alcoholic sig drink"? This makes sense be cause some cafes offer alcohol and some don't. Being able to create drinks that cover both of these styles would show massive versatility. That would give numerous opportunities for innovation, though I think it could complicate an already big change in competition ideas. The point is this though: A great coffee should still be a part of barista competition and it should be rewarded for being as versatile as the barista using it.
There is also the question of technical scores, how they impact the competition, and how the scores should be weighed...
5. Renew technical scoring... and make it matter
With the introduction of a compulsory round, the primary technical evaluation would be focused on standard methods, and the open service would be evaluated with cleanliness at start/end as well as hygienic practices and station management (which could be evaluated by the head judge). I believe our technical score sheet, which was once a challenge to maximize 10 years ago, is now a bit of a gimme and should be revamped based on current knowledge. The criteria of "consistent dosing and tamping" and "acceptable spillage when dosing/grinding" are relatively ambiguous and vary in interpretation. First, the idea that the exact same movements should be used on a dose that may be wildly different in its initial distribution (hello provided grinders) is pretty silly. A great barista will adjust to what the grinder has put out in order to make the most consistent end product they can. The current rules don't always allow for this. The use of distribution tools makes for an easy high score on dosing/tamping, but these tools don't actually correct the puck below the level that the tool touches. These tools in particular have led to a false assumption that all is good, when in fact it is not necessarily the case. However, the way technical scoring is currently done these tools typically make near perfect scores common. One way to correct this would be to define tamping as "the first moment that a tool/implement moves the grinds downward". The coffee bed should be evenly distributed and relatively flat before that point.
Since the technical scores are being maximized regularly, the apparent solution is to slowly eliminate the technical evaluation in the WBC. This is the opposite to my thoughts. In my opinion, if the scoring for something is regularly being maximized, it doesn't mean that the skills used are irrelevant to evaluation, but rather that the way we evaluate those skills needs to evolve and become more relevant to modern techniques. Perhaps the judges should actually be weighing waste, measuring milk excess, and getting a bit more exact with things. We are expecting a "scientific" approach to many things with coffee these days, and the technical evaluation is where that mentality would fit. Alternatively, why don't we make the pertinent technical scoring criteria (0-6 scores) into multipliers? That would certainly give a bit more attention to the value of these techniques! In the future we will need to reevaluate the ideas of technical scoring again anyway with the advent of grind by weight grinders in the upcoming generation. Maybe this is what the WCE is waiting for?
Here is how I would adjust the Technical scoresheet for a compulsory round:
Lastly, the technical scoring in the open round would essentially be the same as the current WBC final. The head judge would assess cleanliness at start and end, station management, and proper hygiene. I see this scoring as follows:
Now let's talk about how to weigh all of these scoring ideas. Here is what I propose:
Compulsory sensory = @30% of total possible
Compulsory technical = @25% of total possible
Open service + technical = @45% of total possible
Why this breakdown? Because it gives weight to all of the different aspects of a barista's skills. Making great espresso and milk drinks is vital. So is a strong technical ability. Of course creative and innovative concepts should still carry weight as well. I gave a little more weight individually to the open service because honestly that is where the excitement is at, and what people will pay attention to or see on a live stream. However, the compulsory total has a huge impact on where a barista starts. If it is truly to be a barista competition, the skill and work of a barista should be a huge part of the score.
A snapshot of what I envision
You arrive at the barista competition venue with your own coffee, competition wares for espresso and signature service, and perhaps a grinder for open service. You are given a 2lb/1kg bag of unmarked coffee for compulsory service as well as milk. Espresso cups, cappuccino cups, milk pitchers, spoons, and towels are provided.
You are given 20 minutes at your station to dial in espresso, taste shots and capps, and clean up your station. Immediately after dialing in your shots, the judges enter and you begin your 7 minute service. Espresso must be served first, and cappuccinos second. You simply make your drinks, serve them, and clean as you go. If there is extra time you clean your station at the end. Since there is no talking, all 3 stations can have competitors being judged simultaneously or staggered.
After finishing your compulsory round, you return your equipment and unused espresso (no sharing!) and prep for open service. Open service functions very much like the Qualifying Events in the US, with 15 minutes of practice time in the back room, 10 minutes to set up, and 10 minutes to compete. If there were 30 competitors, the compulsory round would take one day and the open round would require another (which would be an investment by the organizers). After both rounds are concluded, the top 15 would be announced. Semi-final and final rounds would only consist of the open service, as the compulsory scores should be applied to every round. The semi-final and final would be an ideal place to implement a third drink service and 15 minute time if that were desired as well.
And there you have it. A picture of a very familiar yet very different barista competition. There are surely ideas in all of this that would need more refinement or even rethinking, but I do feel that some of these ideas are at least worth considering. Thanks for taking a peek into my brain. On the next post I will highlight some other ideas that could be beneficial the barista competitions in different ways!
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!