Barista competitions take hard work, sacrifice, humility, and support from others. This post will tell you about what it takes to reach the highest levels of competition and professionalism as a barista.
There are a lot of misconceptions about packaging coffee and how to keep it fresh. Here are some details to know.
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!
I am asked questions about competing all the time. As a seasoned competitor I have spent the better part of 7 years of competing, which adds up to a lot of experience. This experience can be measured in a lot of ways. It equates to 31 officially scored presentations. It's thirteen top-3 trophies in sixteen events. That includes eight 1st place wins, not to mention almost 8 hours of time on stage with judges. When a request comes in for advice on competing it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint the most vital information for a prospective or advancing competitor. After gathering my thoughts, here are a few of my viewpoints that I believe will help you prepare for such a big undertaking.
1 - Define your goals
This is one of the first steps you should take. I have heard goals from "Just to have fun", "To be a better presenter" or "To improve my barista skills". These are all perfectly good goals, but to focus on these is different that what my (and I assume many baristas') goal was, which was to "Try to be the best". That may sound like an arrogant goal, and at times it could have been. However, I think this is a good mentality for a competition as it helps push the limits of what we are doing and also creates ownership of techniques and skill. Of course in trying to "be the best" it is still important to stay approachable and avoid actual arrogance. Defining your goals in competing will help to focus you on what will be needed to give the best presentation you can.
Goals that do not seem to be received well are "To prove a point" or "To make a statement". Essentially beating a new or controversial idea into the judges' heads is not generally a good idea. I find nothing wrong with challenging established boundaries, but by nature you will be focused too much on the controversy and not enough on just making good coffee.
2 - Organize your world
Imagine you are going to give the most important speech of your life. This speech will be in 1 or 2 months and you have the majority of the data you need available from the sources you have.
Would you organize every piece of data you could?
This is not just about the speech itself though. This is about the competition space, backstage preparations, prep time, and even setting up the cart to move your gear. A basic rule to follow is that if it happens outside of the 15 minute prep and the presentation, then you have complete control over how organized you are. When you look at the competition this way there is really no reason not to be prepared.
Success at barista competitions has a lot to do with organization and attention to details. Create diagrams of table and cart setup, arrive back stage as early as you can, and have a timeline for when you want to have tasks finished. If you are able, bring your own cart so that you can set everything the way you want earlier. Have you thought through your prep time setup? Being efficient and organized will save you time, which means more time to double-check everything and calm your nerves before the actual presentation.
One thing of note, however, is that as a competitor you are attempting to be a pinnacle of professionalism. Despite all of your preparations and amazing perfection in competing it is important to remember that your fellow competitors are also your comrades. In owning the space and having everything organized the way you plan, you also have the RESPONSIBILITY to clean, be timely, and be considerate of the space as well as your fellow competitors' time. Don't be that guy that everyone silently resents for acting entitled!
3 - Have a thesis
Once upon a time when I was in school (don't worry about how long ago that was...) we were taught to start a paper with a thesis statement. This would help focus the writing and provide an anticipation of the subsequent report/story/term paper. A thesis can of course change as a concept is refined (and probably should), but the point is to create a cohesive story in your presentation. Your thesis is your promise to the judges that there is substance to your message and helps them process the information you will be giving them.
Of course the method of storytelling is up to you. There is no one way to give a creative and interesting presentation, so you should not feel constricted on how you tell your story. Is the thesis stated boldly at the very beginning? Is it revealed at the end as a surprise? Is it insinuated but never specifically stated? These are things that you as a competitor must decide. As you go more in depth in story building you may find that you have multiple themes that have to be focused individually, or there may be a primary message and secondary/tertiary themes that need to either refined or cut.
In the end you have a choice over the words coming out and, if you want to do the best you can, those words should be focused to give the most cohesive and accessible information possible during your 15 minutes.
4 - Practice, analyze, improve
The last recommendation I have is in regard to practicing. Most every serious competitor has practice sessions leading up to the competition. Aside from being a great way to waste coffee and milk, practice sessions do in fact have benefits when used properly.
When I first began competing I actually formulated my entire speech through 15 minute practice sessions. While this does get a lot of repetition on technical points, it doesn't always lend itself to the best speech creation. There are three things that are very beneficial to practicing for competition:
A teammate who can evaluate from the judges' point of view. Recent judging experience is a plus, and more than one set of eyes is even better!
A video camera. I didn't have one in 2005, but this should be easy to arrange these days. (Ahem, smartphone)
The correct competition setup, tables, and equipment. This one is not possible for everyone, but the more you have the better.
Generally I recommend taking practice sessions in phases. Start with thesis, speech writing, brainstorming of ideas, and more intangible aspects. After that, start recording individual segments of your service incorporating speech. Finally, begin full 15 minute presentations (don't forget to record them) 3-4 weeks prior to the competition if possible. This is also assuming you work 5 days a week and only have your off days to commit to full practice runs. This method is probably fairly common, but now comes the important part.
Your teammate(s) is your best friend and worst enemy. You don't need a person who raves about your every idea. You need someone who picks your ideas apart and finds their flaws. This can feel discouraging, but their intention should be to help you make the absolute best presentation possible (by the way, don't choose a teammate who actually hates you). Critical, objective and honest analysis is vital in competition. At points I had a full team of 7 people judging my runs and giving complete feedback.
Video feedback should make you a better presenter. Obviously watching video with a teammate who evaluated you is very helpful, but there are two other things to focus on.
Watch and listen to yourself. Are you dynamic? Are you compelling? The answer should probably be NO, especially on your first review. We don't hear our voices the same in recording versus live speaking (think of bone vibrations and the complexity of the inner ear). That usually leads to us feeling that we sound weird on a video. This is good however, because it can help you focus on your non-verbal communication-delivery, hand movements, and body language. The more conscious you are of how you are perceived, the better your impression on the judges.
Watch your movements. Are you forgetting items? Doubling back to get something? Or does something look awkward? This is your chance to perfect your movements and design new techniques/implementations that are more appealing to the judges. The idea is not to over simplify everything, but to take a complicated execution and make it seem effortless.
There you have some of my viewpoints to help you become a great competitor. The barista competitions (USBC/WBC) are incredibly complex themselves, but these tips should be valuable for most other forms of competition as well. Give it a try and you might just find yourself excelling higher than you thought possible!