On Barista Competitions
Go with your gut.
This was the theme of my week as a judge for the United States Barista Competitions. Yes, baristas have competitions and they get fiercely competitive. A few weeks ago, baristas from around the country gathered in Kansas City to show off their skills for a chance to be named best in the country. Each barista had a slot of ten minutes, they use this time to present themselves, their chosen coffee, and a theme to judges. Barista competitions are also a service competition. Over the course of their ten minutes, a barista will serve two judges three drink courses; espresso, milk beverage, and a signature beverage. It’s not as simple as making a few drinks quickly. Many baristas use the opportunity of competition to introduce innovative ideas and techniques.
If you were to watch a competition routine, you’d notice a few people hovering around the barista. These are the tech judges. They focus solely on the preparation techniques of the barista and make sure everything is done correctly, consistently, and efficiently. The barista won’t even be paying attention to these people. Her only focus is the two judges sitting at her table. These are the sensory judges. Sensory judges get to taste the coffee and evaluate all the drinks. As always, taste is king, so the sensory scores make up a bulk of the baristas total score. These judges are the only ones who get to experience the barista’s coffee and routine. This was my role.
Before competitions started all the judges had to go through an intensive calibration session. Experienced judges helped the first time judges become familiar with the scoring system. During the calibration session, when asked to score a drink, I kept hearing, “go with your gut.” Judging happens fast. In the ten minutes, while the barista is going through her routine, judges are scoring each of the courses on categories like taste balance, flavor, and mouthfeel. By the end of the routine the sensory judge will have scored around 20 different categories.
To judge you have to be fast and accurate. I was encouraged to follow my instinct and write down the score that immediately came to my mind. This was a big challenge for me. I like to mull over a beverage before I decide if I like it or not. That will not work in a competition setting. Two sips and 4 scores need to be on the paper. The speed of judging helped me gain confidence in my taste and gave me goals to work towards.
I’m making it sound as though judging all week was hard work and no fun, but that isn’t an accurate description of my time in Kansas City. During our judges calibration, Mike, the judging coordinator, told us that the most important thing was to have fun. We had the experience of being served some of the best coffees from the best baristas in the nation. Not many people are privileged with trying drinks that a barista has spent months perfecting. Maybe next year you’ll see me on the stage after months of preparation.
Go for gold,
P.S. If you are having a hard time picturing barista competitions I suggest you check out the movie, “Barista.” It’s a great documentary that follows four baristas through their preparations and competition. It will give you a glimpse of the flat-out obsession that baristas have for coffee and service.