The strange world of coffee championships
Hello judges, lovely to meet you. Are you ready? Can I have my music please?
The key to understanding a coffee competition is to be fully immersed in every aspect of it, from conception to the final presentation. Competitions take many forms both nationally and internationally, and to the uninitiated they are more than a little strange. Getting your hands on an entry ticket is the first challenge of any competition, many prospective competitors wait with nervous anticipation to book their tickets as soon as they are live. Some comps sell out in minutes.
My name is Ellie I am a coffee slurper at Dog and Hat coffee subscriptions, and I am very excited to share with you my impressions and experiences of coffee competitions. I have had the opportunity to volunteer, support and witness many aspects of competitions through the SCA and I would like to take you on a journey.
A journey through the strange world of coffee competitions. The concept is alien to most, even coffee professionals that have never witnessed the spectacle that is the WBC (world barista championships) or UKBC. The rules are simple. Or so it seems.
There’s a 48 page document for those.
The competition format is simple, three rounds of judging over two days.
The top 15 competitors advance to a second round or semi-finals, these have been whittled down in the first round from 50+ competitors.
The final round comprises the top scoring six baristas from the semi-finals round and takes place on the last day of the competition.
In each round competitors present a 15 minute routine in which they must prepare and serve a total of 12 drinks: 4 espressos, 4 milk beverages, and 4 signature beverages, to each of four sensory judges.
The four judges award points on a variety of factors including the taste and balance of the barista’s beverages as well as their presentation.
A technical judge grades their technique and cleanliness. Points are deducted for mess and waste. Even espresso or ground in the drip tray can cause deductions.
The judges’ points are totalled to produce a final score for each barista in each round. The baristas with the highest scores advance from the first and second rounds, and the barista with the greatest score in the final round wins the title.
I was lucky enough to support the competitors and judges at preliminary heats and the semi-finals of the UK Barista Championship. My job was to clean the machine between routines, help competitors with questions, or direct them to someone who can help. The rules were clear. I could not help them with their routine. In fact, no one could help once they stepped on stage. Not even their coach or the machine and grinder technicians.
This brings me to judging and score sheet, you can take a look at the WBC score sheet on their website. The Barista championship score sheet is complex and as someone who has neither judged nor competed, I can’t pretend that I fully understand them. The judges themselves adopt a stony expression once routines begin. Not giving away anything to the competitor or the coach.
For every competition there is a coach that supports the competitor, the coaches are often people who have competed before or are experts in their field, usually someone who the competitor knows well. They are also there for emotional support and to help prepare for the competition.
The coaches work closely for months and months with the competitor and on the day, some coffee comps need more prep that others, but all need practice. Hours of practice.
For competitions like Cup Tasters, the practice and preparation comes in the form honing the palette and closer to the day ensuring you don’t overwhelm the palette. Cup Tasters is fun, its all about tasting coffee and fining the odd one out.
The format is simple, 8 sets of 3 cups are presented. One out of each set of 3 will be slightly different. A greater ratio of Guatemala to Brazil perhaps, the same origin but and different farm. I was once told that it can be as difficult as the same farm but a different lot. The taster must detect these subtle differences as quickly as possible to be in with a chance of winning.
Comps like the WBC or Coffee in Good Spirits, where baristas become mixologists, there is a lot to consider. Competitors work with roasters to source and roast the perfect coffee, constantly roasting and tweaking. Cupping or brewing the coffee every day until the roast has the developed to the perfect amount. There are hours of practice and planning in the routines. Routines are run through daily, scrutinised and perfectly designed to be delivered in a very tight 15-minute window, if you run over, points are deducted.
The choices. Which alcohol or milk or syrup to use, do you make your own additives? Which cups and glasses give the best tactile feel? What brewing temperate are you going to use? Do you need props? What music do I play? What do I talk about?
The decisions are endless giving an illusion of complete autonomy, this isn’t the case however. While you can choose to use a Red Bourbon scoring 87, you probably won’t make it out of the first few rounds. The milk you choose matters, high fat percentage for a velvety smooth cappuccino is preferred. Freeze distilled cows milk is becoming popular as it is more simply beautiful to drink and easier to work with to get consistent pours. The presentation structure and time constraints mean that routines on paper are similar from competitor to competitor they must include, the coffees origin, down to the farm sometimes citing the actual people who processed the coffee or the terror that the plant grew in, the variety, the tasting notes for each beverage, and a comprehensive guide to everything they are doing, extraction times, water temperature, weight, time, how long that coffee has been rested after roasting. Many competitors manage to inject their own magic into the routines, their amazing skills coupled with charisma.
Competition coffee isn’t your usual specialty brew, I’ll be honest while beautifully complex and probably some of the “best” coffee I’ve ever tasted it’s not for every day. Not because it can be expensive but because the resulting espressos are often overwhelming complex and highly acidic. The roast profile is much closer to a filter that most espresso drinkers are used too.
While we usually see the same sponsors and the same equipment at many competitions over the years competitions like the WBC are important to the industry, they encourage innovation and experimentation that we can all enjoy. Without the investment or interest created by competitions would we have experimental processes or Panama Geisha or indeed Coffea eugenioides available for the speciality customer? I’d argue that we wouldn’t!
Thank you judges… time.