This year marked my seventh (I think) year of barista competition. Up until yesterday, at the Eastern Regional Qualifiers, I had never won an event I competed in. Although coming close many times, there always seemed to be some element that held me back from the number on spot. I thought I'd take a moment to share what I've learned and why I keep coming back.
For those who aren't familiar with barista competition, or those who haven't heard me geek out on the in's and out's of how it works, here's a summary for you. The over arching concept is to present a specialty coffee to a panel of four sensory judges. The barista is given 15 minutes to do so, and in that alloted time, they must serve an espresso course, a milk course and a signature beverage, to each of these sensory judges - meaning 12 drinks total. As doing so, it's required to share insight into this coffee and what sort of flavors are to be expected in each beverage served. While doing this, two technical judges follow your every move and take note on any inconsistencies or errors you might make during the preparation of each round of beverages. Above the two technical judges and the four sensory judges, you have a head judge, who oversees the six other judges. These judges are silent, they allow you full control of the stage, the pace, the coffee, the atmosphere and the service.
Barista Competition is maybe comparible to some styles of cooking competitions you see on TV, or some styles of cocktail competitions, but not truly the same as anything else I've personally ever come across. When I tell people I'm training for Barista Comp, they usually think it's about latte art, but that's a different beast in itself - we call that beast, Latte Art Competition.
The premise of Barista Competition is to portray your mastery as a barista and to showcase a coffee that defys the boundaries of coffee and is superior to the rest. It requires far more than an individual. It's the effort of a community that starts at the farm the coffee is grown, right up to the people who help you put together your routine and spend countless hours watching you act through it. It's important to have an all encompassing grasp on a coffee from seed right to the cup of espresso you end up serving to your judges. The baristas that seem to have success in competition, year after year, have relationships the producers that are growing their coffee, or relationships with the people that have relationships with those producers, and they have an extensive knowledge of what happened on the farm level and how that coorelates to flavors in the cup. Then, they have a relationship with the roaster who profiled that coffee and an understanding of how that roast brought to life the flavors that were created at the farm, through the varietal, the terroir and the processing technique. After that, a baristas skill is demonstrated on how they can best extract those flavors using an espresso machine provided by sponsors of the World Barista Competition - currently Victoria Arduino Black Eagles.
There's so much learning to come from competing in one of these competitions and the community that shows up the day of the event is always amazing. Even though sixteen or so baristas are facing off throughout the day, the support and excitment from one competitor to the next is unbelievable. At the end of the day, you have a room filled with passionate coffee professionals who get excited at the thought of new flavors in coffee, the thought of new techniques, or innovations, the idea that you're using some funky ingredient in your signature drink - wow that sounds good, do you mind if I taste that?
In my experience, Barista Competition has really dictated what we've become as a company. The first few times I competed, I didn't have much idea of what I was doing as a barista. I enjoyed what I did because I got to have interactions with people day in and day out while I fueled them up for the day. While doing this, I got to attempt different designs through latte art and had fun with that aspect. Rarely did I did coffee black. Today, I rarely drink coffee not-black. Kind of funny right? It was through competition that I really started to realize the possibility of flavor that was in coffee and a good portion of that flavor was dictated by me, the barista.
From the first few competitions I did, I took the Technical Judges feedback to heart. I realized I wasn't consistent in my movements as a barista. I'd knock a portafilter to settles the grinds one time, then I'd slap the portafilter with my palm to settle them the next, and on the third I wouldn't settle them at all. This changes how much space sits between the grinds and how even the grinds sit in the basket before tamping, which in turn changes the way the water interacts with the grinds and thus affects the flavours you'll find in the cup. I wanted consistency in my movements to appease these Technical Judges for next year, at the next competition, but also for the clients that I was fueling on a day-to-day basis. It sounds dorky, but this sort of consistent mentality became the fundamentals of our barista training program at Rosso. Aside from quality, we want consistency to be a word associated with the coffee at Rosso. Regardless of location, regardless of barista, we strive for consistency. It's only fair to set the standard and to meet it every time for our clients.
The next desire was to appeal to the sensory judges, something that was hit or miss, depending on the coffee I had available through the handful of roasters that we'd worked with in the early days. We found frustration in lack of options on menus, inconsistency on roasting from batch to batch and the fact that we were just regurgitation information we were told about a coffee without knowing deep down that was the truth. This, as well as other reasons, led to our desire to begin roasting coffee. That gave us more understanding and put more control into our hands. We could create our own menu by purchasing coffees from green coffee importers and we could profile these coffees however we desired. This made consistency tough, as we were learning how to roast and there were lots of ups and downs, but in the long run, it's completely changed the landscape of our business and our perspective of competition.
In 2011 I competed for the first time. Bullshitting my way through a routine, trying to present a coffee while knowing nearly nothing of what I was doing.
In 2012 I qualified for Nationals for the first time. At this point, we were a very small team and I flew across the country to compete in Toronto by myself. I had an Anfim grinder that I carried on the plane and two suitcases filled with glassware and clothes. I put together a super cool set using a Natural Guji from Hasbean out of the UK and qualified for the finals. While driving to the afterparty, I received a phonecall letting me know a rule had been overlooked and this affected my score, taking me out of the finals the following day. Needless-to-say I proceeded to have a decent number of drinks at that party...
In late 2012, we installed a Probat L12 at our original Ramsay location - at the time we had three cafes and we solely roasted for internal consumption.
In 2013, we had qualified for, and competed at the National Barista Competition in Vancouver using a washed Bourbon varietal from El Salvador grown on the Santa Ana Volcano at a farm called Majahual. It was bright, tasting like lime and lemongrass, with some great toffee like sweetness. It was worthy of qualifying for the finals, and ultimately garnering 2nd place that year.
In 2014, we had an amazing washed Ethiopian coffee to showcase at Nationals. It was called Kore Kochere - another coffee we bought from an exporter - and it was delightful. I had a super cool routine that I was proud of, but had poor execution on my tasting notes and my judges didn't connect with what I said, resulting in low points and not qualifying for the finals.
At this point, we'd been roasting just over two years and we were itching to understand what actually went on at the farm and how a washed coffee was different to a natural. On a business standpoint, we had the opportunity to travel with an industry peer and mentor, and thus we went on our first coffee sourcing trip, visiting Costa Rica and Guatemala. I'm currently sitting in Guatemala, finalizing our selections for our fourth consecutive year of purchasing coffee direct from here. Tomorrow at 6am we fly to San Jose, Costa Rica to do the same there.
Now we're able to select the coffees we want to host on our menu and understand how they're produced, while at the same time, we're able to find really unique and outstanding coffees that can be used for the grounds of Barista Competition.
In 2015, we had three coffees from the Don Joel Micro-mill in Costa Rica that we used on the National stage of Barista Competition. This was a challenge as you can only use two grinders, so during the 15 minutes I had to swap hoppers and shift grind settings to make it work.
In 2016, there was no National competition due to timing of Worlds. So we had loads of time leading up to 2017. We decided to source from an amazing farm in Colombia whom we had met one of the team members during a sourcing trip in Bogota a few years prior. We had an incredible coffee from La Palma y El Tucan, called a Gesha. It's a coffee that's complex and heavily perfumed with aromatics, sweetness, florals, you name it. It tastes nothing like 'coffee'. The Gesha had also undergone an unique style of processing that required two stages of fermentation and 86 hours total - way different to a normal coffee that sees about 8-12 on average. Thus, an interesting story, an interesting flavor profile, and an interesting coffee to share for Barista Competition.
This coffee helped us garner 3rd place in the 2017 National Barista Championship. Then, it helped me with this Barista Competition this past weekend.
It's amazing that our entire progression as a company has happened simultaneously to Barista Competition. I can say that I wouldn't know as much as I know today without having dedicated the energy to competiting year after year - even knowing that some years I didn't have a shot at winning. Our training program, our coffee program and our goal of consistent coffee is a mirror of lessons we've learned through competition.
I can't disclose the coffee I plan to use in May for the 2018 National Barista Competition, but I can say that I'm excited to give it another attempt.
For any young baristas or cafe owners, I recommend you invest some time familiarizing yourself with Barista Competition. Whether that's just reading the scoring templates, or the rules, or finding a coffee you're passionate in sharing the story behind. It may just take you deep down the rabbit hole that is coffee. At the very least, you'll get to meet the genuine, diverse, amazing people that make up the Specialty Coffee Community.
Now excuse me while I go and eat some of the best tacos in the world to cleanse my palette from the sweet, juicy coffees I've been tasting all morning here in Antigua.