Our trainer, Nathanael May, talks about his induction into the wild world of barista judging:
For a certain species of barista, this is a special time of year. In addition to seeing the emergence of the first tender shoots of spring, January, February and March represent the heart of the Regional Barista Competition season, culminating with the United States Barista Championship (USBC) in April. Some of the best baristas from around the country will converge on Portland for this year’s penultimate competition (whose winner will attend the World Championships in Vienna, Austria) and another national champion will be crowned.
My passion for coffee has not steered me toward competition in the past but the twin siren songs of camaraderie and education that waft out from the events called to me. Last year, I tried my hand at judging for the first time. I loved it.
Official barista competitions involve a fifteen minute performance by a barista. Within that time frame the competitor must produce four 1 oz. shots of espresso, four 5-6 oz. cappuccinos, and 4 “Signature Beverages” that contain at least 1 oz. of espresso each. These twelve drinks will be served (and explained) to four sensory judges while two technical judges watch the mechanics, timing, and flow of the competitor. All of this business is overseen by a certified head judge, who ensures that the competitor is being fairly assessed and that the judges have the tools they need to assess the competitor fairly.
It was into this confluence of coffee and humanity that I thrust myself in 2011 when I became a technical judge at the Northwest Regional Barista Competition.
The process of becoming a judge starts out easily enough—you simply sign up online and express interest. A certain level of coffee expertise is expected and to ensure that you are qualified to gauge the quality of someone’s performance, you’re tested. The tests occur the day before competition begins in a mandatory Judges Calibration, operated by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and facilitated by Head Judges from the USBC.
The tests cover a wide range of material, from knowledge of the rules and regulations of the USBC to skill in tasting minor variations in coffee to assessing the visual accuracy of cappuccinos and espresso shots. After the testing, a period of “calibration” begins and the judges start to hone in on exactly what they’ll be looking for in the following day’s competitions. The Head Judges monitor the progress of each individual who wants to judge and select the judges from a pool of qualified candidates.
The next day, the “curtain goes up” and the show starts.
The actual judging is incredibly enjoyable. Each competitor is different (like a snowflake!), and each performance requires special attention. One competitor pulls six shots of espresso at once (with only two hands, quite a feat), another uses two different coffees during her time on stage. Grinders can be set up on the right or left of the machine, and the twelve drinks can be prepared in (almost) any order.
As a technical judge, familiarity with the score sheet is of the utmost importance, as several things can be happening in a very short period of time, and you don’t really have the luxury of looking down and writing Dickensian commentary on your sheet.
As a sensory judge, your job is to be a great “customer,” smile at the barista while they serve you, and listen closely to what they say. Did they tell you to expect their espresso to exhibit a syrupy mouthfeel, notes of turmeric, cedar vanilla, and hazelnuts, with a berry finish and a rich mahogany crema? How did they do? Did the espresso live up to their description?
These and numerous other factors affect each barista’s score, and the top six scorers in the preliminary rounds get to go on to the final round. One set of seven judges assesses the finalists in their second performance of the weekend, and a victor is crowned the same day.
I’ve been honored to be selected as a technical judge in the finals of both the Southwest and Northwest regional competitions this year, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to judge at the national competition April 19th-22nd.
The level of competition is a sight to see, and if you’re in Portland this April, I recommend coming to the Oregon Convention Center to see the performances live. It will be an experience you won’t soon forget. And as you watch the dance of the barista around the competition area, don’t forget to watch the simultaneous dance of the technical judges behind them.