Judging a straight shot
So what does it take to be on the guest list for that party? A few days off work, 2 days of intensive judges certification workshop, and a little luck passing the dreaded sensory test. With all that behind me, I was looking forward to my first stint as a sensory judge in the 2006 USBC.
My turn came on day two of the competition. After a quick judges meeting in the morning, we were all set to go. It didn't dawn on me at that time that I'm about to have 15 espressos in 1.5 hours.
I looked at my flight's roster and smiled. On paper, it was arguably the strongest flight of the day, with some famous baristas leading the list. (There are five contestants in a flight). But as we all know, pedigree means nothing once the clock starts running. You are judged by your performance on stage, on that day, and not by anything else. We've seen star baristas bomb before. As to the judges, I was the only new judge on the panel, joined by very experienced dudes, some with WBC competition and numerous USBC credits. It felt good to be around that bunch. I was looking forward to some eye popping drinks.
I intentionally do not mention the contestant names in this report, and I also mixed their gender & order of appearance to keep it from becoming a personal commentary. So let's get on with it.
The first contestant just flew by. From the outside, it may look like the hardest part in judging would be, well, judging. (drink & performance evaluation). But in practice, the hardest part was keeping records. The contestant must pass a list of required criteria, and as a judge, one needs to document the nuances of his/her performance. It helps with giving the final score, but it is also used to justify a particular score if challenged by the head judge. The head judge can override any score given by any judge, and the lowest and highest scores on any criteria require his/her approval. Record keeping comes in handy in debriefing as well, when a contestant asks the judges for feedback.
As I summed up her total score I felt empathy with her performance. She was unprepared & particularly nervous. To give you an idea how nervous one can get in those competitions, in some instances the competitor's hand was shaking so violently, that they almost tipped the cup when serving their drink. One judge commented to me afterwards, that in the WBC, the Japanese contestant had to balance the drinks tray on the table to avoid spilling them all over the judges.
Back to our contestant, one must admire those baristas that go out there and compete. Many of them are not born performers, and the thought of being on stage for anything, is as appealing as eating glass. But they still go out there and give their best shot.
The only way to shine on stage is to rehearse the performance until you go through it with the same ease as driving. The actions are all automatic & smooth. We are all able to drive while thinking of other things than driving itself. It is that kind of smoothness or almost mindless performance contestants should be striving for. When this is achieved, the barista can turn his attention to excelling.
Another overall problem in her presentation was that throughout her entire performance, it sounded more like she is talking to herself than to the judges. Very quickly, that particular challenge separated the leaders from the pack. The enemy in this case is time. They go through their audio presentation while preparing their drinks with their back turned to the judges. Fifteen minutes sound like a long time, but those fly by so quickly, and in most cases, performers finished with no more than one or two seconds to spare, and some went over by almost a minute.
Those who had it together, were confident that they can do both and still make time. They came to the judges table & talked about each drink before they prepared it. In some cases, the signature drink was prepared right on the judges' table. Those rare treats had a positive impact on us, and added to the contestants' overall presentation & attention to details score.
We are off to the second barista. In between the performances, the judges convene backstage to finish up their score sheet, quickly grab a palate refresher (a cracker), and return back to stage for the next contestant. That short break takes about three to five minutes.
The second barista was better prepared, and generally appeared more comfortable on stage. He served better drinks overall and improved his chances to advance to the semi finals.
Coming up next was the show stopper of the flight. It was such a pleasure to watch an almost flawless performance. She delivered understated passion wrapped in a professional presentation with great flow. She was indeed driving, or as others would call it, "in the zone". The espresso was very good, the cappa smooth & creamy with great milk/coffee balance, and she did all that with such ease that makes you wonder what are those contestants so nervous about? (It is easier said than done, and takes many long months of hard work to get there.)
That performance was followed by another stellar show and the two ended up with a very similar score. Closing the flight was an average performance, and before I knew it, it was all over.
The first question I was asked after I handed my final score sheet was "were you nervous?" The answer is not at all. I've been critiquing and judging my own espresso for years. I feel at home in that environment, and I had no problem doing it in the USBC setting. The only thing that required some effort on my part was record keeping, but after the first contestant this became a non issue. You get into the rhythm of things.
The Sensory judges. From left to right: Tracy Allen, the silver fox (Head Judge); Abe Carmeli; Jeff Babcock; Mike Perry & Spencer Turer
So, what does it take to become a US Barista Champion?
- Don't even try it until you can consistently deliver drinks that will be rated as 4 (very good) by a USBC judge. The criteria for a 4 are known and published, and use an experienced Certified USBC judge to rate your drinks if you can.
- Work on your performance until you do it without thinking. Start with the basics without the commentary; just make the drinks in a row. Once this is automatic, start introducing your commentary. Your commentary is extremely important, and use a wide audience to critique it. Filling up dead air with nonsense should be avoided. Go for quality not quantity, and say something interesting about your coffee, your blend, your drink, who you are. Stay away from over the top sermon on the mount commentary. We had one of those in the competition (not on my flight) that sent me cringing looking for cover. Passion for your work should come through but it should be understated. Nuances go a long way. A class act is built on restraint and nuances and not on all-out "I'm the king of the world".
- Be bold with your standard drinks. Particularly with your coffee. The sensory judges know espresso. They can recognize a boring cup when they see one, even if it is balanced and sweet. If you are going out there, go to win it, and to add something to our espresso experience. Another standard cup is not what will get you a five and it will add nothing to our experience.
- Select your grinder after a careful examination of all available alternatives. The grinder, and not the espresso machine, is the barista's most important tool. Billy Wilson used a Mazzer Jolly, I assume it is because he was familiar with it. Matt Riddle and the rest of the Intelligentsia contestants used a Mazzer Robur. The major difference between those two is the burr set: Flat vs. Conical. Choose the grinder that works best with your coffee. This will come through in your straight shot score, perhaps the barista's ultimate challenge.
- Before you make your drinks approach the judges and engage them with your selection. Say something about the coffee and why you chose it, tell an anecdote, tell them something, even small that they don't know, and keep them interested. Some contestants brought the coffee they are using to the table, and placed it in front of the judges to touch see and smell. Good move. Be engaging. As much as possible, prepare at least some of your Sig drink at the judge's table. This has a big impact on your presentation score and sometimes that makes the difference between a 1st & 2nd place
- Work on your signature drink. The Sig was a problem across all contestants. They were universally mediocre to really bad. One of the criteria that judges keep in mind is that the USB champion will be representing the US in the WBC. The Sig at that level makes a huge difference in the score. I have not seen the score results of Matt Riddle and Billy Wilson (who finished 1 & 2) but I'm willing to go out on a limb here and say that Matt won it on the Sig.
- In preparing a signature drink, stay away from cold drinks. It is no accident that all USBC champs in the past three years served their signature drink warm. Judges are not accustomed to consume espresso as a cold drink and it is the espresso taste we are looking for. When it is cold, it often reminds me of a Starbucks Frappuccino, no matter how delicate & elaborate the preparation was. You don't want to be within 1 mile from a Starbucks drink.
- Consult with a dessert chef when you are preparing your Sig. No, you don't want to prepare a desert, but these guys know more than anyone else how to combine variety of ingredients to deliver a particular taste profile. Every major city in the US has a culinary institute. Choose a chef with a good theoretical background in food chemistry. Promise him you will mention his contribution if you win and give him invaluable publicity. Offer to give an espresso class to his students. He may take you as a pet project, or as a curiosity but I'm sure you will find a receptive audience.
Tricks I learned from the pros
If I learn only one thing from an espresso jam I consider myself lucky. During the judges certification workshop, we were served drinks by two USBC Champions, Bronwen Serna & Phuong Tran. Both terrific baristas.
Avoiding Crema Bubbles
Bronwen is famous for her cappuccinos, and here's what makes her shine: Often, a cappa will show crema bubbles. This may not affect the taste so much as it affects the visual. To avoid crema bubbles she drops a little foam to the cup and immediately starts swirling and banging it on the counter as one would do with a steaming pitcher. After she is happy with the result she pours the rest of the milk.
A perfect cappuccino by Bronwen Serna served during the judges certification workshop.
Pouring Even Cappas
This one comes from Intelligentsia. Ellie, Amber & Matt all used it. The problem with using one pitcher to pour two cappuccinos is that the first pour will have more foam than the second. To avoid it, pour some of the foam into a 2nd pitcher before you pour your first cappa. Then use that foam to top off your 2nd pour.
A Few Technical Observations
Distribution & Leveling Techniques
The main two classical techniques are Stockfleth and Schomer. One is a circular motion and the other is an X pattern linear motion. I observed that almost all contestants performed some version of a linear motion as opposed to a circular one, with one contestant using a saw motion to distribute and level the puck.
All of the contestant whacked the doser handle while the grinder was running, and did not wait for it to finish grinding before they dosed. This may reduce clumping but it is also a good way to ensure that they do not waste coffee, for which the will be penalized in the scoring.
Almost all the contestant use two fingers to balance the tamper and achieve leveled tamp.
This has been a fantastic experience. Other non-professional coffee enthusiasts that were certified as USBC judges are Dan Kehn & Bob Roseman of Team HB; and Kitt Johnson. In addition to all that fun, I spent close to five days with great people who are as certifiable as I am, and for a brief period of time - I felt normal . By the end of the day I've had close to 30 espressos, counting all the other shots I had on the show floor. Sitting down for dinner with Jim Schulman, Bob Yellin & Marshal that night, I had a problem stopping my hands from shaking. A small price to pay for a terrific experience.
Phillip Search preparing his signature drink at the judges table. Notice the beautiful table layout and decoration
Say what? You gonna put four eggs in my espresso?? Billy Wilson giving a flawless performance.
The Judges certification workshop. From left: Spenser Turer (in checkered shirt); Nimo; Kitt Johnson; Dan Kehn, Bob Roseman, and Scott.
Phuong Tran, 2005 USBC Champion preparing her Sig at the judges' workshop
Mock competition at the judges' workshop
* All competition pictures are courtesy of Sean Lennon. Is there anything that dude does not do well??