After the competition, the baristas were invited to meet with the judges to review their scores. I was fortunate to be among the sensory judges for three of the six finalists (Lem Butler, Mandy Catron, Claudia Raymo-Quirk). Understandably most of the baristas want to talk with the senior judges, not a local nobody like me (awww-w ), so I'll instead share my thoughts with you. None of these points are revelatory, but I hope they give you some insight into what judges are looking for.
Note: All of these comments are based on actual events. Names have been (mostly) omitted.
- Read the rules & regulations
Yes, it would seem obvious, but clearly some competitors skipped this important step. For example, no additives to the coffee (e.g., cayenne pepper, ginger) are allowed during the brew process because it can taint the machine's internals with hard-to-remove flavors. It is also worth reading the judges' rules & regulations. Why? That's the next comment...
- Make the judges' job easy
Know what the judges are looking for by reading the regulations. Be aware of that the judging protocol includes stipulations that aren't typical for social situations. For example, the judges must wait for a sign from the competitor that they are allowed to start sampling, either by explicitly saying something like "Please enjoy your drink" or clearly indicating that he/she is moving onto the next part of their work (e.g., "Now I am going to start your signature drinks."). Because the judges are required to listen intently to the competitor, eye contact during key points is essential. Sometimes competitors would chat with the MC about non-essential points (e.g., respond to questions like "What is your favorite drink?"). Providing clear clues that an important point is being made helps the judges score your performance more accurately. Also keep in mind that judges are strongly encouraged to jot down notes about their evaluation should the head judge or competitor later ask for clarification. Providing a "lull" in the conversation immediately after serving gives judges proper time to evaluate the drink and take notes. If the competitor begins speaking to the judges after serving, they are required to stop and listen. If a judge is engrossed in writing notes on the score sheet, they may miss the beginning of the competitor's commentary. Again, keep the important points clearly framed in your presentation so the judges don't miss them.
- Dress for the occasion
If I got a dollar every time somebody said "five star restaurant" when explaining what type of performance merits top scores, I would be able to afford an evening at such an establishment. Given this expectation, you would think that competitors would choose their apparel accordingly, but some were attired in jeans with untucked and rumpled shirts. The ladies generally understood the message better than the gentlemen baristas, which helps their "professionalism and passion" score.
- Bring everything for the setting
The judges' table wasn't a finished piece really, more like a plank of painted plywood. I suggested to organizers that a nice marble top would really look sharp, to which they replied that it was the competitor's responsibility to determine the look. Their point is well taken and the majority provided a nice linen tablecloth and cloth napkins. Lem Butler's setting was a surprise -- although he was dressed to the 9's, he used brown paper napkins and nothing else. At first glance I thought they were handtowels hastily grabbed from the men's room. Another common faux pas was the choice of waterglasses: huge 16+ ounce glasses filled with three ounces of water. Not only does it look out of place compared to the setting, it also potentially means being marked down for poor service for not refilling glasses.
- Don't serve drinks you know are seriously flawed
Every competitor watches the clock and several did go over the allotted 15 minutes. Even so, the maximum overtime deduction is 20 points, which is easily lost in the taste evaluation scores. A couple times I saw the look on the face of the competitor as they placed the drinks on the tray and it was clear they were making a mental calculation -- they knew that two or more of the drinks had sat way too long, or the extraction was terribly off the mark. I wanted to say out loud, "Remake it! Remake it! You still have enough time!" which of course isn't permitted. There's 60 points riding on each espresso for the four sensory judges, 48 points on the taste evaluation alone. Going up to two minutes over will cost 20 points, but losing even 1 point on the taste evaluation multiplied by the number of judges and weighting is 32 points. Bottom line: If you know it is no good, don't serve it even if you're short on time (up to 17 minutes).
- The unvarnished truth is in Part V, Judge's Total Impression
Workshop instructors pointed out that judges have more freedom in this score, since it is subjective by its very nature. Call it that je ne sais pas factor if you like, but this part is where the judge can show how they would "vote" overall. If a given drink was disappointing but overall the competitor was exceptional, a judge can send that message of approval in this score. Conversely, if the performance was deficient, this section will show it unfiltered by the particulars of one drink.