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HB
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#1: Post by HB »

One of the Specialty Coffee Association of America's most visible activities for the public at large is the regional, national, and worldwide barista competitions they organize. An SCAA barista competition is an event designed to encourage and recognize professional achievement in the art of espresso beverage preparation and service. Competitors prepare and service 12 coffee beverages -- one espresso, one cappuccino, and one signature drink of their own creation, for four judges in a space of 15 minutes.

Many volunteers serve as these judges, including myself. I had served as a sensory judge at the regional levels twice before and considered judging at the national level, which requires a more rigorous certification process, including a reputedly demanding sensory taste test.

To be honest, I loathed the idea of taking such a test. Read how I failed, passed, and learned that there's a lot of similarity between this test and the more pedantic "Pepsi Challenge". More...

_________________

Note: This thread has been published as a top-level article (September 9, 2006).
Dan Kehn

PeterG

#2: Post by PeterG »

Great posts, Dan.

It occurs to me that the above advice goes for more than just the sensory skills test; indeed it is the technique I use when I am doing ANY tasting exercise, whether cupping competition, espresso analysis, or tasting coffee "just for fun". The advice to move quickly (but carefully), trust your instincts, and be organized are techniques that the good coffee tasters all use.

As we were talking about at CCC, I think that we, as a culture, are generally too insecure about our senses of taste and smell. I talk to dozens of folks every week who say something to me like "I just can't tell the difference between coffees" and "My palate isn't sophisticated enough to detect the differences you describe". I always call BS on that. I usually ask: "Can you tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi? Do you have a preference?" The answer is usually "yes" to both. I then reply; "The difference between those two brands of soda is much subtler than the difference between a mediocre Kenya and a great one." To put it in the context of our discussion: if you can taste the difference between coke and pepsi (differences in sweetness and acidity) and you can tell the difference between salted and unsalted soda crackers, you probably have the physical ability to pass the sensory skills test. The obstacle, therefore, is largely mental. (Ted Lingle and Joseph Rivera would probably argue with me on this score, but I'll stick with it.)

Somehow, we've decided as a culture that perceiving and describing differences in wine, coffee, scotch, perfume, etc. is best left to the super-initiated and skilled. Most people, when they hear what I do for a living, say to me: "You must have an amazingly gifted palate." While I would love to think that this is true, I actually believe that my sense of taste or smell is no better or worse than, say, 80% of the people out there. I have tasted coffee with those who are considered the best in the industry, and they are in the same boat. The only thing we do differently is 1. pay attention, 2. trust our senses, and 3. document our results.

In thinking about this topic (while I lay in bed sick yesterday....yuk) it occurred to me that the sensory skills test measures not only the ability to physically taste, but the ability to confidently assert your results. And, in thinking about it, this is just as important to the espresso judge as the ability to taste is.

Peter G

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bobroseman

#3: Post by bobroseman »

I did pretty much everything wrong and came out convinced that I had made a botch of the test. My biggest mistake was retasting and mind changing. This resulted in a messy form with lots of strike outs. So for me, it's a case of don't do as I did; do as I say. And, I say, follow Dan's advice.

I would encourage you to take the test if you have the opportunity. You might be surprised by the result (as I was) and discover something about yourself that you didn't know. Like the cowardly lion in the wizard of oz, I have been given a certificate attesting to my possession of a trait that I thought that I did not possess.

Bob
(Hither to undiscovered savant, just plain lucky or, as Peter asserts, normal)
Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation. ~Author Unknown

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another_jim
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#4: Post by another_jim »

As Peter says, there's a real misapprehension about tasting. In general, and there's lots of data on this, foodies, wine experts, chefs, and other food and drink professionals are not supertasters, but rather average to above average tasters. Supertasters are almost as unsuitable as sub-tasters to judge food, since they are so sensitive that anything except plain water is too sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. They're the ones keeping themselves alive on rice cakes and bean sprouts.

The main qualification for tasting is a mature palate, that is, one that doesn't go yuck, like a baby's palate, whenever it gets something unfamiliar or unexpected, but tries to figure out what it is. This happens pretty automatically as one gets beyond adolescence. Growing up in a home where there's lots of variety and good food helps a lot; but I know many people who discovered their liking for fine tastes later in life.

My guess, especially after meeting lots of people who post about coffee and consider themselves poor tasters, is that everyone who's drunk a cup or shot of good coffee and gone "wow, this is something special" is perfectly capable of cupping and passing taste tests.
Jim Schulman

onemoreshot

#5: Post by onemoreshot »

Good words of advice.

I scored a 100/100/68 which was tough to swallow missing it by only two points, but not as tough to swallow as reliving what I would have done differently. Having gone into the test with no prior understanding, I was a little disorganized and probably tasted/retasted far too much. It was a well run exam and I enjoyed the experience, the only consolation is that on another day I might have passed or maybe not, but it doesn't matter too much either way as I now understand that I have a reasonable sense of taste (though my wife would disagree given some of the clothes I wear, haha). With a newly discovered "authorized understanding" I can feel reasonably confident when I enjoy a shot at home or throw one down the sink knowing it is supported by science-based context. Not to say my espresso would please everyone but when it pleases me at least there will be 68% of the population who might put up with it (or something like that).

I recommend the test to anyone who has the opportunity; it's tough, it's humbling and ultimately even if you don't pass you will probably learn something about your sense of taste.

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HB (original poster)
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#6: Post by HB (original poster) »

The 2006 USBC and WBC are behind us, the 2007 competition begins anew. With the coming SCAA South-East Region Barista Competition only two weeks away, my thoughts turned to judging and my not so distant brush with the "dreaded" SCAA Sensory Skills Test. In the hopes of dispelling some of the fears of candidate USBC judges who must take this test, I've promoted this thread to a top-level article under Features.

I wish that I had known what is documented in Increasing Your Odds of Passing before taking it [the first time]. Good luck!
Dan Kehn

zin1953

#7: Post by zin1953 »

another_jim wrote:As Peter says, there's a real misapprehension about tasting. In general, and there's lots of data on this, foodies, wine experts, chefs, and other food and drink professionals are not supertasters, but rather average to above average tasters. Supertasters are almost as unsuitable as sub-tasters to judge food, since they are so sensitive that anything except plain water is too sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. They're the ones keeping themselves alive on rice cakes and bean sprouts.
A couple of comments from someone who has been a professional WINE judge for some 25 years . . .

To begin with, I completely disagree about supertasters. They are typically much more adept at detecting flaws than anyone else, and definitely eat (and drink) more than rice cakes, bean sprouts and distilled water! What they are not is automatically better at evaluating wines, writing tasting notes, and having a good palate from a sensory standpoint (versus a technical one).

That said, it is sad to note that most competitions in the wine world have no -- repeat, NO -- qualifications to be a judge. All too frequently, people invited to judge are buyers from a retail wine store or a restaurant, a wholesale rep, a winemaker, and so on -- sometimes even just friends of the Chief Judge!

Some competitions, however, do require prospective judges to be tested. (Others may accept a passing grade on an exam at a differerent competition as qualification enough.)

Just to give you an idea, the qualifying Judges' Exam for the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition is as follows:

1. A flight of twelve wines which may (or may not) have a technical flaw deliberately induced into the wine. You have to identify each flaw (or lack thereof) correctly. Passing grade: 11 right out of 12.

2. You are given a flight (let's call it "Flight A") of eight white wines, with no identifying information other than the varietal (e.g.: Sauvignon Blanc. You have 15 minutes to taste, evaluate and award medals (or not) to these wines as if it is a real competition. Then, the wines are removed and eight new glasses are presented in "Flight B" for evaluation. These are the same eight wines, but in a different order. You have 10 minutes to taste, evaluate and award medals (or not). These are then taken away, and a third flight ("Flight C") is brought out -- again, it's the same wines in yet another different order. Again, you have ten minutes . . . A passing grade is giving each and every wine the EXACT same medal score each and every time -- no deviations.

3. This process is repeated ("Flights D, E and F"), but with red wines (e.g.: Zinfandel). Again, a passing grade is giving each wine the exact same score each of the three times it's presented.
another_jim wrote:The main qualification for tasting is a mature palate, that is, one that doesn't go yuck, like a baby's palate, whenever it gets something unfamiliar or unexpected, but tries to figure out what it is. This happens pretty automatically as one gets beyond adolescence. Growing up in a home where there's lots of variety and good food helps a lot; but I know many people who discovered their liking for fine tastes later in life.
As I tell my students, the most important thing you can ever say about a wine is "Yum or Yuck!" But if you want anyone else to understand WHY you feel that way, you're going to have to learn how to elaborate.
A morning without coffee is sleep. -- Anon.

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another_jim
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#8: Post by another_jim »

Just a word of thanks to Dan for writing this article. Reading it made it a lot easier for Bob and I to pass the first time around. Seems others were reading it too; since about half the people taking it passed, as opposed to the usual quarter.
Jim Schulman

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HB (original poster)
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#9: Post by HB (original poster) »

I ran across this video while searching the net; it's from coffeevideomagazine.com and includes comments from Joseph Rivera. If you watch closely when the camera pans the barista competition, you'll also see Abe Carmeli among the sensory judges (00:10).

Sensory Skills Test
Dan Kehn

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#10: Post by another_jim »

A small addendum for the article on how to do the test. I passed it first time, not brilliantly, but fairly solidly with a 100, 100, 80.

I intensely dislike taking any test I'm not certain I'll pass, so I decided to practice and work out a system for the third set, the mixed solutions. The second set has an easy system, taste once and sort into salty, sweet or sour, taste each group a second time to sort into strengths. However, the third set has no obvious system, since there's 64 possible solution {none, weak, medium, strong} ^ (salt, sweet, sour), and there's no space on the table to arrange them. After some practice, I settled on this system of comparing each cup to the preceding one, since it yielded passing scores for me each time:

A. Have a piece of blank paper and write down the code numbers of the 8 cups in the same order as in the test form, 1 cup per line. Then add three columns, one for salt, one for sweet, one for sour.

B Taste the first solution and score it in the three columns

C. Taste the second solution, comparing the sweet, salty and sour to the first, ask yourself, "more, less, alot more. a lot less?" and score it.

D. Compare the third to the second, the fourth to the third, and so on till you're done.

E. When scoring, if you have a three, and the next cup tastes stronger, don't sweat it, don't worry, just score it a four. You can give negative scores as well, if the comparisons pan out that way.

F. When you're done, CALIBRATE the scores in each taste column so they run from zero to three, by adding or subtracting the same number from the score of each cup in the column where you are out of range.

G. Transfer the calibrated scores to the score sheet. It's advisable to mark your zeros as ones, due to the odd way the test is scored (4 point deduction for calling a one a zero, but only two points for the other way around)

Fair warning. Bob, who practiced with me, decided that this system sucked, and he simply tasted the cups and scored them. He passed just fine too.


One other tip: take along a sharpie. The cups they give you are unmarked, and are impossible to mark with pencil or ballpoint. They fill the unlabeled cups from numbered pitchers. It's very easy to lose track of which cup is which.
Jim Schulman