As a seasoned barista, Barista Trainer and a first time competitor I wanted to share my experience of entering the Specialty Coffee Association's (SCA) UK Barista Championship (UKBC).
Entering a barista competition for the first time challenged me in more ways than I expected. I hope that by highlighting some trip hazards I found along the way others can benefit and be encouraged to compete. Feel the heat of the spotlight, it will undoubtedly offer a personal development over and above coffee making skills!
Here are my ten top tips!
1 - CHOOSE YOUR COFFEE - Have your eye out for interesting coffees all year round and secure as early as possible. Competitors working for roasters have a distinct advantage, I'm lucky as I get to cup coffee as a part of production, quality control and buying decisions regularly which exposes me to far more coffees and has trained my sensory knowledge and ability. Cupping is key to picking a competition coffee, cup as often as you can to choose your coffee and then again to nail that roast profile.
2 - CREATE YOUR SIGNATURE DRINK - I learned to get started on my 'sig' drink as early as I could but not before I had chosen a coffee! The signature drink will be tied to the flavours in your espresso. Compliment or contrast, working backwards from the flavour notes of your espresso can be a good place to start!
3 - READ THE RULES AND SCORE SHEETS - There are changes made to the rules almost every year so it’s essential that you not only know the rules inside out but that you are aware of any updates. Get a highlighter, read the rules from cover to cover, there’s a lot to get through but you’ll benefit greatly from having the knowledge of the full workings of the competition. Reading the score sheet will help focus your training. The Sensory score sheet and Technical score sheet are for the semi final, final and world final rounds. The Preliminary rounds are stripped back slightly to make the competition more accessible. Check out the areas which generate the highest scores and nail them ahead of the comp! Practice runs will always generate higher scores, be realistic and prepare for 20 -100 points less on the day.
4 - BRING SPARES OF EVERYTHING - Cups, glasses, water jugs, etc can all be broken in transit to or whilst setting up at the competition. Nothing worse than practicing for months to perform a perfect routine and then drop a glass just before starting and not having a back up!
5 - PRACTICE YOUR ROUTINE - from set up, not from when you’re set up! Often people will practice the routine and not the set up. Your time is split up into 15 mins set up, 15 mins presentation and 15 mins break down. If you’ve not set up before your routine is due to begin you’ll be under a lot of pressure doing this on the day for the first time and inevitably something will be misplaced when the nerves are high! Its worth noting that the prep area of the competition will be more of a social gathering area, it's worth being super organised as your bound to be distracted on the day.
6 - MEMORISE KEY INFORMATION - If you panic under pressure be sure to communicate key information of your routine as a minimum. As much as you want to chat about your opinion of the coffee industry its okay to forget bits of your script. However you’ll be marked down for forgetting variety, origin, recipe, roast degree etc (See 'Read through the score sheet in full' above!)
7 - BRING A TIMER - The espresso machine will be set to manual mode with no timers displayed, either use scales with a built in timer or have a separate timer.
8 - DON'T RELY ON DRIP TRAY SCALES - This is where some of the old school barista experience comes in handy. Lots of new baristas are reliant on scales while making coffee. If your coffee is dialled in, you should be able to produce the correct volume of coffee +/- 1ml or so if the same shot time is repeated. Learn to trust you grinder, distribution and tamping. The heats aren’t the WBC finals, let’s get the majority of criteria perfected and worry about the 0.5 of a ml difference in your espresso’s as you progress.
9 - PRACTICE WITH THE MAKE AND MODEL OF KIT YOU'LL BE USING ON THE DAY - I made the mistake of using a Strada ABR to practice on. This might sound like a luxury (which it was) but the ABR has scales built into the drip tray that auto tare. After weeks of practicing this way, it came time to add the scales into my routine (or not, see #8 above!), my workflow was changed entirely! It may not sound like much extra to do, but the pump has to be engaged immediately when the portafilter is inserted. It's easy enough to engage the pump and pull two cups down in time, but getting two sets of scales up onto the drip tray, cups on the scales and scales tared can be challenging if that’s not how you’ve practiced! This is just one example of how one feature affected my performance and highlights the importance of being familiar with your kit!
10 - MANAGE YOUR TIME - This is advice from someone who ran over time and was disqualified at first attempt I can say with confidence that practicing time management is essential. Knowing where I should have been in my routine at what time would have helped me qualify for the next round. There are many things I would have done differently... see ALL points above! Good luck!
Entering the UKBC was a great way to be more involved in the coffee community to accelerate my learning not only of the competition format and of coffee but was a great experience to give me confidence in my abilities and key life skills like public speaking. I'd urge anyone who's thinking of participating to give it a go but if you're not following the SCA UK news throughout the year you might never even know that the competition was happening! Give them a follow, send me your tips and I'll see you at the next comp!
Danny is Barista Trainer at Dear Green. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or book onto one of his classes here.