2013 Seoul Recap, Part 2: The ABWG

The reason I went to Seoul in the first place was to judge the Angel-in-us Barista World Grand Prix (ABWG). From first moment after I cleared customs in Seoul, Angel-in-us (sounds like “Angelina’s”) made me feel welcome. Despite the fact that my plane was nearly two hours late in arriving (we had a late start and some strong headwinds), my greeter met me with a smile at the airport. He did not complain (at least to me) when it took us two hours to get from the airport to downtown in rush hour traffic. (Travel note: My trip was long, but I had it much easier than some of the other participants. One of the baristas traveled more than 37 hours, from Chile to Seoul, via Atlanta. Two judges, traveling from Europe, spent an unplanned night in a hotel in Istanbul.)

 Photo courtesy Jinsu Lee

Photo courtesy Jinsu Lee

When we finally did make it into Seoul, we skipped the hotel and went directly to the welcome dinner (most of which I missed), where the gathered judges and baristas went over the competition rules. The baristas also drew lots for the presentation order. After dinner, a short walk through Seoul’s Gangnam district to the hotel felt good, despite the cold weather. Seoul’s nighttime brilliance dulled the chill in the air.

The next morning, after a short sleep and a hearty breakfast, we reported to the massive Coex exhibition hall for a short calibration session prior to the start of the competition. The ABWG was somewhat different than competitions I have judged in the past, partly because it had a more commercial feel. The ABWG’s elaborate stage and audio-visual setup, the elegant hostess, and the two huge HD screens showing the live feed made the competition feel like a big made-for-TV event.Six baristas from Korea and six international baristas competed. Most of the Korean competitors were top finishers in the Angel-in-us Korean championship, held earlier in the year. The lineup included Juwon Park (the champion), Seung Kyu Park, Wonmi Park, Dongho Seo, Hee Do Jung, and Jeong Mi Choi. All had several years of experience as baristas.

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Dongho Seo carefully measures out his ingredients for the signature beverage. Photo courtesy Angel-in-us.

The ABWG attracted some talented baristas and coffee people from outside Korea too. Four of the international baristas had competed at the 2013 World Barista Championship (WBC) in Melbourne: William Fernandez, from El Salvador (who finished 3rd at the WBC), Ronal Valero (Colombia), Cristian Vera (Chile) and Stefan Laurentiu (Romania). Rhoda Wambui, who represented Kenya in the 2012 WBC, and Anggara Rizki Saputro, runner-up in the 2013 ASEAN Barista competition, also competed, representing Indonesia.

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Rhoda Wambui presents on the first day of the ABWG. Photo courtesy Angel-in-us.Four international judges (including me) participated: Jon Macau (Kenya), Elisabet Sereno (Spain), and Silvia Constantin (Romania). Each had a long resume of coffee and judging experience.One surprising omission was the lack of a barista from North America. I heard that some competitors were contacted, but did not respond. Talking with the baristas who did come, I can understand why. One barista I spoke with told me that when ABWG first contacted him with the offer of an all-expense-paid trip to Korea to compete, he thought it was some kind of scam. Only over time did he realize the offer was real (and, speaking with him post-competition, he was very glad he came). Next year perhaps, when a US competitor is contacted to compete, he or she will heed the call and attend.

The competition format

Competitors had 25 minutes to make four different types of beverages: espressos, cappuccinos, and two different signature beverages (one of each for every sensory judge, for a total of sixteen drinks). Monin was a major sponsor for the event, and at least one of the signature beverages had to include a Monin syrup. Individually, the espressos were the most important drink, being worth 52 points, while the other three beverages each was worth 31 points. The competition seemed split between the importance of the coffee and the creativity and skill of the barista.

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Juwon Park pours a cappuccino. Photo courtesy Angel-in-us

While I always enjoy trying different espressos, the highlight of the competition was to see the signature beverages. Most of the baristas chose to make cold drinks for their signature beverages. Likely, this was because glassware for cold drinks is more elegant (e.g., martini glasses) than ceramic mugs and cups typically used for hot beverages. Without question, some of the baristas were able to create beautiful drinks. Some looked like fancy cocktails, with artful layering of colors and textures inside sleek glasses. Others were simpler, with a clean look. The flavors were varied too. One barista made an espresso-lemon cheesecake drink, another, a concoction of toasted nuts, sweetened almond milk and espresso.

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One of Juwon Park's signature beverages. Screenshot from video at ABWG website.

In addition to visual and taste characteristics, we judged the signature beverages on their practicality and marketability in a café setting. In other words, could the drink be reproduced in a café, and would people want to buy it? (Angel-in-us reserved the right to market and sell the signature beverage in its cafés, with the agreement to provide royalties to the barista for the recipe.)

The competition had its logistical challenges. One of the biggest difficulties was the language barrier. None of the international judges spoke Korean, and the Korean judges spoke limited English, some better than others. Three of the competitors and two of the judges spoke Spanish, so the languages were flying fast and furious. ABWG provided interpreters (who generally did a great job), but even with the interpreters, some things were lost in translation. That said, trying to communicate with the other judges was half the fun of being there. It was not always easy, but we managed to bridge the cultural and language gaps in a way that allowed us to be fair to the competitors.

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Focused judges. Photo courtesy Angel-in-us.

The Korean baristas had an advantage over the international baristas, having competed in the earlier competition. The international competitors had to come up with a plan based on the rulebook alone. Despite this disadvantage, two international competitors (Valero and Fernandez) made the final round, along with four Koreans.

Intensity of the Finals

Twelve baristas competed over the first two days of the competition, with six advancing to the finals on Saturday. To be fair to the competitors, the same group of judges evaluated all six finalists, and ABWG’s organizers decided to have the four international judges be the sensory judges for the finals.

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Under the bright lights. Photo courtesy Angel-in-us.Judging the finals was also a new experience for me. Each of the four sensory judges had to evaluate 24 different beverages, each with at least one shot of espresso, making the ability to manage caffeine intake an important part of our task. Even if we only took a few sips of each, the caffeine added up quickly. In between presentations, I raced to drink as much water as possible before returning to the stage (between the jet lag and the coffee overdose, I didn’t sleep that night).

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William Fernandez won the competition with an elaborate performance that included infusions of three different types of honey-processed coffee beans. The highlight of his presentation was his unique way of introducing one of his signature beverages, where he used the syrups to paint the image of a coffee shrub on a Chemex filter. It was apparent he had had a high level of coffee knowledge and enjoyed being on stage, as did all the finalists.Fernandez's coffee painting. Photo courtesy Jinsu Lee.

Commercialism and coffee

The ABWG attracted large audiences each time a competitor presented, but I do not know what type of return Angel-in-us (and the other sponsors) made for their elaborate event. All I know for sure is that the company invested a lot of time and money in putting it together (in addition to paying travel expenses of the international participants, the top three prizes for the competition were US $10,000, $6,000, and $3,000, respectively—serious money for winning a barista competition!). Regardless, the competition was a fun event that earned a lot of goodwill from the international participants. If Angel-in-us holds another event again next year, I’m sure that more people will be interested in participating.

Before going to Seoul, I was worried that the commercialism would give the competition an inauthentic atmosphere, but being there, it did not seem to be a problem. In fact, one could argue that the sponsorships and extra funding improved the experience. Without the sponsorship, it is unclear whether any of the international participants would have come. The prize money heightened the tension and sharpened the senses for everyone involved, because we knew what was on the line.

As usual, my favorite part of the whole trip was the cultural aspect. For me, the ABWG was a great opportunity to meet people and learn more about others’ cultures. The memories that will remain the longest are from outside the competition, when we were able to hang out and talk about a wide range of topics, beyond just coffee. In these non-scripted moments, we laughed together and built relationships, some of which will last a lifetime. This alone made any travel challenges worth the trouble, and I would love to go back.