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.)

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.

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Let's get ready to....pull shots! (NWRBC 2013 is almost here)

The Northwest Regional Barista Competition (NWRBC) is coming up the first weekend of February, and to help potential competitors prepare, the Barista Guild and Sprudge.com hosted a mock competition run-through on January 5th at the American Barista and Coffee School in Portland (there was also one in Seattle the night before).

Laila Ghambari, who now works for Caffe Ladro in Seattle, put together a 15-minute performance to demonstrate what a typical entry would look like. To make the demonstration as real as possible, two technical judges and four sensory judges (including me) gave her a set of scores, just as we would in a real competition. Marcus Young, of Central City Coffee acted as the head judge and led us as we discussed our scores in front of everyone.

The event informed (and hopefully inspired) the baristas in the audience who were interested in competing at the NWRBC and beyond. Afterwords, Sprudge put together a nice video that explained Laila’s performance as she went through it. Check it out below:

NWRBC details:
When: February 1-3, 2013
Where: Urban Enoteca, 4130 1st Ave S, Seattle, WA, 98134 (map)
Why you should go: You like coffee and/or Seattle
Cost: Free to watch, as far as I know (it has been in the past), and includes as much espresso as you will ever want to drink in a day
Website: In case you don’t go, you can watch it streaming online at: http://usbaristachampionships.org

Photos from the 2012 USBC

Here are a few pictures from the 2012 United States Barista Championship (higher-resolution versions of most of them can be found here): 

The USBC competition area early Thursday morning

Everyone was competing for this

The TV crew was ready to stream the USBC live online
Tyler Stevens from Barista opened up the competition

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Competitive coffee II - Judgment day

Day 1 – How I became a judge

When I woke up Friday morning, the first thing that popped into my mind was the four elements of the espresso category along with the things I should be looking for in each one. I was focused. At least I hadn’t dreamed about cappuccinos.

We went to the convention center an hour before the start of the competition to do a little more calibration of our palates. We judged a few espressos and cappuccinos and returned to the judges’ chambers (really just a side room).

At 12pm, we got the call to come judge. We filed out into the competition hall, were introduced, shook the competitor’s hand and took our places. It was time to see if our training had prepared us.

Competition protocol

The protocol for SCAA-sponsored barista competitions is standard throughout the United States. During the competition, baristas have 15 minutes to prepare their competition station. The station is set up with a machine table (where the espresso machine sits), a preparation table (for storing milk and other ingredients) and the judges table (where the four sensory judges sit, and act as customers). As the barista prepare, they calibrate their grinder and carefully lay out the tools they will need to make the drinks. Usually, they set out plates, napkins, water glasses and spoons at the judges’ table.

After the 15 minute prep time, the judging team enters and takes its place. That’s when the main competition really begins.

Each barista must make three sets of four drinks during the 15 minutes – an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature beverage for each of the four sensory judges. That’s 12 drinks in 15 minutes! It would be a difficult challenge for a barista accomplish anytime and even more so with the pressure of competition weighing on them. Baristas must be efficient and fluid with their movements. The baristas are expected to talk about the coffee(s) they are using, describing the origin and the characteristics that make their chosen coffee special.

Seven judges evaluate each competitor’s performance. This includes two technical judges, a head judge and four sensory judges. The technical judges hover over and around the competitors while they are presenting, watching how the barista grinds, tamps, uses towels, keeps the station clean, and a myriad of other details.

The head judges watch the other judges to make sure they are judging consistently. The head judge tastes many of the drinks, often writing down their own scores. These scores do not count, but it does help the head judge estimate what the sensory judges should be scoring each drink. If there are any major discrepancy between the judges, the head judge helps resolve them.

I chose to be a sensory judge, for several reasons. First, I had done a lot of “sensory evaluation” (drinking espresso) over the last year and a half, so I knew I would feel more comfortable as a sensory judge. Second, technical judges have a large number of small things to watch and it helps to have a lot of barista experience. Most importantly, the sensory judges are the ones who get to taste the drinks. How could I go to a barista competition and not taste the drinks?

Put your tastes aside

As a sensory judge, one challenge was to put my biases aside and base my observations on the rules set by the competition committee. When I go cafés, I often “judge” the espresso and talk about its flavors. Most of my observations are highly subjective, which is fine in context of the blog. However, it doesn’t make for good competition scoring. To be a good judge, you have to be able to discard your own preferences and judge the espressos against the standards in the rule book. For espresso, this means you evaluate the crema, first for its color, then for its persistence and consistency.

Next, you mix the espresso three times from front to back, using the small spoon that the barista is required to provide. An espresso should have a balance of sweetness, sourness and bitterness, and these reside at different levels in the cup. Mixing the espresso allows you to detect all three flavors in each sip (assuming they are present). In addition to the taste balance, you also evaluate its “tactile balance,” or what coffee people often refer to as mouthfeel. These characteristics test the barista’s skills at pulling shots.

Cappuccinos are judged in a similar manner. The first criterion is visual appeal, which doesn’t mean the barista is skilled at latte art. Instead, judges are looking for contrast, sheen, balance, symmetry and whether or not there is a complete brown espresso ring around the outside of the milk in the center. Once the judges have evaluated the visual aspect, they take a spoon and push it across the foam of the cappuccino to check the persistence and consistency (“per-con,” in judging lexicon). Foam must be 1cm thick or more for the cappuccino to score Very Good in the per-con category.

After checking out how they look, the judges sip the cappuccino to determine its “taste balance.” Both sips must be taken in a location on the rim where the foam was not disturbed by the spoon. The judge should be able to detect a pleasant balance between the sweetness of the milk and the more bitter espresso flavors. The temperature should also be a temperature that you can drink the cappuccino immediately, without letting it cool.

The third category of drinks, the signature beverage category, has criteria that are less defined. The baristas get to express their creativity in making a drink, so some of the drinks are very complex. I have seen baristas add coffee reductions, gum syrup, star fruit juice, a raspberry ganache, an infusion of hops—you name it, and a barista has tried it.

It is somewhat harder to calibrate for the signature beverages because they are different from competitor to competitor, but no matter what, the drink should be designed to feature the espresso. One of the keys for baristas who want to score well in the “sig bev” category is to clearly explain what they are doing so that the judges know what to expect. They should also remember that the espresso is central to the drink – i.e., whenever they are thinking about how to compose the drink, they should think how all of the additions showcase the espresso. It is easy to forget that. The beverage can be delicious, but if the judge cannot taste a strong espresso presence, it will receive a low score.

During the calibration, the head judges and trainers drilled the procedure and evaluation criteria into our heads, constantly reminding us that we had to remove our own tastes and biases from the evaluation process as much as possible. They had us focus on describing what we saw, so that we could justify the scores that baristas would receive.

Speed is important when you are a sensory judge. You need to quickly evaluate the drinks, because any time lag negatively effects the quality of the beverages. The crema on the espresso is its thickest and most stable when it is first served. So is the foam on the cappuccino. A judge cannot hesitate. With an espresso, for example, the judges’ thought process is something like, “color, tip forward, tip back, stir, stir, stir, sip once, sip twice, give it a score.” Then you take a couple notes to support the score you give it. You have to do this in a few seconds. At first, you go slowly trying to remember everything, but the process becomes automatic over time.

After each competitor, we went back to the judges room to finish our score sheets. Our head judge gently pushed us to make any corrections necessary. His experience was super helpful as we struggled a couple times to come up with the justification for our scores. Instead of telling us to change our scores (both upward and downward, by the way), he had us justify the score we gave the competitors. If we had good justification for what we experienced, he let the score stand.

The trainers’ instructions rattled around my mind as I sat at the table, trying hard to concentrate on what the barista was saying. While we were finishing the score sheets, the head judges told us to be sure to make eye contact and smile with the competitors to make them feel more at ease. I thought we had been, but apparently we were all concentrating so hard on getting the judging right that we forgot to smile. It was easier to smile for the next two. We were all more relaxed by then.

Worth doing again

Each of the competitors put in a lot of work preparing, and I felt honored to be a part of the team that judged them. As they told us in the beginning of the training, one of the main roles of a judge is to support the baristas as professionals. We’re not there to “judge” them (okay, yes we are), but rather to give them feedback for all their preparation and make the competition as much fun as possible. Everyone wants to help raise the specialty coffee industry’s profile and these competitions are an opportunity to do that.

We (the judges) appreciated the hard work they put in as they prepared for the competition. My highest praise goes to our trainers, the head judges who got us ready for judging (and scared the hell out of us with those tests). Above all, I would like to thank Mike Strumpf, of Swiss Water, who was the head judge on my judging team on Friday. Mike did a fantastic job guiding us. His experience and expertise was obvious as he led us when we needed help making the proper scoring decisions.

Looking back, I had a great time judging, and plan to do it again sometime. Hopefully it will work out to judge at the USBC when it comes to Portland in April. See you there?


I left Tacoma for Portland on Friday (if you missed the story of that misadventure, it’s here), but I did watch parts of the next two days on my computer. If you look closely, you might see a couple of local PDX coffee people in the screen shots of the competition.

The finals took place on Sunday afternoon. The top six competitors from the previous two days presented their routines for the judges one more time. This year, the six finalists were all from Portland (I told you Portland was the center of the specialty coffee universe). Sam Purvis (the 2010 NWRBC champion), and Devin Chapman represented Coava, Laila Ghambari represented Stumptown, Collin Schneider competed for Sterling/Coffeehouse Northwest and Tyler Stevens and Marty Lopes came from  Barista.

Devin Chapman finished first, Laila Ghambari, second, and Tyler Stevens, third. Chapman also won the regional Brewer’s Cup (for the second consecutive year), so he had a heck of a Sunday. He will automatically be entered in the semi-final round at the USBC, and the other five competitors can enter the first round of the USBC, if they choose. Portland is going to be well-represented as it competes on its home turf. 

Competitive coffee – How I became a barista competition judge

Day 2 - Judgement Day

Brrriiiiingg! Brrriiiiingg! Brrriiiiingg!

My eyes popped open and I looked around, trying to figure out where I was. The room was still dark. What the hell? Will someone shut that bell off please?—I thought, half-dazed. Then I remembered—the bell was my 5:15 alarm going off. It was Thursday, January 26, and I was supposed to go to Tacoma for the 2012 Northwest Regional Barista Championships (NWRBC). Yawning, I rolled slowly out of bed, grabbed a quick breakfast and made my way to the bus stop by 5:50am.

The bus took me to meet Brandon Arends, who was driving us up to Tacoma. The NWRBC didn’t start until Friday, but we were going up a day early to get certified as judges for the competition. Over the last year, ever since we volunteered together at the 2011 NWRBC, Brandon has been trying to get me to try judging. For a long time, I was reluctant because I didn’t think I had enough relevant coffee experience. It’s one thing to regularly drink and write about coffee, and quite another to be working with it all the time. He finally convinced me though, which is why I found myself rolling up I-5 towards Tacoma at 6:15am.

I was a little nervous about the day ahead. I didn’t know what to expect at the training because I had waited until the last minute to register and never got the email with the day’s schedule and instructions. Brandon, who registered on time, had given me a little advice on Wednesday night, when we discussed our travel plans.

“Make sure you check out the rules and the score sheet,” he told me.

“I’ll do it,” I replied, not really intending to do much studying.

I should have heeded his warning a little more closely.

Tacoma – center of haute café (for a few days, at least)

The barista competition was once again being held at the Tacoma Convention Center in downtown Tacoma, where bail bonds shops outnumber specialty cafés. Since Tacoma is not the hotbed of coffee in the Northwest, you might wonder why the SCAA decided to hold its convention here two years in a row. I know I did.

Brandon suggested two reasons. First, Tacoma’s proximity to SEA-TAC airport makes it easy to travel there. Second, it would have been Portland’s turn to host, except that the city is hosting the United States Barista Championship in April. My theory is that if the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) held both competitions in Portland, it would be too openly admitting that Portland is the center of the universe when it comes to specialty coffee. Portlanders already know this to be true, but we wouldn’t want to hurt Seattle’s feelings.

Whatever the reason, the Tacoma Convention Center makes a good spot for the competition. It has lots of space, there’s free parking just a couple blocks away, and hotel rates in Tacoma are reasonable (late January is the low season for tourists in Tacoma).

Ready or not…

We scooted in through front doors at 9am and took our places at the only available seats in the room (the training was kind of like going to church—if you arrive late, you sit up front). The head judges welcomed everyone and introduced themselves before going over the protocol for becoming a judge. Each of the head judges had worked in the coffee industry and had years of experience judging competitions all over the world.

But what about the rest of us? What type of people are judges for barista competitions? Most of the people in the room worked full time in the coffee industry, as trainers, café managers, baristas, marketers—all types of roles.

However, not everyone had years of experience in the industry, so I didn’t feel as out of place as I thought I might. One woman was a writer from Seattle who was trying to learn more about coffee. Another woman had only worked in coffee for a year. She had never been to a competition before, but her manager encouraged her to come to judge.

After introductions, our teacher said it was time to take the certification test, and that we “have to get an 80% on the exams to get your certification to judge.”

Test?! Already? Eighty percent? I felt a whoosh of air around me as the test takers gasped in unison.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get the memo about knowing the rules beforehand.  Could they really expect us to know how to judge before we got there?

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recalled Brandon’s advice from the night before. At least I had read through the rules in the car on the ride up to Tacoma.

How much do you know?

I started down through the exam, which consisted of multiple-choice questions and fill-in-the-blank questions about both technical and sensory elements. The test took me nearly an hour to complete and covered the USBC rules and the official competition score sheet. It had questions like, “How do you judge the integrity of an espresso’s crema?” and “How thick does the foam on a cappuccino have to be for the drink to be eligible to receive a “Very Good” score?”

As I worked my way through the exam, I pictured myself back in college, sweating my way through an English literature exam I hadn’t prepared for. I employed every trick in the book I could think of, eliminating obviously incorrect answers and leafing through the different sections of the test for clues.

When everyone had finished the exam, we took a short break before resuming our training. Multiple people I talked to during the break were pessimistic about their results on the test.

It’s not getting easier

After we had been tested for our knowledge of the rules, we moved on to actually figuring out what made a good drink and what didn’t. One of the most difficult things about judging is to get all the judges to grade consistently between competitors. This process is known as calibration. The head judges showed us slides of what to look for when we looked at a good espresso crema (and a bad one). The crema is the foamy layer that sits on top of an espresso. It is formed when the steam is forced through the coffee grounds, emulsifying the oils inside. 

In each slide, the crema looked a little different. We discussed how they differed and which deserved good scores and which did not. The session helped us better understand the official standards of the competition.  We then took a quiz, looking at several photos of espressos of varying quality.

Just before the lunch break, we did a triangulation test to check our palates. I propose another name for it: the Sesame Street test (“one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong…”). A triangulation test is an exercise where three coffees are set out on a table together. Two of them are the same and the other one is different.  The testers sip each one and mark down which of the three is different.

If I felt fairly confident about the capabilities of my palate before Thursday, I finished the triangulation test wondering if I had ever tasted coffee before in my life. We did six groups of three, and I was confident about only two of the groups. The rest of them were similar enough that I ended up guessing. I figured I had failed the test and would end up washing dishes instead of judging.

Everyone seemed relieved when lunch was served. As we gathered around the buffet table, I overheard several people in shock at the difficulty of the triangulation test. I don’t know if it really helps to know you aren’t the only one struggling, but I know I felt a whole lot better after eating.

After lunch, the head judges gave us our test results. By some miracle, I had passed! I was relieved (the judges also passed around a new exam for those who needed to re-take it. It turns out the first test was not our only opportunity to become a judge—but we didn’t know that at the time).

The real calibration – testing drinks

When everyone had their tests done, the group finally got down to calibrating with real drinks. We went to the main hall where the three espresso machines had been set up for the competition. Technical judges grouped up at one machine, and the sensory judges divided into two groups and gathered around the other machines. Each machine was staffed by a barista who made us a variety of drinks. Our barista tried to vary the quality of the shots he made, attempting to make the calibration more like the competition.

We began by evaluating espressos. Espresso is the main focus of the Barista Championships. Espresso is the most difficult type of coffee to make well and make consistently. If a barista wants to score well, he or she needs to make great espresso, not only in the espresso course, but also in the cappuccino and signature beverage course. As the baristas pumped out the espressos, the trainers let us write down our impressions, helping us keep to the regulations in the rulebook.

The calibration was fun, but challenging. All of the judges who were new to the certification process were reluctant to make a definitive score for each of the drinks we tried. We would taste a drink then look to our trainer for guidance, instead of writing down the score we thought it deserved. After a while, when we had evaluated shot after shot and cappuccino after cappuccino, we began to get a pretty good sense of what was good according to standard and what was not.

Each drink gets the following scores. Unacceptable=0, Acceptable=1, Average=2, Good=3, Very Good=4, Excellent=5 or Extraordinary=6. You can give scores with half-point increments, but no scores of 0.5 are allowed, and the head judge must approve any scores of Extraordinary. As we practiced judging, we were encouraged to use the words instead of the numbers in order to accustom ourselves to the official scoring language. The language helped us score the drinks more accurately.

We finally finished up the calibration about quarter to six. The head judges sent us home and told us to be back at 11am the next morning. We were well-caffeinated and ready to go find some dinner. My fears about being judged unworthy to be a judge had not been realized. When we got the schedule for Friday, I was assigned to the first, third and fifth competitors. I knew I would be nervous, but thanks to our trainers, I felt confident that I would do a good job.