Editor’s note: When Christine contacted me with the idea of writing for Barista Magazine about why she finds it not only interesting and fun, but also extremely educational to judge barista competitions, I was excited. From the formal contest that culminates in the World Barista Championship, to every other kind of coffee contest, such as Coffee Fest’s America’s Best Coffeehouse Competition and Latte Art Competition, AeroPress Championships, team barista competitions, and many more, such trials are a wonderful way to engage not only the participants, but the consumers we strive to interest in specialty coffee. But since the beginning, the contestants have developed and excelled at a much faster rate than judges. To keep up, judging committees in all areas of competition are constantly working to streamline rules, develop protocol for judges, and so forth. Judging is extremely important, not only to the competitors, but to the industry as a whole. The best kinds of competitions should echo some element of the daily cafe experience, and the more well equipped judges are at evaluating what they see on stage, the more likely they’ll bring those lessons back to their own coffeehouses.
WHY I JUDGE
BY CHRISTINE GOEPFERT
Judging barista competitions is an exhilarating experience. I judge because it’s a terrific way to support the barista community, sharpen my sensory and technical expertise, and become sparklingly overcaffeinated from sampling some of the best espresso drinks around. This is also an opportunity to work with amazing specialty coffee professionals. It’s a lovely feeling to be “in calibration” with fellow judges, especially when they are a diverse set of baristas, trainers, green coffee buyers, roasters, sales reps, and cafe owners. It gives you a sense of purpose and belonging; it makes you happy to be in specialty coffee.
Although it is very fun and exciting, one should not approach judging with a casual or flippant attitude. Make no mistake: this is work. Judging requires familiarity with industry standards, a good palate (for sensory analysis), and the ability to maintain focus, evaluate consistently, and score without bias. Considering the amount of preparation, practice, and sacrifice that competitors put into their routines, it is only fair that judges are duly prepared and organized.
For regional barista competitions, prospective judges undergo a day-long workshop to review the rules and protocols. There is a written exam on the official rules and regulations (which you must study ahead of time), and a sensory test (a triangulation of sweet, salty, and sour to establish palate fitness). Judges also sit for mock presentations to get some practice in active observation and rapid assessment. The aim is to ensure that the judges are qualified and trained in how to properly evaluate the baristas’ performances.
At the national level the stakes are even greater, so the judges’ workshop is more advanced. The palate evaluation is more intensive, and includes an aromatics quiz. There is also more detailed discussion of scoring methods, how to give appropriate and useful feedback in your notes, and how to hone the ability to focus on what is important (i.e. germane to the score sheet) and avoid getting stuck on irrelevant details. USBC Judges undergo several mock presentations, with different mock competitors exhibiting different styles to get back into judge mode. Furthermore, in order to judge at this level, you must demonstrate your own aptitude at the bar. USBC judges take a performance test in which they dial in espresso, serve shots and share their assessment (flavor, body descriptors) with a head judge.
Before competition begins, sensory judges engage in calibration—tasting espresso and cappuccinos together—to reestablish their baseline for sensory evaluation and to prime their palates. Another calibration occurs after every performance. After a competitor calls time, the judges retire to discuss their scores. This is not about everyone having the same scores across the board; if Judge A had a cappuccino that truly tasted better (or worse) than the one served to Judge B, then this should be reflected in the scores and notes. This is an opportunity to verify scores and make sure you have sufficient notes to back up your scores. Sometimes, on further consideration, you find that the initial score you wrote was a little too generous (or stingy) and you want to knock it down (or up). The head judge takes on the task of shepherding the sensory and tech judges towards accurate assessments, not meddling and changing scores arbitrarily. The head judge has her own score sheet, but this is for reference rather than official scoring (only sensory and tech scores count). Post-calibration is an opportunity to reflect on a shared experience and ensure that it has been recorded and scored accurately and consistently. It’s kind of an anti-Rashomon effect.
The top priority of barista competitions is to showcase specialty coffee through demonstration of superlative skills and expertise. It is about the coffee, so as a judge you are there for the coffee. My advice to anyone interested in judging is: don’t make things more difficult. Don’t over think things. Don’t get obsessive or judgmental. If you do, you might find the power of your own opinion an irresistible force. Not only is this grossly inappropriate, it makes hell for your head judge. A helpful mantra I adopted was “surrender to the words.” That is, defer to the rules and regulations rather than make up your own rationale for your scores. As a judge it is not your job to be creative—it is your job to apply the same standards, the same protocols, the same way, every time. It’s called fairness.
Also, avoid getting in your own way by taking your own preferences into consideration. To keep myself impartial, I adopted another mantra: “it’s not about me, it’s not about what I like.” My personal preferences and tastes are irrelevant. What matters most is how a drink presented to me measures up against objective industry standards. So the barista is using tulip-style demitasse, which you don’t care for—so what? He’s using maple syrup and you hate the stuff—so what? Evaluation requires the use of your eyes, your ears, your tongue, and your nose, but it is not about you.
Another important piece of advice is don’t get distracted. The competition by definition is a 15-minute service of three beverages to a panel of four sensory judges, observed by two technical judges, overseen by a head judge, and sometimes observed by a shadow judge. It is an intense interaction, but it shouldn’t be unpleasant. Competitors are stressed out enough, so judges strive to be positive and provide good eye contact. Although a sensory judge must focus and record their scores and impressions, it is terrible form to stare down and scribble on your score sheet for 15 minutes while someone is pouring out their coffee heart (figuratively in the sense of passion for their profession, and perhaps literally if they make a latte art heart) in front you.
Similarly, tech judges need to watch the barista closely without getting in the way. If you think that judging will be a good idea for you because you are too shy to compete, then you should think again. I recommend volunteering instead (there is plenty to do—these events don’t run themselves). When you judge you will be in the camera shot. Get over it. Once you become adept at tuning this out and focusing on the tasks of judging, you won’t even notice the shutterclicks intensify as you take a sip of espresso.
Judging barista competitions is a great experience, and worth trying if you are a committed coffee professional. It must be said that none of this would be possible without the efforts of the USBC Head Judges Committee. They work hard to set up the workshops, disseminate information, set up the competition schedule and judges’ roster, and keep all the sensory and tech judges in line. I noticed significant changes compared to three years ago, in the organization of the judges’ workshops this year, in terms of the format of the score sheets, and increase in shadow judging. I am so pleased with these improvements, and I think it speaks to the overall progress we have seen, are seeing, and will continue to see in specialty coffee.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christine “Steenzy” Goepfert has been working in coffee for just six years. She has been at Alterra since 2009, working both behind the scenes as Service Administrator, and in the cafe as an in-store Barista Trainer. She was a sensory judge in the 2009 Great Lakes Regional Competition, and returned this year to judge at the Big Central and USBC. She loves coffee, reading, hiking around Milwaukee’s fabulous riverfront, and drawing—mostly sketches of her pet rabbit Monty. Christine was a member of Retro Nasal, the winning team at Barista Camp this June, and she recently began volunteering with the BGA Membership Committee.