The Road to Coffee Competitions

Every year there are several coffee competitions in Australia and overseas. Two of our coffee experts share their experiences and tips for competing.

Dom’s Tips for Competing

This year I was fortunate to come third in the Australian Northern Region competition and will now be competing in the Opens at the Australian Nationals. I thought I would share a little about competing and what sort of preparation is necessary.

First thing’s first – if you don’t know the coffee you’re using like the back of your hand, then don’t compete. You need to practice with it, taste it roasted at least 3 different ways, mess with recipes and research to get as much info as possible about it.

Once I find the coffee I want to use, I will drink it until I am sick of it… Then I will drink more. Once I really have it singing, that’s when prep begins.

Everyone preps for these things in different ways. Just because Berg Wu, Hugh Kelly or Charlotte Malaval got to the Worlds doing a certain kind of prep, that doesn’t mean it will work for you.

Here are a few things to think about:

What’s the story?

All top competitors are not just presenters, they are storytellers. Whether it’s the story of the farm, the region or where on the tree the beans were picked from, the one thing that they have in common is a clear, distinct angle.

What are the flavours and textures?

Reading the tasting notes on a broker’s site will only get you so far. Just because you tasted apricots and lychee when you cupped it, doesn’t mean that everyone will taste that once the coffee is roasted and ground for an espresso environment.

How will you present it?

There are many different people and personalities in the competition, and that means many different styles. Some are relaxed, some are full to the brim with emotion (I swear I’ve seen tears well up in presentations) and some are more upright and serious. This bit is all up to you. How you present is a totally personal thing that relates directly to how you wish to convey yourself. Which brings me to my last point…

What Signature Drink will I serve?

This is the part where you shine. While everything else is nailing your technical and flavour notes, The Signature is where your creativity comes out as a personal expression of your inventiveness and ability to match flavours, textures and (sometimes) theatre. Whether it is dry ice clouds, big glass containers of melting iced juice or Heisenberg-esque laboratory set ups, just remember…  It’s still all about the flavour. Showy is showy, simple is simple, but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other.

Timeline of a comp

How exactly does it work come competition time?

You get 15 minutes to set up…. Everything. From water glasses on the judges table, to your tamping and weighing station, to final last minute dose and grind adjustments – 15 minutes sounds like ages but once you are on that stage, it is really only a blink of an eye. Prior preparation is vital here. Polish your stuff! Lay it out on the trolley from the first thing off to the last. Remember that the way the coffee tastes is the most important thing, but you will get judged on everything from station set up to the slightest drip on the bench, so be ready with cloths, cloths and more cloths.

Next, you get 15 minutes to present.

This is where nerves can make or break you. This year I didn’t practice as much as I should and I saw this on the day. I stumbled on my intro, got stressed and this bled into my technical and sensory score. The year before, I practiced and practised and practised and practised. I was calm and delivered the best performance I could have considering it was my first time. But unfortunately I went over time. DO NOT GO OVER TIME… You have 15 mins to present, for every second over you lose a point, until disqualification at the 16 minute mark. You will not lose points if you present your performance under time. If it is too quick however, there may not be enough information given to earn a really good score.

Simple tips to help you

Remember to call ‘Time’

It seems like a no brainer, but in the heat of the moment you would be amazed by what even seasoned competitors forget.

Check everything 5 times

When getting your stuff together, write a list, check it 5 times, then get the stuff and check it 5 times. Check 5 times when prepping your trolley before going out and count it all out when unpacking in your set up. I find mentally doing this helps me relax as I know that nothing is missing.

Have a timer

Don’t just rely on time calls from the officials. Have a small timer going in a place where it’s easily seen by you.

Think about your music

Swearing is obviously a no-no but any vocals while you are also speaking can distract the judges from what you are saying. Musical cues are also a good way to mentally break up your performance.

Breathe

Panic causes short, sharp breaths. Short sharp breaths also occur when you are in shock… Remember to keep your breathing slow, deep and rhythmic.

Eat a banana

My colleague Paul Asquith taught me this one. Potassium is great for stress management and helps settle a nervous stomach.

Best of luck… Now I need to go start my prep and manage my own stress. See you in March at the Nationals!

Paul’s Experience on Preparing for Competitions

I’m not new to competition. I’ve been competing or judging in some form of barista comp on and off since 2005. My first was as a finalist in the 2005 Gloria Jean’s Coffees National Barista Championship. My Signature Drink was a Spicy Mocha. I’ve come a long way since then, winning the 2012 Danes Australasian Grand Barista Championship and placing in three NSW Australian Specialty Coffee Association Barista Championships. I’ve also had the chance to work with some great people leading up to barista championships. Rob Forsythe (First ASCA President), Dave Makin (Australian Barista Champion 2006, 2008), John Gordon (UK Barista Champion) and Sasa Sestic (World Barista Champion 2015) in various capacities, but more recently, I got the chance to have some one-on-one training with Charlotte Malaval, who has been in two World Barista Championship finals. My road to competition this year however, began in Colombia.

Getting the chance to travel to origin is always an amazing, eye opening opportunity. My trip to Colombia in August allowed me to meet Jorge Correa, a progressive producer that had a varietal of coffee I had never seen before – Marogesha. Maragogype has long been a varietal known for size and its impact on a cup is normally sweetness and body, but most that we see these days don’t have any sort of complexity. On the other hand there is Gesha; a popular varietal for its complexity and aromatics but, dare I say, it lacks balance and can be astringent. Bringing these two together helps create something truly special. Along with this, Jorge has developed his processing mill to include refrigerated, stainless steel fermentation tanks that can control the specific temperature of fermentation. When I saw all of this, I knew it was the coffee I wanted to take to barista competition.

Ordinarily, I would like to work with my coffee for months ahead of a competition; but in this case I only had 12 days, which made things difficult. Having Charlotte as a coach made things a whole lot better and the experience I gained from her will help as I work towards Open Heats and Nationals early next year.

Charlotte spent a few days here with us getting acquainted with the company and the training team, so when it came to training me, honesty was not a problem. What I needed help with over the course of a day-and-a-half was making my espresso round taste awesome, getting it to translate into milk and my Signature, and also my overall presentation.

Getting the coffee right

The first few hours together we tasted over 30 extractions of my coffee. Starting at a basic 1:2 ratio we started brewing coffee at 20g in and 40g out to get a gauge on flavour. Working on the same dose, we moved around different ratios, finding some things we loved in the coffee. Moving dose to 19, then to 21 and in between, we were able to target some characteristics that we loved in the coffee – this happened to be blackberry, green apple, cocoa and a jasmine finish. Happy with that, we were able to move on. I might add, at this point I was well and truly buzzing, and almost coffee’d out!

Working with milk

On to milk – this is always a challenge. Finding a coffee that translates well in milk can be difficult. Ideally it would be beneficial to try different processing techniques in the coffee to see if you could get anything that was substantially different, or where you could find the same characteristics as the espresso in milk. It needs to be a transformation. We worked on heaps of different ratios and things just weren’t working. The only thing to try was a different cup; for this we went to 120ml. Reducing the amount of milk by 30ml gave more room to play with some crazy extractions and try to develop some different cups. Down to 14g in, we found the solubility in the coffee needed to transform the cup into something different; this time custard, cocoa and dried fruit. The challenge for me here was pouring consistently into a small cup.

Choosing a Signature Drink

Working our way through the score sheet, we moved onto the Signature Drink. I wanted to work with the theme of making the coffee more balanced and fuller in body than the espresso. These were the things I loved about the coffee in the beginning, so this is what I wanted to highlight. I threw some crazy ingredients at it to try this. I created some alkaline water using salt; this was a bit off-putting to begin with, until I found a balance in the alkaline water that wasn’t too heavy. This was 0.1 gram of salt to 100ml of water – barely there but enough. Then I had clarified blackberry juice with pectinase; an ingredient used to remove pectin for clarify juices – mainly for wine. This created an amazing juice for my Signature Drink. We worked through different balances of these and different ways of making the drink. This is the type of thing you really need to have a lot of time working with. Time I unfortunately didn’t have, but Charlotte gave me some good insights into how to approach the drink. The next step for me is to find some more characteristics in the coffee I want to focus on and find a lot of different ways of creating those characteristics.

The presentation

We spent the rest of the time working on my overall presentation, making what I said succinct and direct. We broke down each individual fact so that I was presenting a fact to each judge and also giving them direct time to write important tasting notes. Ultimately, you need to give the judges enough time to give you scores – taking that time away makes it a stressful ride. We stripped a lot out of my presentation!

The last thing was my movement around the machine and my technical work. Something I have never been amazing at, to be perfectly honest. We worked on my movements being fluid with everything having a reason. I think we did my intro and movement back to the machine alone at least 15 times in the space of an hour. It’s crucial to make the whole presentation effortless – again, making it easy for the judges to give you scores.

It was a hard 13 hours of training, but the insights I have gained from it will be priceless. Moving towards Melbourne there is much to be done. Time with my coffee, some different styles of roast, extractions, my technical work and the movement… practice is key!

Dom Chicoteau
Having notched up 20 years in the hospitality industry and 8 years dedicated exclusively to coffee, Dom has a great understanding of the realities faced by our café customers. Energised by being part of the quality coffee evolution, Dom is compelled by the melting pot of ideas, theories and perspectives that are currently contributing to the vibrancy of the industry. Dom’s love of coffee is matched by his love of training and watching people grow. When he’s not examining extractions, Dom can be found slowly smoking meat, growing bonsai, playing with his dog and spinning records like a self-professed demon.
Dom Chicoteau

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