Five Common Mistakes First Time Barista Competitors Make

With representatives from over fifty different countries, the World Barista Championship is something like the World Cup for coffee professionals. Along with Brewers Cup, Latte Art, and Coffee in Good Spirits, these competitions can help launch a barista’s career, landing them lucrative jobs offers, endorsements, or funding for their own businesses. Competitions also help push the industry forward, highlighting new processing methods, obscure varieties, and new brewing techniques.

Many baristas aspire to compete, but the learning curve is steep for first time competitors. As a barista competitor, coach, and judge, there are several mistakes I often see first time competitors make— many of which I made myself. These mistakes can result in a bad score that is discouraging even demoralizing for an aspiring barista, but thankfully can be avoided with good coaching and feedback.

Conflating the taste Balance and Flavor Descriptors

It’s pretty common to hear competitors describe their coffee as having “a lime-like acidity, a chocolate sweetness,” etc. The problem with this mistake— which is one I made myself— is that it conflates the taste balance and flavor categories on the score sheet. For taste balance, the competitor only needs to describe the intensity and quality of the acidity, sweetness, and bitterness. Once you start using similes, you’re describing flavor. The best competitors use specific flavor notes that are readily experienced in the cup: every routine is made or broken on having specific, accurate sensory descriptors. (N.B. “stonefruit” is not specific, but if you say “ripe nectarine,” it better taste like ripe nectarine.)

Not Reading the Rules

Reading the rule book to a barista competition is tedious and boring, but absolutely necessary. I’ve seen competitors be disqualified or lose valuable points simply because they weren’t aware of certain rules. Is it fair that you can’t use an electric device to display your pictures in the latte art competition? Or that putting any liquids on top of the espresso machine results in a 0 for station management in the barista competition? The answer is yes. Every game has rules, and by signing up to compete you’re agreeing to play by them. I’ve seen a competitor miss out on finals because he served espressos in cups that weren’t considered an appropriate vessel. Every point counts, and you don’t won’t to lose points because you weren’t thoroughly prepared.

Going Over Time

It happens every year: all drinks are served, the barista is slightly over time, but hasn’t finished their carefully written speech— the piece de resistance that ties everything together.

The best competition advice I’ve ever heard is “just say time.” Every second over 15 minutes is a precious point, and there’s nothing you’re going to say that’s going to earn back a single one of them.

Trying to Cram too Much Information Right Before Serving

Unless they’re instructed otherwise, sensory judges have a protocol they’re supposed to follow. If you’re trying to tell them essential information when they’re supposed to be evaluating the crema, they’re likely going to miss something. Speak clearly and intentionally when giving flavor notes and make sure they have time to evaluate your drinks after serving. You have a lot information to communicate, but pacing that information is key. (For an example of good information delivery, watch 2018 US Barista Champion Cole McBride’s routine.)

Simply Listing Facts About Their Coffee

“Judges, my coffee is a Caturra variety that was grown at 1800 MASL, before being selectively harvested, dry fermented, and dried on raised beds.” I hear some permutation of that sentence in every barista competition. But it’s not enough to list facts about your coffee. You need to explain the significance. As a rookie competitor I realized I didn’t know the significance of the variety or elevation.  I was just repeating what I had heard others say. I had to hit the books and find out for myself. Which if you ask me, is the main reason to do a barista competition.

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