I first met Trent Rollings when we judged the Turkish coffee championships together in 2018. Later, Trent would host some SCA classes I taught at his coffee company, Incommon Coffee Roasters, in beautiful Antalya, Turkey.
As a former barista competitor, coach, and current judge, I was intrigued to hear about a new training program Trent is launching aimed at helping barista competitors improve their performance. I recently caught up with the Canadian expat to hear about his program, learn how he got started with barista competitions, and where he sees the future of coffee competitions going.
How did you get involved in barista competitions?
My involvement in competitions goes all the back to when my wife, Christine, and I became baristas. At the time, we were living in Manila. After years of living in the Philippines and working for a humanitarian organization, Christine and I wanted to get into business, specifically in the coffee world. We had first been exposed to specialty coffee at a coffee cupping at Phil and Sebastian in Calgary, Alberta, where I am from originally. Then, after moving to the Philippines, we were trained as baristas by the awesome team at EDSA Beverage Design Studio. Part of EDSA’s 2-week barista training program was to have students take an exam that was formatted like the barista championship. In order to get certified, you needed to be able to present the espresso and milk beverage course to a mock panel of sensory judges who would then evaluate you using the official sensory scoresheet of the championships. In hindsight, it was a lot to ask of a barista only two weeks into learning the craft, but then again, they weren’t expecting the same caliber of routine from us as you would from actual barista competitors.
The year after we graduated from that class, I began joining that same judging panel for other barista exams. This was a great way to get familiar with the championship scoresheet and judging in a relaxed and fun environment. After evaluating a lot of barista students, the opportunity came for me to judge the national championships in the Philippines. I realized very quickly that judging was something that I was drawn to because without judges, you don’t have a competition. By serving as a judge, I would be able to help support the coffee industry and other coffee professionals and to taste some great (and some not-so-great) coffees in the process. After a few years of judging nationally, we were living in Connecticut for a year and a WCE judge certification was scheduled in Manhattan. I jumped at the opportunity to test for the chance to judge at the World level and much to my surprise, I passed! This opened the door for me to be able to judge for a lot of different national competitions and the WBC, most notably in Milan 2021 where I had the honor of judging for the final round at the WBC. It’s been a fun journey and every year I get to go a little bit deeper into the sub-culture of coffee competitions.
Tell us about this new educational platform.
We are creating an educational platform to provide online courses and consultation not just for competitions, but also for new coffee shop owners, baristas, and home brewers. The vision behind our project is to provide content that is usually shared when you hire an expensive coach or consultant, with the goal being to make this information available to a broader group of people at a price point that more people can afford. It will be an on-demand video based format, like Skillshare, with the opportunity to earn certificates once you pass a course.
This first course that we are releasing is a barista competition course. With this course, we are aiming to get the information that is generally shared by judges during the competitors’ debrief into their hands before the competition. This will make the information actionable and usable for the current competition year. Currently the information shared between judges and competitors is almost exclusively as a part of the competition debrief, a sort of post-partum of their routine, that is intended to hopefully help competitors in future, that is, if they should choose to compete again. We believe that the more we can provide clarity about the competition and the better informed that competitors are up front, the less we will see competitors get eliminated for really stupid mistakes. This way, more energy can be placed on elevating the competitiveness level of competitions. A lot of the content of this course is really helping competitors understand how judges think about and formulate our scores in the competition and common conversations that are being had in competitor deliberation.
What mistakes have you seen first time barista competitors make?
I preface this by saying that first time competitors shouldn’t feel bad about making a lot of mistakes. The barista championship is a beast. There are a lot of rules and regulations to understand and so certain things can easily get overlooked or misunderstood. I feel like most mistakes that competitors make have to do with not being familiar enough with the rules and regulations or they’re lacking in practice – so in essence, the un-sexy parts of competing.
My theory is that these problems are happening because first year competitors are in the process of transitioning from being spectators to competitors. As a spectator, it can be easy to watch another’s routine and say to yourself “I can do that (or at least something similar).” Our best competitors are really great at making the competition look quite easy. Their moves are fluid, routines are polished, and they have calm and relaxed control of the stage. Watching this as a spectator can easily lead to underestimating the challenge that the competition actually is and the time needed in order to place well. Once you understand that barista semi-finalists and finalists have carefully planned and choreographed almost every word and movement and practiced their routine sometimes hundreds of times, you realize that what looks like an effortless routine is actually the result of a ridiculous amount of effort before they step onto the stage. This course is designed to help competitors, especially newer competitors, learn this before they compete for the first time and have some idea of where the target is (i.e. what judges are looking for) and a path for how to hit it.
Coffee competitions have evolved so much over the last 20 years. Do you think they still have a role to play?
I think that competitions definitely have a role to play in the coffee industry, however I think that they need to evolve even more than they have up to this point in order to remain relevant or maybe even regain relevance. For example, it will be interesting to see what the milk beverage course will look like in the coming years with the trend of the broader coffee industry moving towards and in some cases, exclusively, to alternative milks. I also have questions about whether the signature beverage course really serves to accomplish the competition creators’ original purpose for that course. I think that of all the courses, there exists the greatest confusion about signature beverages and the strategy needed by a competitor in order to score well. So maybe part of what is needed is better competitor education, and maybe a reformatting of the signature beverage course might be in the cards in the future.
Recently, I heard a well-known national barista champion and WBC finalist share their perspective of the competition, specifically around concepts of championship routines. What they shared was amazing and there was even a bit of romanticism around barista concepts. As they shared, I found myself wishing that creativity, innovation, and relevance of concept of a competition’s routine counted for more on the scoresheet and took up more time in a judges’ deliberation.
And of course, if championships are going to grow in relevance, then they must become more equitable and inclusive. There has been some progress made in this area in recent years but there is still a long way to go. Part of that will mean to provide great clarity and understanding about the rules and regulations. Just a few months ago, I stepped into the role of Judges Coordinator for SCA Turkey. Unlike ever before, I got a glimpse at how difficult it can be for non-native English speakers to understand the wording in some parts of the rules and regulations. Language can be a huge barrier that non-native English speakers need to overcome and mitigate which contributes to the uneven playing field that exists in coffee competitions. I don’t think any competition is completely fair, but we need to do our best to increase fairness.
How can someone sign up for your course?
Right now we are looking for beta testers for our first online course to help us sharpen things up before we launch and make the video series available to the general public. We are looking for 20 beta students to join our course on Wednesday, May 4 at 9:00am EST/16:00pm Istanbul Time. The course will be two hours long and will cover topics such as understanding why you’re competing, judge psychology, concept development, and then will walk through the sensory scoresheet from top to bottom and focus on understanding how scores are formulated and how to maximize points. The cost to take the beta test is at a discounted rate of $50 USD. As a part of the beta test, each student will fill out a survey to help us improve the course before we create the final product. Those interested in being part of the beta test can sign up and pay for their slot through the event that we have created on Eventbrite. The deadline for registration is May 1.
For those who are interested in taking the course in its final form, we plan on releasing that course sometime in May or June and we will be announcing that through Incommon’s Instagram account and by email to our newsletter subscribers.
All photos courtest of Trent Rollings / Incommon Coffee.