Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Gametape #1 - Sonja Bjork Grant, 2013 Tamper Tantrum Live

Cred: Food GPS
Game tape is a series in which we take a close and critical look at competitions from various industries, attempting to discover those decisions and discernments that turn competitors into champions.

So... I didn't do as well as I would have liked at the Big Western this year, but its never too early to start on next year, right? Time to do what I do best: research. A former professor of mine once said that every great innovator in a particular field has learned the history of that field such that they can see fundamental themes and address challenges that might not be apparent to a person with a more myopic view. Although I have yet to find a thorough chronicle of barista competitions in any one place, there are a number of fascinating closeups of various points and perspectives. I plan on sorting through these with a critical eye in the hope that we all can not only gain a deeper understanding of the rules and benefits of competitions but also so that we can have a living history of the progression of these events.

So, where to start? While I am relatively new to this game, Sonja Bjork Grant is not. In fact, having been one of the principal forces that began the WBC, she is basically the patron saint of barista competitions. Grant began as a barista in 1995 and today is a WBC head judge, judge trainer, World Coffee Events member, and all around amazing professional and resource. If you ever get the chance to meet her, I highly recommend asking her anything and everything you can think of (Nik and I had the fortune of having her present at our Lead Instructor Certification class last year).

At the 2013 Tamper Tantrum Live in Nice, Grant gave a talk about the history of judging the WBC. Historical insights of this nature are basically unprecedented and I implore anyone interested in competing to watch it in full. The main thrust of her presentation is that Barista Competitions have come A LONG WAY in the last 14 years. From her comments it seems like the first competition, held in Monte Carlo in 2000, would be nearly unrecognizable to today's baristas. The WBC has gone through nearly continual changes over its short lifetime. That said, I think there are three discernibly distinct periods of the WBC. We'll call them Discovery, Calibration, and Exploration.

To the time machine!

Discovery: 2000-2003

This period is all about discovering what other people around the world hold to be "extraordinary coffee" and is characterized by inconsistency and chaos. In this world, as Grant notes, the attitude of the few European, Australian and U.S. American participants is along the lines of "hey lets compete in coffee!" which is to say informal and relatively unstructured. Here is a small list of competition details that sound nuts to me today. Throughout these years . . .

  • Baristas use two group machines with one double basket and a one single basket.
  • Baristas prepare three beverages of each course, having to alternate dosing within each course.
  • The MC talks to the barista the whole time.
  • The audience cheers and yells the whole time.
  • All judges are both technical and sensory judges so they run around with the barista. 
  • Tamps are plastic or aluminum, milk pitchers are huge and thermometer equipped.
  • Signature Beverages are often half a liter in volume. 
  • It is acceptable for the machine, coffee bags, and competitor outfits to be branded. Think Nascar.
  • Competitors grind for the whole competition at once, filling the dosing chamber. 
  • Competitors change steam tips, baskets and machine temperature for their individual routine.  

In this world, standards of equipment, roasting, sourcing, blending, extracting and cleaning aren't commonly held standards and these competitions function as a chance for people of various countries to show each other the things they value about coffee.  Because there are no standards for these things, judging is somewhat strange and inconsistent. Rules are based on the Olympics, chef and sommelier competitions, and (I'm not making this up) gymnastics and horseback riding. Points are awarded for, among other things, how familiar the baristas seem with the equipment, if they can reference and name parts of these machines, if they dial in the grind (apparently it is not common to check or adjust grinders in this world), if they seem confident while steaming milk and (my personal favorite) if the barista seems like they enjoy what they were doing.

Two important factors that are absent from this infancy period are judging calibration and barista feedback. These institutions aren't necessary yet, since coffee quality isn't really what these competitions are about.  In fact, there is no expectation of drinkable espresso in the first place. Baristas are required to provide sugar with the spoons and napkins and all the judges have spit buckets. Instead of quality, Grant notes that the word most often discussed in judging these competitions is passion. Passion is something felt rather than measured and so calibration and feedback are not as useful as they might be for technical evaluation or for standardized expectations.

Judging based predominately on passion might seem insane to competitors and judges in our time but I think its actually implicitly (and probably accidentally) genius. By rewarding passion, competitions gave passionate people an opportunity to pursue coffee and a pedestal from which to suggest further developments. Someone who is technically proficient but unmotivated might wake up one day and decide to change professions, contributing nothing to the industry. Passionate people are more likely to give you a return on your investment. And wouldn't you know it, all of the former winners from this period still work in coffee either as a consultant or shop owner.

Calibration 2003-2010

In this world, we definitely reward passion but it is becoming apparent that there are some real career benefits to winning the WBC. This means that people might get upset if we don't tell them why they didn't win. We decide to get real about judging and decide what we want a champion to be able to do. WBC 2003 in Boston marks the first ever judges calibration workshop with 21 judges from 14 countries. The next year, 94 judges applied and from this point on judging becomes a skill and credential in its own right. 

During in this period . . .

  • Judges are required not to eat on stage.
  • Judges are required to smile and have a poker face while tasting. 
  • The 0 - 10 scale ("very bad" to "excellent") was replaced with today's 0 - 6 scale.  
  • Ingredients in the portafilter are restricted to coffee and water (no more ginger and cinnamon!). 
  • "No pucks in portafilter at start" is instituted and subsequently removed. 
  • Crema evaluation is calibrated differently for robusta and arabica. 
  • Sugar is no longer required to be served.
  • Alcohol is prohibited in competition.
  • Single Origins become socially acceptable.

We will talk more about that last point in the final section but the most important point here is that when the judging becomes serious, the standards of professionalism and technical proficiency of the competitors do too. The champions from this period, like Tim Wendelboe and James Hoffman, are today some of the most respected voices in the industry. These voices, combined with more consistent judging also make the competition more accessible. WBC went from 24 competitors in 2003 to to 53 in 2010, further disseminating these standards of preparation and service throughout the world. It is no coincidence that as this calibration progressed, the BGA also launched level one certification is 2009. During this time, the whole industry moves toward standardization.

With this standardization, the industry learns how to prepare and describe coffee effectively from the perspective of the barista. This emphasis on technique and explanation culminates in 2009 with Mike Philips' WBC third place routine wherein he extracts the same coffee five different ways and WBC winner Gwilym Davies, who discusses what makes espresso exciting or disappointing to a coffee professional (more on these in future posts). This is a hugely important era for the barista profession as it creates a solid foundation of expectations on which to build a craft and career.

Exploration 2010- ????

But then everything changes. Now that baristas are getting very technically proficient, calibration is extremely important on both sensory judging (roughly 40% of total score) and the somewhat intangible things like Total Impression and Customer Service Skills (roughly 20% of the total score). To ensure such a calibration, the SCAA and SCAE team up and create WCE; World Coffee Events. WCE now runs a two day judges workshop and calibration before each WBC and has today certified over 250 judges. This is a dramatic improvement over the two hour workshop held in 2003 and we are now sufficiently confident that our scores are fairly representative of each barista's performance.

As competitors in this world, we know how to make coffee taste good but we want to know what makes it taste that way. Grant makes the observation that, in contrast to how the WBC started, today the focus is on taste, knowledge, consistency, single origins and processing. I generalize this to say that competition routines are about the details of intentionality. Competitors want to explain everything they can about why a coffee tastes the way it does and how that makes it special. When technical skills are at such a high level, this strategy will hopefully gain "presentation: professionalism" points and edge out those last few "total impression" points which can be the difference between winning and not making finals.

Since WCE has been formed, the winning routines have been decidedly international. In 2010, Mike Philips taught us all about processing, focusing heavily on the farm level in contrast to his relatively sparse farm information the year before. His presentation was less about his techniques and more about how the coffee's flavor dictated his actions. 2011 and 2012 brought us not only our first origin host (Bogota, Colombia) but also our first two producing country champions in Alejandro Mendez (whose signature beverage used every part of the coffee plant) and Raul Rodas (who stepped up this game by adding in different roast levels and extraction levels, bringing the whole chain together). Last year, Pete Licata followed suit and paid homage to the unique processing techniques of the producer of his coffee as well as the strategies of his roaster, combining the production-chain-focused routine with the service efficiency of Gwilym Davies.

Right Now

With the USBC fast approaching and the WBC soon after, competitors are practicing and preparing the routines that will potentially propel them into the next chapter of coffee competitions. This season, I've noticed many people using uniquely processed coffees, be they high grown, naturals, or just interesting flavor profiles. I've seen interesting techniques be rewarded. I've seen people bending rules or simply ignoring certain ones strategically. It will be interesting to see who comes out on top this year in light of the above progression. But maybe we shouldn't even be looking to the competitors to see what's next. After watching Grant's talk, it seems like the judges might be the more pertinent catalyst of innovation and progression. Maybe its the them we should be watching.

Leave your comments below.

-Brandon Paul Weaver


  1. This is great work, from a working barista's perspective. I know I certainly have lots of questions about why the coffees I'm working with taste the way they do, assuming technical proficiency. I've noticed that in my personal development, for the first year or so I've done coffee in general (even prior to working in coffee) most of my time was spent around learning techniques, general equipment, etc. About 8-9 months ago is when I really started to thirst for knowledge about coffee itself, rather than the things and ways I can prepare it.

    I'm not sure that this is only to gain an edge in competitions, but perhaps the availability of this information to the general baristas has seen rise because of the desire for many to get an edge on competitions. Looking to somebody like Tim Wendelboe, who came up in the "calibration" era of competitions, to use your nomenclature, is arguably a leader in explorations in the producer side of coffee, despite having a background primarily on the preparation side. If we are currently engaging in flavor explorations via farm-level discussion it is upon the shoulders of those before us (and conterminously with us). I do think you're on to something about the themes in competitions- it reminds me of that blog post James Hoffmann wrote in 2012 about his predictions for that year... he expected farm-level discussion to end in 2012, then Raul Rodas blew that out of the water (Pete Licata also carried on that trend, and I pray it continues this year). Here's the link.

    Is there a particular reason why you think the locus of advancement will shift from the competitor to the judges? By nature of the events, judges necessarily serve as almost a market filter. If contemporary competitions serve as both gauges for baristas in terms of their technical skills as well as industry drivers, the judges simply filter those two things. Competitions help baristas like myself see which technical things need to be worked on. They also give baristas who are technically proficient a greater platform to share forward ideas upon. This is obviously the case when you look at something like Matt Perger's routine. But the genesis of these ideas still originates with the barista- the judges are the ones who act as a filter to say whether or not the skills match the bills. They are not there to provide ideas or advancement- their role is to simply evaluate what the baristas are saying against what they are doing. Certainly, judges have a deeply incredible value to the equation. Poor judging systems discredit competitions and events, but ultimately, judges simply (in)validate the things being said by the baristas. This even has some limitation- it's pretty arguable that Matt Perger's WBC routine had more far reaching effect than Pete Licata's did, at least in terms of what’s been talked about this year. The competition structure still has rules that must be abided by to win the competition. The judges are the enforcers of such regulations. I totally agree with your implication that judges are incredibly important and I don’t want it to seem like I’m mitigating their role- often they are past competitors or established professionals who are far more skilled than 85% of the competitor field. The competitions are, at some level, still about the competitors- though I truly hope it stays more about the entire chain- a culmination of all the hard work that goes into coffee from terroir to taste (yes, I stole your phrase, BPW). As baristas, we represent so much more than just ourselves. I think a true appreciation for this is what propels people from second to first place in these competitions- because it’s not about baristas, it’s about everyone. Baristas just get the honor of being the representative to guests.

  2. I hope that competitions reinforce the reality of what our profession is. It’s easy to forget when you’ve got a line of guests twenty deep and somebody accidentally spilled a gallon of milk everywhere. Ultimately, I love being a barista because I get to add beauty to my guest’s day. I get to present the producer’s hard work in a way that is, hopefully, compelling and enjoyable for the folks keeping our doors open. This is done through quality and professionalism… the two things we are focusing on in the competition world these days. May that reflect on my service as well.

    Also. Nice work. This is truly solid writing and research, and I appreciate the historical and cultural analysis.

    (Two part comment because I wrote a damn novel. Sorry)

    1. I wonder if the three part system could act as a rubric for baristas wanting to compete. Year one, see whats out there, year two, master techniques, year three represent flavor. It might be a good learning arc.

      I remember that post. I think part of the idea that the farm level discussion would fade back in competition was the perception that novelty is rewarded. We see that with Perger's brilliant use of the EK43. However I think there are points in farm level discussion beyond novelty, namely the explanation of flavor creation.

      I dont mean to suggest that the "locus of advancement" will SHIFT, I mean to suggest that it always has been the judging that has dictated advancement. 2003 with the calibration workshop helped the WBC to nearly double in size over the next 6 years. The idea is that when there is precedent and practicible standards the barrier to entry is lower. Secondly, when world coffee events was formed, judges calibration got better and total impression points could be more consistently rewarded. At the same time you see an international trend to the winners' presentations. At each turn, the judges changed something and the routines that were rewarded changed as a result. This is why I think we should be looking to the judges. The baristas bring ideas, yes but the judges decide which ideas are valued. That point, I think, is instructive when looking at the Licata, Perger placing. Or, in fact, Babinski's back to back seconds. in each case, the technically innovative routines were edged out by a more straightforward service.

  3. Brandon Paul Weaver, you're sooo dreamy.