Imagine you have your first ever barista competition in two weeks. Feeling daunted? We’re not surprised – but that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible task.
Barista competitions are pressure cookers; they force you to be the best you can be. So how can you make sure that you put your best foot forward onstage? Don’t worry, we’ve got the answers to that question. Let’s take a look at two weeks of preparation through the eyes of two young, aspiring South African baristas bent on improving their coffee game in just six training days spread over two weeks.
Barista Championships: What Are the Keys to Participating?
The journey to becoming a regional barista champion is different for everyone, but the two things to remember are:
1. It’s about the barista.
2. It’s about your coffee: it’s your showcase.
What are the keys to winning? Be yourself, remain humble, believe in yourself and your coffee. Always maintain eye contact with your judges, communicate clearly, and continually acknowledge all the judges on the stage with you.
What is expected of you? You need to come up with a great introduction about yourself and your coffee followed by the timed preparation of 12 drinks in 15 minutes. This is all done while communicating with seven judges under the eyes of a big crowd bearing down on you, and let’s not forget that little voice in your head telling you to hurry the hell up.
So how did we prepare for this intense challenge in just six days of training?
Day 1 – Let’s Talk Strategy
On the first day, we discussed strategy. This meant looking at stage layout, discussing our movements so we could have good flow, and talking about music – yes, music! Cool tunes help to pass the time and remind us where we are for timing.
We spent the first thirty minutes talking through the technical score sheet, for which consistency is key. I can’t emphasise how important this is. How many times did I say that in those 30 minutes? 50? 100? More? Who knows – but it’s the one thing you simply must not forget.
The competitors and me (middle): the competition lies ahead. Credit: Billy Botha, Seattle Coffee Port Elizabeth
We then, having asked the roasters to provide us with flavour and balance profiles of several varietals, got the extraction parameters down and pulled some shots.
Espresso Delight by Alex. Credit: Red Band Cafe
Day 2 – Taste Is Key
On day 2, we worked on palate development by pairing random single origin coffees with fruits, chocolate, nuts, and butter biscuits. We tasted sweet, salty, and acidic waters to discuss what location on the tongue the various flavours register.
Coffee pairing/palate development: isolating the stone fruit in the blend. Credit: Shaun Aupiais
We didn’t just taste coffee, though: we also consistently reinforced our parameters and took notes on the changes that occurred with a change in temperature. Depending on the environment, temperature, and humidity there’s going to be constant adjustment needed to maintain the flavour profile and taste balance that best suits your coffee.
Sounds tough? Don’t worry – you’ll know it when you taste it.
Day 3 – Signature Drinks
To begin with, the guys shared a little of their starting speeches, and then we quickly moved onto today’s main focus: the signature drinks.
The challenge was to pair coffee and ingredients for the best possible synergy. Taste is key but the coffee needs to be the champion. I wanted the guys to choose according to the individual characteristics of the coffee, i.e. which they enjoyed the most. They need to believe in their drinks, which means loving the flavours. And after a few espressos, a clear plan for our signature drinks materialised. Talk about an exciting moment!
Deciding on the signature drinks required a little Chemex Cold Brew and a pair of espressos. Credit: Shaun Aupiais
Yet we weren’t done for the day just yet: next, I put together a competition checklist. The guys needed to start thinking about all the equipment required and how they would set up. It doesn’t just make their routine easier – it also results in extra points. The machine setup, prep, and judges’ table all count towards the scoring for station management and professionalism. We spent a seriously long time discussing this; we wanted to capitalise on all the possible points to be earned.
Stage layout of a World Barista Competition. Credit: World Coffee Events
Day 4 – Taste Balance
We worked on the signature drinks again, ensuring we were using the correct ratios and had a delicious synergy between coffee and ingredients.
The criteria we focused on were: clear explanations, introduction and preparation, and appealing presentation (functional, synergy with coffee, taste balance). The taste balance is the most important but we needed to make sure we cover all our bases.
The taste is paramount: the coffee needs to champion the drink and not be overpowered by the ingredients. The way we pull our shots is vital as this will directly affect the overall balance of the signature drink. We also knew what appliances they would be using, including cocktail mixer and additional bowls etc., as per the comprehensive competition checklist I had given the guys.
The guys also brought along some of their decorative items that will be used on the judges’ table. We worked on the layout of that table and discussed a few ideas to get ready for session no. 5.
I was very happy with the balance: both the drinks tasted exceptional. We just needed to work on adding a little flair for the competition; if it was too plain or simple, we might lose out on some of those points that are up for grabs.
I then left the guys to work on their espressos, cappuccinos, signature drinks, layout, music and their general presentation (introduction & drink descriptions) with their store owners, friends and customers – the more input and advice the better. Having given both them and the store owners clear instructions, I then asked the guys to be ready for the full setup in five days.
At this stage, I was extremely happy with the progress of the guys. They were focused and pumped up, and I felt the competition would go great.
Day 5 – Plain and Simple
After our 5-day break, I came back excited to pick up the training. We kept it plain and simple, focusing on the table layouts, signature drink preparation, opening introduction, and drink information to be shared in the competition.
A few basic ideas: judges’ table (left), prep table (right). Credit: Shaun Aupiais
Another basic setup: prep table (left), judges’ table (right). Credit: Shaun Aupiais
There were still a few items missing, such as the induction stovetop for our reductions and a few other gadgets to help us prepare the signature drink. I couldn’t believe we were 3 days away from the competition and we only had one more day to run through everything.
Day 6 – The Final Day
How can I possibly sum up our final day? The anticipation, the nervousness, the excitement… and the pride at what the guys had done in only two weeks.
We spend those last precious hours doing a full setup. We looked at all the items required for the competition and checked nothing was missing. There were one or two things, but nothing to worry too much about. We also worked on some troubleshooting on the stage, just in case mistakes happened during the event.
I recorded their full presentations: the introduction, the full setup, and the preparation of all the drinks. A few time issues, speech miscues, and nerves didn’t help with this practice – but we still had some time to go. We then gathered together a group of friends and strangers to act as judges for three more practice runs. It’s amazing how when you suddenly have a small audience, the nerves kick in and you start forgetting critical steps; there’s nothing like a bit of pressure to get you ready. Yet so far, so good; the guys were nervous but doing well.
The only thing left was my parting speech to them:
“Rugby referees before a scrum say ‘crouch (and breathe)!…touch (your head and think)!…pause (breathe a little more)!…engage (try fix the problem or run for the exit)!’ Just kidding…focus guys, you are ready and here for the right reasons. You love coffee – show those judges.”
I could see the guys getting a little flustered but I was proud of them; these past two weeks have been full of discovery, passion, enlightenment and perseverance. In just six training days, they’ve created and finessed signature drinks. In just 26 hours, they’ve produced smooth, informative, presentations bound to impress. “It’s going to be all right “, I told them. “You are already winners in my eyes.”
Edited by T. Schrock.
Feature Photo Credit: Joel Smedley
Perfect Daily Grind.