March 21, 2022

How do you roast coffee for barista competitions?


The process of roasting coffee for barista competitions is in many ways different from roasting for wholesale customers and end consumers. 

This is for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that competition coffee is often of very high quality, and available in limited supply. As a result, the aim is to bring out the coffee’s unique qualities and complexity in a specific way.

For the roaster, the aim is simple: creating a roast profile that allows these qualities and this complexity to show through as much as possible.

To learn more, I spoke with barista championship competitors and roasters from around the world. They told me more about how to source and roast a competition coffee, and how they get the best out of each individual lot. Read on to find out what they said.

You might also like our article on automation in coffee roasting.

roasting coffee

What are we looking for in competition coffees?

Kaapo Paavolainen is the founder of One Day Coffee Co. He is also the 2020 and 2021 Finnish Barista Champion, and was a competitor at the 2021 World Barista Championships (WBC) in Milan.

He says that while roasting for competitions there is obviously a need to “look for distinct and high-quality flavours”, but stresses that it’s important that these flavours must be “easy for the evaluating judges to taste”.

Kaapo adds: “When presenting coffees at the competition, I try to make the presentation easy to follow and the coffee easy to taste.”

Competition coffee is often roasted in small batches to allow the roaster to experiment with the roasting style without “wasting” large volumes of expensive coffee. This allows them to experiment with a range of different profiles, exercising precision and changing variables incrementally to bring out specific desirable characteristics in the cup.

Benjamin Put is the co-founder of Monogram Coffee and roasted coffee for Jill Hoff at the 2021 WBC.

“First, the coffee must be balanced,” he says. “In specialty coffee, we often are swayed by coffees with huge flavours or new tasting notes. But the competition strongly rewards coffee where the acidity, bitterness, and sweetness work together to make an espresso that you could drink over and over again. 

“Of almost equal importance is the mouthfeel and body of the coffee. The scoresheet is weighted to give very high scores to coffees with a heavy body and no dryness or astringency.”

While most competitors use just one coffee for all areas of a competition set, Ben and Jill decided that they would use two different coffees: a washed Gesha from Finca Takesi for the espresso component, and an anaerobic slow dry natural Catuai from Elida Estate, Panama, for the milk-based component.

roasting coffee using software

How do you develop the roast profile?

When developing roast profiles for these coffees, I found that each roaster I spoke to uses a slightly different approach.

Hyeonyeong Bang is the head roaster at Pastel Coffee Works. He is also the 2020 South Korea Barista Champion and was a competitor at the 2021 WBC.

He tells me that for his routines, he roasts his coffee himself, and explains that he uses the usual “roasting concept” he has developed over five years at Pastel. This process involves making minor adjustments for his competition roasts. 

Hyeonyeong tells me that he used a washed Gesha (with minimal fermentation) from Hacienda La Esmeralda, Panama in the 2021 WBC. He says that when dialling in the profile, he takes an analytical approach to tasting: “I cup my coffees and look for optimal values, also weeding out any taste defects in the process.”

Benjamin, meanwhile, explains: A lot of competition roasting is trying to replicate the same profile but with minor changes. 

“I use a Stronghold S7 Pro, for instance, which has a temperature probe inside the drum wall. This helps with consistency by ensuring that the start temperature is highly accurate and always the same.”

It’s worth noting that because competition coffees are often delicate and subtle with plenty of nuance in the cup profile, even the slightest roast defect is accentuated and becomes noticeable. In addition, since it’s arguably the most demanding stage in the coffee sector, anything but perfection means losing valuable points on the scoreboards.

In comparison, Kaapo (who used an experimental Koji fermentation coffee produced at ​​El Vergel, Colombia for the 2021 WBC) says that he roasts competition lots “just like any other coffee”. 

However, he does acknowledge that it takes a little extra attention to detail, and that trial and error is a part of it, but he says developing the profile is largely the same process.

“[As a general rule,] I try to highlight a balance of flavours and textures in coffee,” he says. “I balance sweetness with acidity, look for a good texture and body, and want enough bitterness to make the drinking experience pleasant. 

“Coffee has such a large spectrum of flavours that I’d feel like I’d be misrepresenting the coffee I chose, bought, and roasted by just focusing on bringing out a single attribute.”  

dialling in espresso

Kaapo adds that he usually comes up with two different profiles for competitions: one for espresso and one for milk-based drinks. 

“It’s important for the roaster to have experience behind the bar,” he says. “This allows them to understand how the end product behaves. If the roaster is observant, they will then start to see the correlation between their roasts and their approach to drink recipes.

”Experience with drink preparation also allows roasters to make better adjustments to the profile. This is because they understand how these changes will influence the flavour of the coffee. 

Benjamin, meanwhile, says that his approach is to “test the limits” of each coffee, and develop the roast to just below the point where it becomes “roasty”.

He adds: “When roasting, we always try to bring out the most character and flavour from each coffee. 

“We achieve this by roasting to maximise the solubility of each coffee,” he explains. “This allows the barista to brew the coffee with multiple different recipes, rather than being confined to just one.”

Benjamin says that the most interesting thing about competition roasting is “there is no final roast”. To this end, he says that in some cases, it can be beneficial to bring multiple roasts.

He says: “Even with the water specifications, machine settings, and grinder models posted for the competitions, the competition floor will always be different to where you usually roast or brew. This means that it’s always a good idea to bring multiple roasts of your competition coffee. 

“This doesn’t mean that you don’t select any profiles before the competition, though. We typically choose three final roast profiles; one that tastes best on our setup, one that is a bit bright, and one that is a little dark,” he says. “With multiple profiles, we can then switch or blend roasts to optimise for the specific condition.”

roasting coffee using software

What equipment should you use?

One of the biggest challenges is repeating the desired profile, especially when there is such a minimal margin for error at coffee competitions.

But how does equipment affect it?

Consistency & replicability

Hyeonyeong, Benjamin, and Kaapo all chose to roast on a Stronghold S7 Pro when preparing their competition coffees.

“A good roaster for competitions is a consistent one,” Kaapo says. “The S7 Pro is versatile and compact. I’m partial to Stronghold machines because of their versatility and in the case of the S7 Pro, their small size.”

He explains that Stronghold’s S7 Pro model features a digital display and auto replication protocol, which helps to precisely adjust roasts for competition coffees.

roasting machinery

Heat supply method

While there are differences between how different types of roasters use and apply heat, this also has an impact on the final cup profile of the coffee.

“The main difference is between convective heat and radiant (halogen) heat, which makes the coffee taste more vivid,” Hyeonyong explains.

Benjamin notes that the heat application of the Stronghold S7 Pro “helps with the development of the coffee, especially in espresso”. 

Hyeonyeong agrees, noting: “When I compete in the national or world competitions, I always roast on the Stronghold. Its heat supply method is different from any conventional drum roaster.”

He adds that the impact of the halogen lamp in this roaster is “huge” compared to other roasters, especially when the goal is to “clearly express the character of the green beans”.

Batch size

In addition to the roasting style, another important factor for competition roasters is batch size. 

Competition coffees can be expensive, so roasters understandably prefer roasting small batches and making incremental tweaks.

Kaapo tells me that he roasts 500g to 700g depending on availability, while Benjamin prefers a 500g batch size for the S7 Pro. However, Hyeonyeong favours a 700g batch. 

With batch sizes this small, consistency is easier to control.

“This is why people have started to switch to automatic or semi-automatic sample roasters for small volume competition lots,” Kaapo explains.  

While larger batch sizes are key to getting a consistent flavour profile in every bag of coffee sold for a much bigger operation, this does not accurately reflect the continuous process of tweaking and adjusting that is required for competition coffees.

barista at coffee competition

While roasting coffee for competition has a simple aim – highlighting the best qualities of a complex or unusual lot – the detail required means there is often a low margin for error.

As a result, the slightest mistake when roasting for the competition itself could be the difference between first and second place.

Using precise, high-quality equipment when roasting your lot is one way to make sure you keep mistakes to a minimum. By doing so, you can fine-tune your roast profile and exercise all your knowledge to bring out the full potential of that amazing coffee you plan to use. 

Enjoyed this? Then try our article on choosing a roaster for your coffee shop.

Photo credits: Kaapo Paavolainen, Hyeonyeong Bang, Monogram Coffee, Stronghold Roasters

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Stronghold is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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