Five Months in Fifteen Minutes: a Ton of Preparation for an Ounce of Performance Part 2

by Josh Taves, Competitor @ 2010 Mountain Region Barista Competition & 2011 South West Region Barista Competition

This is it. Eleven days before I leave on the final leg of my six month journey to Siren Studios, Hollywood, CA. I'm not going to lie, I'm a little nervous. The other competitors aren't so scary. Although there are some big names to compete alongside, I'm competing against myself. I want to compete to the best of my ability. As the old adage goes, "practice makes perfect!" Hopefully, this time, practice gets me a score above 600.

Everything has finally come together and I am slowly gaining confidence. Never underestimate how much equipment it takes to actually get to a competition! For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the USBC protocols, nearly everything has to be provided by the competitor. Cups (which are more expensive than you would think at this level), steam pitchers, table setting, clothes, wares; all parts of an extensive list of items I have been collecting over the past two months. I have come to frequent and love antique flea markets for their unique collections of glassware. These expenses as well as travel costs and competition fees add to the hurdles of competition that you don't see in just fifteen minutes.

In fact the majority of the competition is not seen when you watch it online. Sure the presentation is web streamed and that is indeed the focal point, but what about the rest? The obvious points that are missed out on are sensory and technical scores. How was the crema? Did the coffee taste as it was described? How much waste did they have? Was the signature beverage well prepared? All these questions and more, add to the fact that Baristas know very little about their fellow competitors in a competition. The rumor mill is in full swing this time of year with people all over the nation talking about one presentation or another; something they heard or tasted in the past. Ultimately what it comes down to when you prepare to enter a competition is this: Are you presenting something that you love, and are you comfortable and familiar with your presentation? All the comparisons and scores don't seem to matter so much when you consider how little you can actually learn about the other competitors. So my advice to any of you looking to tackle this beast is this, be true to yourself and create a presentation that you love. If you stick to this principle, you won't be disappointed. You will walk away knowing that you had a great time, met some interesting people, and improved in your craft because of it.

With that in mind another piece of advice I can offer is do not overlook the small things. Every time I settle in to practice my presentation, I realize there is yet another thing that I need to get a hold of or do before traveling to California. Through this experience I have learned that no detail is to small to overlook when the best of the best go to present their coffees at the USBC. For example, have you ever thought about the diameter of your demitasse cups in relation to the distance between your portafilter pour spouts? Or the way that differently constructed drinks will pour across your palate with different cup designs? Over the last sixth months books have been consulted about espresso preparation, how to conduct presentations well, mixology manuals, and storytelling. One question I have dealt with during my preparation is how will judges (and customers) overall impression of my drinks change in relation to how and where I stand while presenting. A sociologist would do well at a Barista competition.

So what's the point of all this? Months of a constant caffeine buzz, loss of sleep, dreams of coffee, a steep cost, and trips to the flea market probably aren't great incentive to most people. Heres' the secret, I love what I do. I greatly enjoy the complexity and the extent to which you can learn about being a barista. Competition is just an excuse to get better and learn more. Also, there are always people that will know more than you, in this industry, and everywhere. The best way to meet them and learn from them is through events like regional competitions and trade shows. SCAA and the Barista Guild are great tools in facilitating these relationships. If you're looking to expand your business' knowledge base, and your staff's skills, I encourage you to get involved in coffee events. Take the plunge, it's worth it. I would love to see you there!

I'll be back with one more article to debrief and provide post competition thoughts. Be sure to watch the SWRBC online March 3-5!

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