Thursday, 24 May 2012

UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Five)

Continued from UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Four)

Different things.
We're making 12 espresso-based drinks in 15 minutes. Each of those 12 shots of espresso needs to be exactly what we want it to be. Through a process of elimination we have selected our beans and our roaster, and we have worked those beans for weeks and months. We have tried various roast profiles. Various dose weights, shot times, brew ratios etc. We work tirelessly on our barista skills. Eventualy we feel ready. 

Competition day comes. We are given one hour of practise time on the competition machine backstage. It is the first time we have had proper access to this machine - time to truly familiarise. It is not our machine. It is different.
  • It is set to brew at 92 degrees Celcius. Our own machine is set to 92C too, or at least as best we can gather without a Scace2. Maybe the temperature probe is in a different place in the group.  Maybe there is a 0.5C difference. That matters. 
  • This machine has its own basket design. It is different from ours. Smaller. The sides are more angled. That matters. 
  • Our tamper doesn't quite fit it the same as it fits our own baskets. That matters. We probably should have brought a different tamper - maybe a range of tamper sizes.
  • Our machine is a single boiler with a heat exchanger. We have an exacting flushing routine to achieve a specific temperature profile. This is one of our skills. But the machine before us has separate boilers for each group, temperature-managed by a P.I.D. It is very different. What happens to the temperature when we flush? Does it increase? Decrease? Do we even need to flush? How long for? Should we adopt flush-and-go, flush-and-wait, or something else? This matters.
Then we move from the practise room to the stage. Someone carries our grinder for us. The temperature and humidity are different out here. What will that do to the beans we have just dialed in? We have 15 minutes practise time on stage. What shall we do with them? Set the judges table up. What else? Dial in the grind again. But will we be marked down if the drip tray is dirty, or if there are spent pucks in the knock box? Questions. Questions. This environment is different from anything we have experienced before as a barista. Really we should know the answers to our questions, but we don't. We didn't know to ask those questions.

Barista skills. Competition skills. Different things. Which are we being judged on?

My Espresso Scoresheets
Cappuccinos, tick. Sig drink, tick. Just the espressos remaining.  I was just about to grind my first two shots of espresso. I heard the timekeeper say something, but I couldn't hear him as he was standing about 8 metres away, behind the judges. I thought he said "Four minutes". That can't be right. They don't timecheck you at four minutes. I asked him to repeat it. "One minute remaining" came the response over the PA system. "Shit!" I said. Nobody heard. Crap microphone. In one split second it was clear. It was all over. I began reciting the rest of my script, whilst grinding. The judges couldn't hear me. Under pressure, I sped up. The grind was wrong by this point too.  Dosing. Tamping. Shot timing. All sub-standard. Shot quality... low.  I ploughed on.

15 mins 37 seconds.
OK. Let's talk to Jeremy.

Key Learnings from Judges Scoresheets
Although there are specific lessons to learn from the judges, poor competition skills really let me down because they prevented me from utilising barista skills. That, and of course the differences.
One thing I note is how literally the words in backets on the scoresheet are assessed by the judges. Hazelnut. Dark Brown. Reddish Reflection. Sweet. Acid. Bitter. The judges place half marks, full ticks or two ticks against them. I had believed them to be examples of what the judges might assess the espresso upon, not actual 'checkboxes'. Perhaps I'm misunderstanding. But I'm not sure why I would be assessed on whether my espresso crema is hazelnut, or dark brown, if I never intended it to be a hazelnut or dark brown.  I can't help wondering whether all judges apply the same understanding to the scoresheet, or whether some have a different understanding from others.

To be concluded in UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Six)

Friday, 18 May 2012

UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Four)

Continued from UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Three)

The Signature Drink 
It is an oddity. Speciality coffee is all about letting the coffee do the talking, without the addition of syrups, chocolate sprinkles and paraphernalia that detract from the beans' characteristics. Yet here we are, in the midst of a speciality coffee competition, being asked to produce a world-class shot of espresso, and then get all funky with it.

A signature beverage demonstrates a competitor’s creativity and skill to create an appealing and individual espresso-focused beverage. - Rule 2.2.3.A

I don't think I'm letting any cats out of any bags when I say that by and large the signature drink requires judges to taste many truly terrible concoctions over the months of the competition. It's something they seem to smile ruefully about when brought up in polite conversation.
the judges must be able to drink it. - 2.2.3.B

My approach was to find ingredients that would compliment the espresso's own characteristics. My chosen espresso (when extracted correctly!!) has a comforting quality. Lots of body, dark chocolate and nuts. Deep and rich rather than bright and fruity. To compliment that I chose fresh ginger, which I reduced down with natural brown sugar to create a syrup. I love fresh ginger in a tea with honey, and find it comforting when I'm feeling a bit under the weather. Why not use that to bring out the comforting qualities of the espresso? It worked... or at least I believe it did and I still stand by that.

But making syrup is nothing new, and I needed to demonstrate  creativity and skill. Did you know that you can produce milk from nuts? Coconut milk is delicious, so why not, say, almonds? If you soak almonds overnight they shed any harsh tastes and impurities, and become softer. They can be blended with water, and the result is a very healthy and tasty milk.  On competition day I produced this, and filtered it three times through a food-grade mesh I'd researched and found online. I used a Hario Woodneck... my wife sewed the mesh so it could be slid onto the woodneck filter holder, which I thought was a nice modification, and she did a fantastic job for someone who has never sewed anything in her life. The milk could be textured, and in practise sessions it thickened nicely to make acceptable free-pour art... not as pretty as cows milk but still good.

I served it in a small mug, because that was my own interpretation and presentation of a comforting drink. My own interpretation of a Ginger Nut Piccolo. I didn't want to do the whole cocktail glasses thing because the drink didn't suit it. It needed a mug. A nice mug, mind you!

On the day my execution was wrong, the tastes were all wrong, and as I've already mentioned, the plan was arguably wrong in the first place.

A dominant taste of espresso must be present, otherwise the taste balance score will reflect the resulting sensory experience. - Rule 2.2.3.E

Sensory Judges' Scoresheets

Key Learning Points

1. Simplify explanation. The drink can be complex, but I need to make it easier for the judges to understand it. I spent too long trying to describe the entire process of creating each component part, which ate time and overcomplicated it for the judges. It also took focus away from the espresso.

2. Look & functionality. I cocked up the milk art. But fundamentally I seem to have been labouring along the wrong lines, and I need to spend more time looking at the sort of sig drinks that have scored well in the past. That seems a shame, since it undermines my own creativity and expression, but if I want a higher score next year I need to give the judges what they are looking for. However, it isn't clear enough what they are looking for. The rules are just a skeleton, and I think competitors need the judges/SCAE-UK to flesh out their expectations more.

3. Creativity and synergy. Quite surprised by the low scores here, particularly if they relate to creativity. I wonder what they would deem to be creative. I watched Alejandro Mendez use various manual brew methods in his 2011 WBC performance and loved it, and considered something similar, but in the end decided to steer well clear of anything similar for fear of a low creativity score.  Hence the nut milk, which is innovative. So I'm stumped. The word Synergy has been circled, and the word Almond questioned by one judge. This is frustrating to me. I did explain to the judges that the beans had been roasted in such a way as to highlight the nut-like, sugar browning aromas as shown on Ted Lingle's Coffee Flavour Wheel, and therefore the Almond milk was intended to offer a synergy. So why the question-mark? I'm not bitching, by the way. I am trying to understand something that the scoresheets do not help me understand.

4. The espresso was not dominant. Too much sweetness from the syrup and cherry flavours from the almond milk. Need to work on taste balance next year.

5. Precision. I had considered using a syringe to measure out portions of ginger syrup. However, when watching a video of John Gordon's performance in a prior year he simply poured his sugar syrup mix, so I had no reason to think I would be marked down for doing the same. I am again a little confused by a judge writing that my "8ml of syrup" statement was not precise. Perhaps I should not have said "8ml", and should have just said "some syrup".

So in summary I found the signature drink difficult to get my head around right from the beginning, and having now gone all the way through the process and read the scoresheets I seem to be not much clearer regarding the judges' expectations.  It is difficult to know how to improve my scores next year.

It would be great if there was a version of the Judges Calibration Day aimed at competitors, to help provide them with a fuller picture of what the judges are trained to look for, to mark down, and to favour, when completing scoresheets on competition day. The rules do not provide that. This way competitors would not spend valuable time, effort and money working on part of their routine that they hope will be well received, but which the judges have been calibrated to dislike. It should not have to be a shot in the dark.

**EDIT** Here is an interesting article by Richard Rhodes that I think does help to clarify how some successful competitors treated the signature drink as more than just a taste-matching exercise.

To be continued in UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Five)

Saturday, 12 May 2012

UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Three)

Continued from UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Two)

Espresso and our individual perceptions
If you're a barista... yes, you, reading this... how do you know whether your espresso is good or bad?  Maybe it's bad.  Now stop and look inside yourself.  Did reading that remark give you slight feelings of annoyance or defensiveness?  Did your ego poke its head out for a split second?  If so, I think you're quite normal.  Baristas take their espresso very personally. The ability to make good espresso is fundamental to a barista - particulary a '3rd wave' one (I'm sorry for using that term!).  But the question is valid and relevant. Good or bad?  There are several possible ways you might have reached the conclusion that it is, in your opinion, good. Common ways include:
  • You may have worked with experienced professional baristas who have trained you to tell the difference between how good and bad espresso tastes
  • You may be an avid drinker of espresso who simply knows what they like
  • You may be a self-taught barista, perhaps a home-barista, beavering away with YouTube videos, books, forums, and gleaning information from every available source, then putting what you've learned into practise in your espresso
  • Your grandfather was Italian
  • A customer may have told you once that your espresso tastes good
Here's another way. This one is less common:
  • You entered a barista competition and the panel of sensory judges gave your espresso high scores
In an ideal world you'd take all that confidence you have in your own espresso, enter a competition, and have all your confidence validated by the judges.

Having looked at my own scoresheets as well as the early sheets of some highly acclaimed baristas, I can say with a reasonable degree of certainly that we do not live in an ideal world!

Photo by Rob Sharp
For me, my sensory scoresheets were a wake up call. I may have learned to do things right (technical), but I haven't learned to do the right things (sensory). To put my management consultant hat back on for a moment, I've learned to be an efficient barista, but not how to be effective one.
Now to be fair to myself, I'm also my own worst critic. I'll take any opportunity to beat myself up, because it encourages me to try harder to be better. I've been told that my sensory scores actually aren't that bad for a year 1 competitor. Whatever. The point is, on competition day my espresso wasn't as good as I thought it was, and that means I need to put aside ego and make some serious changes.

Sensory Judges' Scoresheets
On competition day I served my drinks in the following order:
- Cappuccino
- Signature Drink
- Espresso
The scoresheets are organised differently. I'm going to look at the sections of the scoresheets in the order in which I served them on the day.

Below is a composite of all four judges' cappuccino comments. (Click to enlarge)

Key Learning Points

Picture by Robert Sharp
  1. Visually I'm not doing too badly. Two judges commented on a loss/lack of definition, which I would like to understand more but I think relates to the latte art. I think I poured well on the day considering how much my hands were shaking (see picture), but I also agree that I'm not yet consistently pouring sharp-edged milk art with high contrast and I will work on that.
  2. My microfoam consistency scores ranged from 1.5 to 3. I find it quite tough to achieve crisp milk art with thick microfoam, and during practise I tried to find a compromise between the two, and was generally getting foam thicker than the 1cm minimum. But ultimately there's no compromise, of course, and I just need to be able to do both to a very high standard, so I just need to keep working on it.  Another challenge with this, though, is keeping milk waste to a minimum (by not overfilling the milk pitcher) whilst still having enough in there to be able to stretch and texture it correctly.  Practise. Practise. Practise!
  3. Taste Balance is where it's all at. Its a "x4" score, so every lost point is actually four points down the sink. I averaged a score of just under 3. Not terrible but this is where I can do much better next year. I intentionally focused on providing sweetness, but I went a little too far. Not enough espresso taste for some of the judges. That's fixable. Interesting conflicting comments from the judges... although they agree that the milk needs to be hotter, some say the low temperature exaggerates the sweetness, yet one says that it needs to be hotter in order to be sweeter.  I think also that I didn't necessary understeam the milk (although that is of course possible), but may just have suffered from my cups not being hot enough. I saw other competitors using techniques to keep their cups hotter, and I think I should do something similar next year.  I will also start using a temperature probe more often in practise, which is something I've got out of the habit of doing recently.
Continued in UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Four)

Friday, 4 May 2012

UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Two)

Continued from UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part One)

Back to life. Back to reality.
So we're back from the dream sequence now. Almost two months have passed since the Glasgow heats, and just last weekend the UKBC semis and final took place. Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood was crowned UK Barista Champion 2012, and after having had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife Lesley, I was thrilled for them when the results were announced. Maxwell has an unflappable exterior, with a kind of  'Sandhurst' Britishness that will go down well in the World Championships in Vienna. Meanwhile I think Lesley wore her heart on her sleeve a little more, and it was by watching her during Maxwell's set (biting her nails and unable to look up from her feet), and seeing how hard she worked backstage in the prep area, that it became very obvious how diligently the two must have worked together to prepare for the competition. Maxwell's delivery was faultless. Well done guys.

What won it for them? Ultimately it was points. The scoresheets. You can be the best public speaker in the world, make the best espresso-based drinks ever tasted in your day job, and be the most knowledgeable barista on the planet, but if you can't translate all of that into points on that stage, on that day, you don't have a hope in hell of going further in the competition.  To win, you have to deliver what the judges are looking for, and the scoresheets are the gateway to doing that.

I've received my scoresheets for the Glasgow heat (16 March 2012)... all except the Head Judge sheet for some reason. I've read them, of course, but I'd like to go through them and put some thoughts down on this blog, to help me fully take in and learn from the feedback... and also to share the learnings with others so that we can all become better at what we're doing.

One thing I think is important... I have blanked out the judges' names, as I don't care who provided the feedback other than to give me a chance to say thank you for their time. A judge is a volunteer, and their task is thankless enough without having every competitor hounding them to justify their decisions. I don't agree with every decision made by individual judges, and I have had a few major concerns relating to aspects of the competition over the past months, but there is, I hope, a right and fair way to address this situation and I'll save my comments for that.

My Overall Score
My initial score (from 2 x technical judges, plus 4 x sensory judges) was 452.5, which was then reduced by 37 points due to my over-running by 37 seconds. Damn! So I scored 415.5 after that adjustment.  The 37 points gutted me. My own fault, of course. Anyway, here are my Technical Judge scoresheets. I'm actually ecstatic with them!

Technical Judge 1:
Technical Judge 2:

Click below to enlarge images.
So... 69 out of 77, and 70 out of 77, and even a couple of sixes in there! That was lovely to see.
Some key points for next year:
1. I had considered having milk pre-weighed in metal flasks, and decided against it, opting just to pour from the Cravendale bottle as I hoped to show skill in knowing how much to fill the jug from sight. Next year I'll probably take the safe option and use a flask.
2. I need to purge the steam wand for longer.
3. Silly mistake, not noticing the grinder gate being closed. Oops!
4. I need to improve station management relating to used items eg milk jugs.
5. I need to work on a procedure that allows me to completely remove shot-time differences.

That will do for now. But with such nice Tech scores I guess I must have really cocked up on the Sensory side!

To be continued in UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Three)

Thursday, 3 May 2012

UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part One)

The following post was written immediately after my performance in the UKBC Scotland Heat. I am posting it now as I did not want to post it whilst the competition was ongoing, out of respect for other competitors. I will follow this post up with more up-to-date commentary.

The UK Barista Championships are still ongoing. Not for me though. Recently I took part in the Glasgow heat and didn't get through to the next stage. So I wish the very best of luck to all those baristas who worked so hard to achieve their much-deserved place in the Semi-Finals. I'd also like to get my thoughts and feelings into a blog post whilst they are still fresh. I'm going to take a week or so to write this post, as I think I need that time to 'decompress' from several months of immersion in preparation for my first attempt at the competition.

My objectives
I am a relative newcomer to coffee. My main objective from entering the competition was to give me a focal point to learn and improve. Having an event as prestigious and 'serious' as the UKBC to work towards has dramatically intensified my learning process. I still have a munro to climb, but if I hadn't entered the UKBC my knowledge and skills would be far below their current levels. I have therefore achieved my main goal, and I am truly thrilled with what I have achieved in a short space of time.

My secondary goal was to come away feeling that I didn't let myself down; that I had done everything within my power to prepare, so that I would not be disappointed with my performance. By and large I think I achieved that too. I may have let the judges down (based upon my scores), but I delivered my script without forgetting words or stumbling, and I delivered all my drinks without spilling anything.  Although there were some material issues with my drinks on the day, the main issue I have with the delivery of my planned performance was timing. I over-ran by 37 seconds. Not good. But apart from that, it went almost according to plan, and that was good from a 'rehearsing' perspective.

"According to plan"
Going according to plan is good if the plan is good. Sadly my gameplan was bad. I took a few calculated risks that, on reflection, perhaps I shouldn't have taken. In addition, there were some factors that I could not plan for in my first year entry, but the experience will benefit me in future years.

1. Order of service.
I decided to serve in the order of Cappuccino, Sig Drink, Espresso. My reasoning was that I wanted the Espresso to be the headline act, and the entire set to build up to it... like a music festival. I also thought there was a practical argument in favour of this: Because I used a three-bean blend and wanted to impart a lot of information about it, it seemed to me that spreading the information across the whole set would give the judges a better chance to understand the espresso components before being served the espresso. 
Both of these decisions were mistakes.
There is a very good reason the most common order of events is Espresso, Cappuccino, Sig Drink. The espresso is the highest scoring drink. Get it right. By serving it last I reduced my chance of getting it right. Why? Time pressure for one. Atmospheric changes affecting the grind for another (there was quite a difference in temperature and humidity between the practise room and the stage). Not yet being as skilled as I need to be is a third.  So my espresso was not as good as it should have been, as good as I feel it has been for months, as it was in the practise room 15 minutes earlier. It was poor, and I take full responsibility for not handling the time and environment better. The sensory judges' scores reflected my shortcomings.

2. Using a three-component blend
I love the blend I used, and so do many people I know.  I am very proud that my roaster allowed me to represent his business, and ashamed that I didn't do a better job of representing it. But using such a blend posed a challenge in comparison with using a single origin. I knew that in advance, and chose to accept that challenge willingly. I found the learning process itself much more interesting and challenging with three beans than it would perhaps have been with a single origin. No regrets whatsoever from a learning point of view.
But from a competitive point of view my decision made my life more difficult than necessary. With three components to describe, there was too much information in my script, and in order to impart it I had to speak too much. This in turn made the judges' job difficult. They could not take all the information in and also assess the drinks concurrently, particularly as I had to speak quickly to fit it all in. And it was also difficult for the judges because of the somewhat disjointed nature of my presentation, where I was speaking about individual espresso components at various points throughout the 15 minutes.
I should have kept it more simple, spoken less, and made it easier for the judges to score me.

3. Terrible aspects of the venue
The Glasgow venue was shocking. No parking, so after getting past the ogre on the sentry gate we unloaded my kit onto the pavement.  My wife then had to disappear whilst I and my stuff waited in the rain for her to find a carpark somewhere else in the city and walk back to help me get things indoors.  We then lugged it four hundred meters around the building and through the university canteen.  A bloody a ridiculous start to proceedings, and one that it seemed every competitor had to endure.

The backstage practise area was miniscule. Not big enough for competitors to adequately get set up and subsequently packed away without adding extra unnecessary stress.

The temperature and humidity backstage were dramatically different from out front. You could feel it when you opened the door. After spending an hour on the practise machine and getting the grind dialed in, it changed hugely out front.  So all those flavour notes the competitors worked hard to pinpoint and extract were lost in a battle against the environment. Next year I will be better prepared for this possibility, of course.

There were also very annoying problems with the microphone/sound system as well as the terrible acoustics in the hall ... there were times when the judges simply could not hear me no matter how clearly or loudly I spoke. When a competitor has spent literally months researching and working on their coffee and writing a presentation that will inform the judges of specific and important facts relating to the competitor's entry, it is a complete slap in the face to be in a position where the judges cannot hear you because of echo and a crackling microphone. I saw other competitors having this problem at both Glasgow and Newcastle. Come on. This is basic stuff.

I will compete next year, but I do not imagine I will do so at that venue.  Please, Matthew Algie, you hosted the Glasgow event... please find a different venue for 2013.

4. Signature Drink Failure
I worked hard on my sig drink. I tried a lot of different ideas and concepts, rejected lots, and eventually found something I was happy to serve. I thought the idea was creative, the preparation was sufficiently complex to demonstrate the research and work undertaken, and I personally thought the components worked well together... at least during rehearsals. The almont nut milk I produced backstage in particular was, I believed, a really innovative creation that tasted good. The ginger syrup I made with natural brown sugar did, I believed, compliment the espresso as planned. Its purpose was to add a complimentary flavour that avoided thinning the espresso.
It bombed with the judges.
I was surprised by the feedback. To be told by one of the judges "we like drinks presented in glass like a cocktail" was one surprise. This seems very prescriptive to me. I had no idea that the signature drink was judged in this way... and indeed I deliberatily steered clear of the 'mixology' approach to the sig drink, as it is not representative of my own tastes in coffee drinking, so I would not choose to put my signature to such a drink. But if this is how the competition works, and how points are awarded, then this lesson has been learned... but it should be made clear in the rules.

However, I could understand and fully accept the sensory comments that were fed back to me. The nut milk, when combined with the espresso, can exhibit a strong alkilinity that can taste 'metallic'.  I had identified that as a risk, and thought I had overcome it by adjusting the proportions of the drink components. On the day I failed to get that part right, it seems. I also had a presentation problem... the nut milk was, at times, difficult to texture perfectly and therefore difficult to pour art with. The nice hearts I was getting in practise turned into milky splodges on the day. My bad!

One piece of feedback is particularly intriguing... in a good way. It was that the judges are not looking for ingredients that just compliment each other and are well explained. The choice of ingredients must be justified on the basis of what they are 'bringing out' from the espresso. It is quite a subtle difference, I think. For example, I explained how the gentle heat of my ginger ingredient bonded onto the sweet spice of the Brazilian component, and I believed that was good. But it wasn't enough... presumably because the ginger did not bring anything out from the espresso.
I fully accept the judges' feedback. I would like to understand it better, and perhaps there will be an opportunity to do so, because I feel like there is a disconnect between the rules and what judges' expectations. If I am to avoid making the same mistakes in future then I need a greater understanding of what the judges are looking for.

......... to be continued in UK Barista Championships - Epilogue (Part Two)

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Forthcoming posts

I have a lot of things I want to get down on paper, so to speak, before I forget them. Experiments part-completed... recent learning experiences, and new ideas. Just gonna make a list for now:

- A bunch of stuff relating to the UK Barista Championships. At first I thought it would be a short post, then it turned into a bigger one, then perhaps multiple blog entries, and now perhaps a bit of a lengthy paper. Analysis of my scoresheets, some acknowlegments of fantastic people and their UKBC work, constructive feedback for organisers (which I hope they want to read, and not just be defensive about), learnings to improve (my) next year's performance, etc. Gotta get this one written quick as the brain is already starting to fog.

- An update on my water quality experiences and learning, including the impact of finding out more about the pesticides and lead in my domestic private water supply. Water that tastes great and has 110ppm TDS can make REALLY bad coffee, even in the Gold Cup range. TDS alone is nowhere near enough of an indicator of water's suitability for coffee, despite claims to the contrary from leading baristas. My firm view is that water desperately needs to become a cool thing to talk about if the predominantly "coolness-oriented" barista community is going to get the best from speciality coffee.

- My experiences with the VST Refractometer in Espresso mode. After a few months of using it with manual brew methods, I have just taken the plunge started measuring my espresso. The insights have immediately led to deconstructing and then rebuilding my espresso-brewing technique... with some surprising results.

Now to find time to pull everything together...