Barista Competitions: Sam Lewontin Breaks it Down
If You're Thinking About Competing, You Probably Should.
For those who are new to it (and, let’s be honest, for a fair number of those who aren’t) participating in a barista competition is a daunting prospect. We’re entering the twelfth season of the United States Barista Championships, and every year, somebody declares this to be the most talented, the most exciting, the most competitive field they’ve yet seen. Training is time-consuming and exhausting. Entry is expensive. Equipment, service ware, and ingredients are expensive. Travel and accommodations and time away from work are all expensive. And yet, in spite of all of this, many of us still choose to compete year after year. Barista competition is an experience like no other, and if you’re thinking about doing it, but you’re still equivocating: you really should, at least once. Here are a few reasons why:
First off, competing will make you better at making coffee. The judges will scrutinize your output and your methodology in minute detail, and so, in order to score well, must you. This kind of scrutiny brings with it a much more detailed understanding of the whys and wherefores of each aspect of your coffee and your process. It will (if you let it) make you more attentive, more precise, more efficient, cleaner, more confident, and better able to make the kinds of snap decisions required to make your coffee taste good under just about any circumstance.
It’ll also make you better at talking and thinking about coffee. Fifteen minutes is plenty of time to prepare and serve twelve drinks, but it’s not really plenty of time to do so while accurately and fully describing every salient detail of your process, your product, and your philosophy. In order to do this, you’ll have to get very good at using as few as possible of exactly the right words to describe what you mean. Better and more streamlined language can, in turn, give you a better and more streamlined understanding of all of the factors that play into the cup you’re serving, which frees up mental energy to devote to, say, making the coffee taste better more consistently (see: prior paragraph), providing better and more thoughtful service, and the like.
Competing also connects you to a larger community. Everyone who shows up to a barista competition is there, at least in part, because they love coffee. In participating, you’re surrounding yourself with a bunch of people from all over your region (and the country! And maybe even the world!) who share your passions. If you put yourself out there, you'll wind up with a wonderful group of friends and peers in far-flung corners of the globe, all of whom have shared the joys and trials of competing.
Mostly, though, competing is just a ton of fun. There’s no thrill quite like stepping onstage and putting your skill and knowledge to the test, no satisfaction quite like having nailed your routine in every detail, and no joy quite like representing your friends, your co-workers, your shop and your city to the utmost of your ability. While that's probably not reason enough on its own to start competing, it's certainly reason enough to come back again and again.
Alright, It’s decided: you’re going to compete this year.
This leaves the question of what to do now. There are nearly as many approaches to competition training as there are folks training for competitions, and many of the things you’ll need to learn can’t be explicitly taught. You’ll have to experience the process for yourself in order for the lessons to really sink in. That said, here—with thanks to Lem Butler, Katie Carguilo, Sam Penix, Jesse Kahn, and everyone else who has ever helped me solve a nagging problem or talked sense to me as I freaked out over this or that miniscule detail—are some things that I’ve found it helpful to remember when training:
Read the rules. And then re-read them. And then re-read them again. Competition is a fun, valuable and extremely informative game, but it is a game, and it is played within a set of rules. Knowing intimately what you can do, what you can’t do, and how your work will be evaluated will provide some structure for your routine, and will give you some idea of where best to allocate your effort while training.
Pick a coffee that you love. You’re going to spend a lot of time with your competition coffee: tasting it, picking it apart, talking about it, wrestling with it, pairing ingredients with it. Make sure to pick something that you’ll still be excited to share with the judges after all of that time together.
Pick a coffee that works. On the other hand, don’t make more work for yourself than you have to; pick a coffee that tastes good across a relatively broad range of brew parameters. Plenty of aspects of your preparation and your routine will end up being finicky and in need of babysitting. Your coffee doesn’t have to be one of them.
Structure your time. Write yourself a training schedule, and stick to it. As an example: I usually give myself a few weeks to select a coffee and brainstorm ideas for my routine, and then one full week to work on each course, plus about a week and a half for run-throughs. At the beginning of a given week of training, I’ll take a look at my work schedule and what I need to accomplish in training that week, and schedule specific days accordingly. It’s all too easy, otherwise, to get bogged down trying to perfect a specific detail, and to run out of time to put the rest of your routine together.
Be specific. In general (and within limits; a full year is way too long!), more time given over to training means a more polished routine at the end. That doesn’t mean just doing the routine over and over and over again, though. Break your routine up into its constituent parts, and look for problems with those parts. Then, focus on each problem individually until you’ve solved it to the best of your ability before moving on to the next one.
Rest. Nobody does their best work when they’re tired. Make sure to give yourself at least two full days a week on which you do absolutely nothing competition related. If one or more of these is a day off from work, too, so much the better. On a related note, if you find yourself flagging badly during a training session, give yourself permission to pack it in and come back at the problem with fresh eyes the next day. An hour of training in which you’re focused and progressing is worth more than many hours of training in which you’re distracted, exhausted, and banging your head against a figurative wall.
Don’t get discouraged. Weeks spent picking at the most miniscule flaws in your technique can make competition training feel very personal. It’s easy to let even the most constructive critiques of your practices in training feel like criticisms of your worth as a coffee professional. Understand that this isn’t the case, and push through. You’ll feel much better, and work much better, on the other side.
Find a training partner. This one’s pretty subjective—some folks do their best work in solitude—but I’ve always found having someone else around while I’m training, be they a coach, a fellow competitor, or just a friend, to be tremendously valuable. At some point, you’re probably going to want access to a less blown palate than yours, or a less hyper-focused perspective, or someone to talk you down from a frenzy of self-doubt, or just an extra set of hands to carry cups to the sink.
Train with the tools you’ll be competing with. Wherever possible, use exactly the same gear to train that you’ll use to compete. A big part of competition training is building a deep kinesthetic understanding of your process, and that understanding changes with even slight variations in the physical properties of the tools you use. Don’t use ones that are sort of the same, or even the same model from the same manufacturer; use the actual thing you’ll be competing with.
Practice your prep time. Your fifteen minutes of prep time are maybe more important even than your performance itself. Practice loading and unloading your cart, setting up your station, and especially dialing in under a time limit until you can do it all with your eyes closed.
Have fun. Above and beyond all of this hard work, barista competition is and should be a ton of fun. Don’t forget to relax a little and let yourself enjoy the whole thing. Except doing the dishes. That part just plain sucks.