I have the regional coming up in March here. I am a long time barista (6 plus year) and am pretty confident in my technical abilities. I have spent the last few months researching performances and I have read the rule book 6 times cover to cover.
Are there any baristas out there that would have any advice for me? My main question is...how do you prepare? What are your winning strategies? I read the article in fresh cup about newbies that really helped, but are there any other variables I should consider before embarking on this thing? Thanks in advance for your responses!
Practice, Practice, Practice. If you watch the best competitors, there are no wasted steps in their routine. If you can, set up so that you have a prep table and judges table where they will be for the competition. The closer your practice set up is to the actual competition set up, the easier it will be for you to know exactly where everything you need will be. Make the routine a muscle memory, so when you are competing, you can focus on presenting yourself and the coffee and not worry about where your milk or sig. drink prep items are. Also, know your coffee! The better you know your coffee, the more authentic your presentation will sound. Get a partner to help you with descriptions and speak out loud about your espresso and how it interacts with milk. Get used to talking about the nuances so that you don't have to picture flashcards in your head when you're describing your coffee to the judges. Most of all, make sure that you can do all of this and have fun at the same time!
I like to break my performance down into 3 parts and practice the parts individually over and over again, and then as you get closer to game time start to put them together and go through your whole routine as many times as you can stand. You should be finishing in 14 minutes by the end. (leave yourself a minute for that "oh shit" moment)
If so, make it easier on yourself and hire Heather Perry to be your coach. She'll guide you through the whole thing and teach you the technical details you need to master. No guarantees you'll win but it will go a long way towards the first place trophy and a seeded spot in the USBC.
Figure out which things count for the most points, and focus your preparations on getting the maximum points on those scoring elements.
Get to know how your coffees taste, in a way that you can communicate well and that are relevant.
Be careful when watching the videos. There are a certain number of points that are "visible" in a video... while most are not.
Beware about "muscle memory." One of the best pieces of advice I can give you: turn all of your senses ON when doing your presentation. Focus on every moment. Don't take any movement for granted. Make every movement purposeful and under your control. Muscle-memory has been the downfall of many a competing barista.
#1 advice: make your drinks taste delicious. With your signature drink, don't get so caught-up in executing some idea or concept you had that you forget to make it taste balanced and yummy.
I agree with Nick that you should be in a heightened state of awareness when competing. I also agree that every move you make should be executed with intention. When I used the term muscle memory, I suppose I meant familiarity with your space. You certainly don't want to move through your routine like a zombie, but it's good to know how many steps it takes to get to the judges table, where your supplies are going to be set up and how you're going to reach for them. You want to be as comfortable as possible in the space so that when you're competing, you feel like you're at your own machine in your shop, and just happen to be serving some very persnickety customers. Also good advice on the scoresheets.
Keep the flow and progression of your performance tight by thinking about not only WHAT you're going to be telling the judges, but WHEN. You can explain things before them at the presentation table, but there is a whole lot of opportunity to talk about your coffee while you're over by the machine (just don't talk while the grinder's on). This helped me determine the pace of my routine. I saved specific details for specific places I knew I'd be standing. It really brings a routine together and your sensory judges won't lose their focus. Also, what are you going to say about cappuccino's? What IS there to say about cappuccino's? If you can think of something unique to say about them, do it. Talk about how the milk brings out specifics in the s'pro, or why it's important to serve a good cappuccino... something like that.
Ostensibly my goal is to win, I just have this strange fear of making some kind of stupid mistake that jeopardizes an otherwise good performance. What are the pitfalls? What were your rookie mistakes? I have a couple of coaches thus far, none as illustrious as Sarah Allen, but people I have confidence in. Between my roasting and the amount of cupping I do I am not sure that I will have any problems describing my coffee. My signature drink is (from what my coaches have said) original, flavorful and “what judges typically look for.” I have checklists and backups, and have developed contingency plans....what else besides practice,practice is there to do?”
Go for the obvious. The problem with competition judges in general is that they have a poor grasp of cuisine and going outside the box (in terms of flavor) will probably work against you. If you're advisers are telling you that your drink is what judges look for, then you're probably on the right track.
And while much of the suggestions here are good ones, see if you can consult with any of the winners themselves and ask them about their practice regimens and what they think is important in preparing for competition.
Remember: competition is not like cafe practices. Sure there are some parallels but you need to remove your mindset of being a "barista" to that of a "barista competitor." The two are not the same. Like someone said, learn the scoresheets. Strategize the points you need to win and the ones you can afford to give up. Remember that taste is subjective and you will be subject to the palates and preferences of the judges you face.
Don't go crazy. Go for simple and easy. Last year, there seemed to be lots of "let's infuse this water or pair this coffee with the flavors I've identified in the coffee" - nothing too challenging or too exciting there. It was lots of bolstering flavors rather than pairing or contrasting flavors.
And keep it small. The rules dictate that the judges look for a balance but favored towards the coffee. Let the coffee flavors stand out.
This may be totally impractical, but you might consider attending a Comp Prep class. I know some roasters and other entities offer them. We're offering one in Charlotte NC (a bit of a hike for you) next weekend, presented by Octane's Ben Helfen and former SERBC champ Lem Butler. Maybe ask around and see if you can find one in your area?
I am enjoying this thread, as I've contemplated competing at some point in the future. Keep the good advice coming, everyone!
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