Illustration by Alabaster
How does one go about preparing for the United States Barista Championship Qualifying Event? Barista Magazine’s Ashley Rodriguez breaks it down in this 10-part weekly series, which debuts tomorrow
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
So, you’ve registered for The Qualifying Event. The Barista Competition. Or if you’re old school, The Regionals, where the country was divided into six, then three neat regions, and now just the one, or rather two, taking place at one event. It’s confusing. But that’s part of the reason for this new series which will debut right here on Barista Magazine’s blog tomorrow ”Tuesday, November 24 ”and continue every Tuesday for the next 10 weeks. We’ll end it just a few days before the U.S. Barista Championship Qualifying Event kicks off in Kansas City, Mo., on February 2.
Maybe this will be your first competition, or maybe you’re starting to count on two hands (and maybe a toe or two) how many times you’ve been through this process. In an interesting way, this year’s restructuring brings everyone down to the same level. Since the rules and format have changed, at least for the Qualifying Event, the upper hand experienced competitors have had in the past isn’t quite as sizable. Everyone will be scrambling, reading and re-reading the rules and making sure their ideas and speeches fit into 10-minute ”not 15, as the USBC is ”routines.
So where do you begin? How do you prepare? How do you structure your time so that you’re getting the most out of your competition preparation time? The three months between now and the start of the Qualifying Event in Kansas City February 2 may seem like a long time, but it’ll sneak up on you quickly, and the worst feeling in this game is going into it feeling underprepared.
I’ve only competed once, three years ago, and to not-quite-as-disastrous-as-I-would-have-thought results. To be fair, I participated in a regional (the Big Central) that was later pushed back three months, but I do attribute my quasi-success (and at least the lack of sheer panic on stage) to my preparation calendar. But I had no idea if that would work. No one I knew had ever competed, and no one I knew really understood the level of knowledge and understanding of coffee that you needed. The overwhelming feedback I got on my scoresheets was that I didn’t give any information about my coffee. And that’s because back then, I could barely tell you that my coffee was a semi-washed Brazil or why that might not have been the best choice for my routine.
But I had fun. I had a ton of fun. I’m not normally very chatty or off the cuff, and I remember competing and feeling like, œThis is my stage, and I feel totally in control. And it’s not because I had a good coffee (I didn’t) or a good coach (I didn’t) or even an interesting topic or theme (I didn’t), but because I prepared and prepared and prepared. That doesn’t mean just saying my routine over and over; I had a timeline of things I wanted to achieve at certain times. This didn’t necessarily help me win, but it helped me get the most out of my competition experience.
For those who have never competed, or are unsure of where to start, or just want to see the process of someone else’s competition preparation schedule, you can find it here. Over the next 10 weeks, I’ll be here to share with you my progress as I prepare for my second go around competing, this time at the Qualifying Event. I’ll share all my techniques, practice tips, and timelines that will hopefully help you feel confident and ready to tackle the stage in Kansas City. I might not always have the right answers, but I will do my best to imbue my posts with the insight and care that I wish I had access to when I was competing.
This series won’t help you win. I won’t give you the secrets to competition or tell you how judges think or what espresso you should choose to wow your audience. I’ve got a lot to figure out along the way myself. But I’ll be right there with you wading through the cacophony of information that might have started heading your way the moment you mentioned to someone that you might be slightly interested in competing. Or maybe this will be the only voice you get in a community where you’re the sole person in your community who is passionate and driven in coffee. Regardless, just by entering this competition, you’re not alone. You plus 99 other baristas will be scrambling around, studying night after night of past barista competition performances, cupping countless coffees, and generally trying to figure out how this somewhat arbitrary and definitely ostentatious display of skill will help you become a better barista.
And the truth is, no matter how you do, competition will make you better. You will be a better barista after this. You will be more intentional, more empathetic, more creative, and more skilled at your craft. Preparation for this competition will force you to think about coffee in ways you never have, no matter if this is the first or tenth time you’ve done this. I intend to approach this competition preparation season with that in mind. Doing well is important to me, but being better steward for the larger barista community is exponentially more important. The benefits might not be immediately noticeable ”but some of the most valuable people and best advice I got were from interactions I made during barista competition. And some of the most meaningful moments may not be from the winners. Lanny Huang dropping that he was making decaf espresso for the judges blew my mind. Anne Cooper’s passion for the coffee of her home nation of Australia made me reassess why I love what I do and the people who work in my industry.
Instead of waiting every week for an update, I’ve included every topic I intend on covering. Come back to this page every Tuesday starting tomorrow to hear my thoughts and experiences on each of these subjects. And please, do reach out. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, tweet me at @ashcommonname, or hashtag your posts with #roadtoqualifiers.
See you in Kansas City.
ASHLEY’S COMPETITION SCHEDULE
Week One: Read the rules
Week Two: Watch your barista champions
Week Three: Steam a zillion cappuccinos
Week Four: The tech scores
Week Five: Choosing your coffee
Week Six: What does your espresso taste like?
Week Seven: Sig drinks and why they’re not as important as you think
Week Eight: Speeches and themes
Week Nine: Moving around and muscle memory
Week Ten: Preparing your cart, picking your music, making checklists ”the final steps
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Rodriguez thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she now works for Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @ashcommonnam