Illustration by Alabaster
Barista Training Camp, Weekly Series, Part 5: Selecting Your Espresso
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
This being a coffee competition, you’d think choosing your coffee would be the most important decision. For some people, this is probably the first thing they did. I’m hoping some people will have been so moved or touched by a coffee that the coffee is what inspired them to compete altogether. However, I’d rank picking your coffee slightly higher than deciding on glassware for your drinks, and slightly lower than refining your technical skills.
The coffee you choose is important to a degree, but not for the reasons you think. You will not win for having the best coffee (this isn’t Brewer’s Cup), nor will you win for presenting the judges with an exotic coffee that blows their minds. Your choice of coffee is mostly important insofar as how you want to present yourself and frame your routine. Let me talk you through what I mean.
I first made a list of all the coffees we have at Sightglass that I might be interested in using. I included a lot of fun, sparkling coffees, and coffees that were consistently strong. After I made a list, I talked to our roasting manager, Joe, and I asked him about coffees he was excited about and coffees that he’d have for a few months. I was able to cross off coffees that were leaving our menu, and coffees that I thought he might not be passionate about working with or roasting, because that was incredibly important to me ”that the team I work with is also passionate about the coffee I choose. After narrowing down the list, I analyzed the choices that past competitors have made and thought carefully about what their decisions meant for their performances.
Off the bat, I noticed that many competitors use coffees from either Ethiopia or Colombia. It’s partially due to the time of the year that competition falls, in terms of spacing from harvest, but it’s also because these coffees are prized for their complexity and flavor. At this point, you’re probably stressing out over how good your coffee is or isn’t compared to other competitors, especially if you don’t have the resources to work closely with a roaster or use expensive coffee. But besides picking a clean, balanced, and well-processed coffee, you don’t really have to worry much about how good it is or what it scored when it was purchased. Looking back to the scoresheets, judges are evaluating how well you can describe the coffee, not how good it is. It can taste like tree bark and as long as you tell them this coffee has notes of tree bark, you get points. (Of course, nobody’s suggesting you use coffee that tastes like tree bark. Read on…)
You are required to give flavor descriptors of what your coffee tastes like, which is evaluated under the ‘Accuracy of Flavor Descriptors’ section of your judge’s sensory scoresheet. If you don’t, you’ll get a zero in that category, which is 18 points lost (because this score is multiplied by 3) per each sensory judge. So for this category, it doesn’t really matter what your coffee tastes like. What does matter is that you know what it tastes like and you can tell the judges accurately what to expect.
This is, to me ”and this is only a theory ”one of the reason I shy away from Ethiopian coffees. I find a lot of variance between shots when I pull Ethiopian coffees as espresso, and I think it’s because of how heirloom-y they are, for a lack of a better term. For me, they’d be difficult to articulate and ensure that the judges are tasting the same thing I’ve tasted. While Ethiopian coffees are wonderful beyond words, you’ll have to be more confident than I at pulling them as espresso. I crossed Ethiopians off my list.
The issue of consistency kept coming up over and over in my search for coffee. It’s something I talk about a lot when I do trainings, so I started thinking, where does inconsistency come from? Answer: variation. If I can control as many variables as possible, I can ensure to the best of my ability that the judges are getting a product that I can describe accurately over and over. So I then started looking at coffees that were a single varietal.
This is not the approach for everyone, and it’s important to note at this stage that competition is not the only slice of the experience of working with coffee. Tasting three cups of the same Ethiopian coffee and seeing how different and wonderful they can all be is a delight that I still can’t explain. But competition isn’t about mystery. However, there are beautifully amazing things about the way competition makes you think about coffee, and some of these things really spoke to how I talk about coffee to new baristas. And as a trainer, I find that the mysteries of coffee are hard for new coffee drinkers to comprehend. When I train, I explain espresso as a science experiment ”if I change one thing, how will all the other things react? Knowledge about coffee comes from experiencing these changes, but they require baristas to keep other variables constant. And I think this can speak to the larger problems of specialty coffee ”how do we answer questions? How do we truthfully know the things we claim to know?
You see where my theme starts to come in?
Tying the espresso to your theme is going to make the decision easy as to which coffee you want to use. As I thought more and more about what I love about coffee ”it goes to the root of my love for learning and passing knowledge on to others ”it became clear that I wanted to talk about how we came to know the information that we know about coffee. It helps new baristas learn, but it also informs how we’ll move forward in our industry. So I tried to find a coffee where as many variables possible “specifically variety ”were controlled, and I chose a Honduran coffee from Finca Zulema. It hails from the San Vicente mill in Santa Barbara. Sightless has both mixed and varietal-specific lots of this coffee, and I chose a Catimor lot of this coffee to compete with.
After choosing my coffee, I went back to the scoresheet (it should be ingrained that any decisions you make should directly align with what the judges are instructed to look for). I thought a lot about the other two categories that the judges look at when evaluating espresso: tactile and flavor balance. Again, these fall into the category of not necessarily looking for something specific, but rather, something that competitors can articulate. So now that you have your coffee, you should be tasting it. Every. Single. Day. Doesn’t always have to be as espresso, but you and your coffee should be closer to each other than you and the competition rulebook (you’re still carrying that with you everywhere, right?). You should know what your coffee tastes like on day 3 after roast versus day 5. You should know what your coffee tastes like when a shot is run long, when it’s 0.5 grams over its ideal dose, when you dial in and then have to come back to your grinder 10 minutes later, which is a realistic amount of time you might have to wait between your prep time and your actual competition routine.
In a way, choosing your espresso helps a lot of things come together. Once I thought about what I wanted from my espresso, I could make really informed decisions, and the theme of my routine started to take shape. At this stage, it was really helpful for me to remember what a barista champion should be: a knowledgeable, technically adept steward of the coffee industry who can speak to the intricacies of coffee beyond the competition platform. Use your espresso choices to relay that message and be thoughtful and thorough beyond the competition stage.
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 and be sure to use the #roadtoqualifiers hashtag when talking about this series online.