Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the 2016 USBC Qualifying Event. Part 1 of 10

Illustration by  Alabaster

Barista Training Camp, Weekly Series, Part 1: Reading the Rules.

Back in 2012, when I registered for Northeast Regional Barista Competition (NERBC, RIP), the sole piece of advice I got was, read the rules. There’s a reason for this ”it’s crazy important. And now that I’m diving in again, it’s no different. A few weeks ago, moments after frantically refreshing the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) event page so I could ensure my space in this February’s Western Region of the Qualifying Event, I printed out dozens of scoresheets and a copy of the rules and regulations.

That’s the first piece of advice I have for you: READ THE RULES. I carry the rules around with me everywhere. Any down time I have, I’m reviewing the rules and making sure that I completely understand everything that is expected of me as a competitor, and what the judges will be looking for and how they will score my performance.

Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the 2016 USBC Qualifying Event. Part 1 of 10
The Rules. In all their glory. Download them, print them, carry them around with you, study them, sleep with them, live them.

The rules tell you two things. First, they tell you what is explicitly allowed and what is taboo. Booze in your signature drink? Disqualified. Routine over 16 minutes? You’re out (and we’ll talk about time penalties in a moment). Along with outlining the basic structure of what should go into a routine, the rules let you know what will fly and what will get you in trouble. Reading the rules, especially if you’ve competed before and feel fairly comfortable with the former structure, is tantamount to ensuring that you know what to expect when you arrive, and that you put on a presentation that allows the judges to evaluate you in a meaningful way.

Second, and most important, the rules tell you  where the points come from. Now that there will only be two sensory judges, there are a possible 430 points that you can get, and they’re broken down like this:

SENSORY (two judges)

TECHNICAL (two judges)


Round I Espresso: 56

Round I Set Up: 6

Round II Milk-Based Drink: 31

Round II Espresso: 11

Round III Signature Drink: 38

Round III Milk-Based Drink: 16

Round IV Barista Evaluation: 13

Round IV Signature Drink: 11

Round V Total Impression: 24

Round V Technical Evaluation: 9

TOTAL: 162 x 2 = 324

TOTAL: 53 x 2 = 106


Within each of these categories, the rules explain how you gain points and what points will be taken off for. Think of them as a rubric: you remember back in middle school when your teachers would give you a rubric on how they’d be scoring your work, right? The USBC Qualifying Event rules essentially outline how points will be allotted in ambiguous categories ”such as “total impression” ”and what things matter.

Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the 2016 USBC Qualifying Event. Part 1 of 10
Considering we have to go through the USBC Qualifying Event in order to hopefully make it on the the USBC this year, it’s crucial we understand the rules for the Qualifying Event, which are quite different than the rules for the USBC in terms of structure.

With a good understanding of how things are scored, you can then plan your prep time accordingly. Based on the chart above, you’ll see that more than 70% of your score comes from your sensory performance. Within that, the espresso round is worth almost twenty points more than any other category. However, when you look to the tech scores, your milk technical performance is worth almost double any other category.

So what does that mean? Knowing where my potential points come from will dictate my competition preparation schedule. Instead of making sure I steam exactly enough foam for my cappuccinos (or other milk-based drink I chose to use), I’m going to spend more time evaluating my milk steaming techniques and making sure I’m consistent and economical with my milk use. Instead of searching for the best coffee I can find, I’m going to taste my espresso over and over and over and really understand how it tastes and how to articulate those notes to the judges.

Just as  a good barista would, good competitors are careful with their time, both in preparation for competition and during the competition. In 2014, 6 of 22 competitors in the Southeast region were disqualified because they went over time. As the rules state on page 12, a competitor will be allowed to continue if their routine goes over the allotted time (10 minutes as opposed to the previous 15). So if you’re going over, no one will stop you. And for every second that you go over time, you lose a point until you go over 60 seconds, after which you’re disqualified. That’s something to always be cognizant of in planning your routines (allow for mistakes and redos) and during your routine. If, as a competitor in the United Arab Emirates Barista Championship did this year, you run out of time without doing a component of your routine, it might be better to call time and cut your losses.

Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the 2016 USBC Qualifying Event. Part 1 of 10
At this point in my preparation for the USBC Qualifying Event, which takes place in Kansas City in February, I’m sipping some nice wine as I review the rules. Note we will discuss cutting booze from the diet entirely as this series progresses. In other words, enjoy it now, folks.

If you were in your café, you would never not serve someone or cut a couple of drinks because they’re taking too long and you don’t have enough time. The second, and seriously, only, other piece of advice I got when I last competed was that the way you serve coffee in competition might not be the way you serve coffee in your store. This fact should affect every decision you make as you prepare. Drink your espresso the way the judges will drink it ”stirred three times, front to back. Evaluate your milk drinks the way they would ”sipped twice from two different points on the rim of the cup.

Sometimes barista competition prep can be awkward and can interfere with your work flow, but you might as well be giving the judges notes of artichokes and tree bark if you don’t drink your coffee the way they will. Essentially, you know where you’ll find how they’ll enjoy each course.

As I went over the rules, I was caught by all the specific guidelines that are outlined. Some were familiar ”cups must be pre-warming on the machine (pg. 13), you have to have at least three towels on your station (pg. 13), milk drinks can only consist of espresso and milk (pg. 20), what the word ˜synergy’ means (pg. 21), and so on. Of course, since the competition structure has changed for the qualifying event, there are new rules. Competitors have 10 minutes to showcase the routine (pg. 12), baristas will be required to use the provided grinders and cannot bring their own (pg. 8).

What struck me the most, however, was how detailed and specific the rules outline how the judges will evaluate every drink. The third, and truthfully last, piece of advice I got that last time I competed, was that the judges want you to do well. There are no secrets to how they will evaluate you. The rules are like giving a kid the answers to a test ”while it might be counterintuitive, we want people to know the things they will be evaluated on and prepare accordingly. So print out a copy, grab some wine (we’ll talk about cutting out vices in a later post), and get cozy: All 23 pages of this work of art are going to be your companion and your lifeline for the next 10 weeks.


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

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