Illustration by Alabaster
Barista Training Camp, Weekly Series, Part 2: Finding Practice Equipment + Studying Past Champions
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
I have a pretty strict schedule for myself to prepare for competition. Hopefully, if you’re following this series, you’ve done the same or are preparing alongside, but it’s important to note that the schedule doesn’t capture everything I have to do. Along with my competition schedule, I have a checklist of things that I need to have and get done. This week, I checked off the first item: find competition equipment.
Nuovo Simonelli has been the equipment sponsor of every barista competition for years, but a lot of baristas are used to working with La Marzoccos or other machines. As a coffee educator for Sightglass, I have access to a cute Linea in our training lab for practice sessions ”but Simonellis are totally different machines, and I wanted to make sure I could taste my coffee on both and see how they differ. Lucky for me, a friend is sitting on a Black Eagle he’s waiting to install for a shop opening in a few months, and has agreed to let me use it until it has to go to its permanent home.
I’ve only gotten to play on it for about an hour or so thus far, and since I don’t have my coffee chosen yet, I concentrated on hashing out the differences between my practice Linea and the Black Eagle. The biggest thing to remember is that all Simonellis are heat-exchange machines. In tangible terms, that meant I noticed my espresso shots dropping a few seconds later than expected ”about 8-10 second drops versus 5-8 on a Linea ”and that the steamwand is an all-or-nothing sort of situation. It turns on and turns off, so if you’re used to having more gradients in your steam pressure (like turning the knob on a Linea), this could be a little jarring.
Even more important than that, I found a grinder. For years, baristas were allowed to bring their own grinder, but were also welcome to use the sponsored grinders from MalkÃ¶ning. Now, not only do baristas have to use grinders from the sponsor, but they have to use the grinders provided to them at competition. So even if you have a K30 in your shop, you’ll have to use the one provided to you, which might be calibrated differently.
We have EK43s in our lab, but we don’t have K30s. Again, lucky for me, I contacted some shops that had K30s on their bar and asked if perhaps I could borrow one for a few months or do prep work out of their shop every so often. But as I walked into my local coffee shop to ask in person, the owner was installing a new Robur to replace their K30 grinder. Moments before, the owner was about to put the MahlkÃ¶nig on eBay, but I was able to work out a loan agreement and use it until competition. It’s still sitting in his warehouse. Notes to come.
While it’s not essential to have or use the competition-regulation machines, it’s certainly helpful and something you should make an attempt to do if possible. Black Eagles are a little more difficult to track down, but K30s are everywhere, and everyone I talked to was more than willing to help. If you can’t track down one of these machines, do your research and try to mimic their differences on other machines. Find a machine with a similar steamwand (like a Strada) or a grinder with a similar chute (like a Compak).
Once I got my equipment on lockdown, I was able to focus on this week’s prep: watching and studying past champions. The first thing I did was watch the Barista movie.
Barista, a documentary released at the beginning of the month, follows four competitors as they prepare for the 2013 United States Barista Championship. While it’s clearly the movie you would show your parents so they could understand that what you do is important, it also shines light to how intensive the preparation period could be. Everyone featured in the movie is excellent and passionate, and if anything, seeing their enthusiasm helped pump me up for the hours of routines I was about to watch.
At this stage, you should know the rules by heart. By watching past competitors (which you can watch here: http://livestream.com/SpecialtyCoffeeAssociationOfAmerica) you can see the rules in practice. What does it mean to appropriately describe the flavor of espresso? What do the milk drinks look like if you don’t have to make cappuccinos? As you watch competitors, you should note where in the rules it says to do the thing they are currently doing.
If you’re feeling super amped, you can also attempt to score the performances. Obviously, there are certain things that you won’t be able to identify, but you can attempt to write along with the judges, which will tell you a lot about when to chat and share information, and when you should work and let the judges write (we’ll touch more on this when we start talking about writing a script). And if you know someone who has competed, particularly in the last few years, you should ask her for her scoresheets and watch along with that information in hand. Just because someone won or did well doesn’t mean they didn’t make mistake and get docked on their scoresheets, and having a person’s scoresheets handy will help you see how the judges allocated points.
You should watch the winners, of course, but you should also watch people who didn’t win, especially if you can track a competitor who got progressively better, and/or has competed every year we have livestream footage of them (since 2013). Charles Babinski would be a great starting point, but Cole McBride is probably my favorite competitor to watch right now because he gets better and better. And don’t limit yourself to watching USBC competitors ”while you can only pull up scoring information from the last two years of USBC competitors, you can pull up over a decade’s worth of scores for WBC competitors.
Watching repeat competitors also has an added bonus ”the commentators (which are usually a mix of past USBC winners and veteran coffee professionals) have seen these guys perform before, and can offer commentary specific to how the person has grown. Pete Licata’s 2013 WBC presentation is incredibly informative because the commentators, Peter Guiliano and Stephen Leighton, have seen Pete perform many times, and mentioned how he’s grown as a competitor often throughout his routine. They’re observing and articulating what the judges are doing, and their comments can be eye-opening in terms of laying out exactly why Pete won that year.
Watching routines also helps me identify what points I need to work on in terms of crafting a presentation. How do I come off in front of others, and what do I need to start practicing now about my mannerisms, my speech patterns, etc. This will be covered more in depth in a few weeks, but ruminating about it all needs to start now. Read books or articles about speech-writing, watch famous speeches, study how the pacing of your words can affect how seriously people take you. As much as this is an honest presentation about a coffee you love, this is also a game, not unlike when you’re on bar in your café. You find ways to make every experience meaningful for customers and make decisions based on a goal of crafting exceptional moments for them. Competition is the same. Every competitor you watch, if they’re good, has not written a presentation as much as they’ve made a series of deliberate choices and found ways to articulate them in a coherent fashion.
And the reason they make these choices? To earn points. Back to Pete’s 2013 routine, where he talks about updosing his espresso for the cappuccino round ”that was neither a mistake nor a decision made lightly. If it wasn’t going to get him more points, he wouldn’t have done it. Keep that objective in mind as you watch competitors online. Ask yourself why they’re doing the things they do. From the music they play to the milk they chose (pay attention to milk choices!), competitors are constantly making choices. I didn’t know this when I first competed. I do now, and I watch every routine with this in mind.
In the café, there’s that cheesy saying your boss has probably rattled off to you at some point: ˜If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.’ I love cheesy slogans and would say to you that if you have time to lean, you have time to stream ”competition routines, that is.
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.