Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the 2016 USBC Qualifying Event. Part 3 of 10

Illustration by  Alabaster

Barista Training Camp, Weekly Series, Part 3:  The Milk-Drink Round


All I’ve done this week is stare at beautiful glassware that is in no way functional for competition, but I lust over it regardless. Like these hand blown Cabrillo glasses ( I. Want. That. But onwards.

It might seem counterintuitive to start with steaming drinks since the milk-drink round is worth the least amount of points (at least in the sensory area). However, the milk-drink round is probably the one you should be practicing the most because  it has the most rule changes.
Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the 2016 USBC Qualifying Event. Part 3 of 10
What size milk drink are you making? What milk are you choosing to use? Be ready to defend your decisions.
Before this year’s restructuring, all competitors had to make single-shot cappuccinos. Drinks had to be between 5 and 6 ounces, and the judges were instructed to push the foam aside to evaluate the depth of foam, and then drink out of two different points on the cup. This year, none of that applies. Although there are a lot of new rules, there’s a lot that’s left up to you to figure out. More than any other, the milk-drink section requires competitors to make consequential decisions, from the obvious (how big will your drink be) to the not-so obvious (what kind of milk and how will the judges drink it).
Here’s a short list of things you need to decide:
1. What type of milk (whole, 2%, etc.)
2. What size drink (how much milk)
3. What vessel
4. Temperature
5. Milk sharing
6. How they will enjoy the drink
The two you should be paying attention to at this point are what size drink you’ll be using and the type of milk you’ll use. Initially, I thought I would just do the same thing we’ve been doing before and do the traditional cappuccino, but after brainstorming some ideas with friends, one of my colleagues pointed out to me that having these questions gives me opportunities to make decisions and talk about why I made these decisions.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t make a cappuccino. But because there’s no one telling you to make a specific drink, you should have a reason why you’re making a cappuccino if that’s what you end up doing. Does it fit your theme? Does it accentuate your coffee best? Is it the drink most often ordered in your café? Whatever the reason, whatever drink you choose, you should be prepared to talk about why you chose what you did. If you’re not sure, get ready to steam a bunch of different drinks so you can figure it out.
Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the 2016 USBC Qualifying Event. Part 3 of 10
Take notes as you practice and brainstorm, lots and lots of notes.
What I’ve been stuck on most is  how  the judges will drink this drink. Although there are some specifications (judges will evaluate the visual appearance, then take two sips from different points of the cup), there’s really not a whole lot else they’re evaluating except what it tastes like. In years past, competitors didn’t have to give flavor descriptors, but now that you do, it might be worthwhile to consider how to have the judges drink their milk drinks, and how that will effect flavor.
So I thought about how I drink my milk drinks. Personally, I don’t like latte art, and always take a spoon and stir my espresso and milk together on top so that the foam tastes the same throughout instead of getting some sips that taste like espresso and some that taste like milk. I remember in my baby barista days seeing a post on Instagram from Katie Cargulio where she said she preferred her cappuccinos poured, then poured back into the milk pitcher and re-poured into a cup and thinking, she is my kindred cappuccino spirit. I haven’t decided if that’s something I’m definitely going to do, but I do think having the judges incorporate the drinks well before drinking might be something to think about.
If you do go the route of overriding judging protocols, make sure you cover your bases. You don’t want to tell the judges to give their drinks a good stir and not give them enough time to evaluate and score its visual appearance. Remember, visual appearance isn’t scored on  latte art; it’s evaluated based on whether there’s nice contrast in your drink and whether  the art is symmetrical. It might be best to make the easiest design you can. During Cole McBride’s 2015 USBC performance, Laila  Willbur (who was then Laila Ghambari and the reigning USBC Champion)  shared that she made monk’s heads in all her drinks because she knew she could execute those symmetrically every time.
Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the 2016 USBC Qualifying Event. Part 3 of 10
You don’t have to pour latte art to get points on ‘visual appearance’ in the milk category. You just have to be able to execute well and consistently.
After evaluating the visual appearance, the judges will be doling out 24 points based on what the drink tastes like. In the ˜taste balance’ section of the scoresheet, judges are asked specifically to judge a drink based on the interaction between the espresso and the ˜sweetness’ of the milk. This section is actually pretty interesting because there’s a lot of very specific guidance given to the judges about what they should be looking for from a competitor ”judges need to hear from you why this espresso specifically works well with milk, what the espresso tastes like in the milk, and why milk makes the espresso better. So if you have an espresso that doesn’t shine in milk, you have to find a way to make it shine. If milk overwhelms it, then find a way to pull the espresso differently for the drink, or think about your milk choices (2% milk might be better for a lighter espresso since the fat content is lower and will allow more delicate flavors to come through). Don’t assume the drink will speak for itself. Ask yourself at every stage of building this milk drink why you chose what you did and how it enhances the final product.
Like the espresso round, the milk-drink round will now be scored based on accuracy of flavor descriptors. This is new: Before, all your points on the flavor of your cappuccino were grouped together in a nebulous category called ˜flavor’ that only asked for the drink to be harmonious and at an acceptable temperature (which now ties into the ˜taste balance’ section). So get ready to start drinking a ton of milk. This is where the type of milk gets really interesting and where you can fall down a rabbit hole of milk science. The diets of the cows that make your milk will effect the way your drinks taste, so contact different milk providers, and drink a ton of different milks side-by-side. On the Organic Valley website, the producers talked about grass-fed cow’s milk and how your milk might taste ‘greener’ than other milks. If that works for your espresso, use that milk and  talk about it.  For me, I might use an espresso that does carry an herbaceous quality to it, so I’m thinking a lot about grass-fed milks. But more on my espresso later.
Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the 2016 USBC Qualifying Event. Part 3 of 10
Weighing your milk will help you cut down on milk waste.
And how to practice? Steam a million drinks. Steam all different sizes with all different milks, and once you decide on a size and type of milk, steam a million more. The milk beverage is where math becomes your best friend, because you have to dose enough milk to fill all your drinks and not to produce too much milk waste. Lucky for you, the amount of waste you produce is a yes or no checkmark on the scoresheet, and as long as you don’t waste more than three ounces, you get a check and a point. What does three ounces look like? Weigh it. How much milk will you need for competition? Weigh it. If you plan on milk sharing, I’d encourage you to use glass vessels to practice, even if you don’t plan on using glass in competition. The glass will allow you to see if you’re achieving the texture you want, and if you’re milk sharing (which you probably should be if you’re steaming anything smaller than a cappuccino), will allow you to measure how consistent your drinks are.
As you steam drink after drink, there’s a lot to figure out, and you’ll hopefully have fun manipulating different  variables. Play with the type of milk, research the specialty milks available in the Kansas City region, study temperature and how it affects flavor (the rules specify that the drink has to be hot, but also immediately consumable). And more than anything, make sure you can tie these down to differences in flavor. Your drink doesn’t necessarily have to be the best iteration of your espresso with milk, but it does have to be a drink about which  you can speak to its flavor notes confidently, and that you’re able to execute consistently.


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.

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