Illustration by Alabaster
Barista Training Camp, Weekly Series, Part 7: The Signature Drink, USBC Qualifying Event
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
I did theater in high school (and I’m guessing so did everyone ”baristas especially ”who works in coffee. It’s not like any of us were star quarterbacks in high school), and one thing my drama teacher insisted on was wearing the shoes your character would wear. Any rehearsals, any run-throughs ”you didn’t necessarily have to wear the costume or use the props, but you always had to wear the shoes. He said it was to help you stand and move around as if you were the character, and make you more aware of how your body moves when you’re this different person. I’ve found it can be super helpful to apply this same philosophy to training for barista competitions, specifically the USBC Qualifying Event.
At less than four weeks out from the Western/Eastern Qualifying Event in Kansas City that this 10-part series has been training and preparing you for, it’s time to start thinking about those things that make your barista competition performance real for you. It might be wearing something, like shoes or an apron, or dressing a table like you would for the judges. But there should be an element to your preparation that begins to tie things to your actual performance. You should always be practicing while wearing the shoes, however you define “the shoes.”
The signature drink round is the one that scares me the most. I think it’s probably a barista competition round that scares most people. Training is so intense: you have to taste and taste and taste your espresso, then throw a bunch of weird ingredients together, and then hope that the judges get what you’re trying to do. It’s an incredibly difficult and personal thing to come up with, and the only way I’m keeping myself away from insanity is to think very strategically and rationally about what I need to do. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel or come up with any crazy new techniques–I need to make a drink that tastes good and like espresso.
How do you even begin? I decided that this round more than any at the USBC Qualifying Event would require collaboration and advice from my friends. So I asked Katie Cargulio, 2012 USBC champ, how she came up with her signature drink, which was made with jasmine green tea, nectarines, lemon juice, and three drops of vinegar, served on top of soda water in a grappa glass. She said that she let her theme and her espresso ”that year about processing and fermentation using an Ethiopian Heirloom coffee ”dictate her drink and her ingredients.
As I wander grocery stores and farmers markets, I find that advice to be more and more helpful. Here I am, looking at a bounty of different ingredients, and I think, how in the world am I going to decide what’s going to go into this drink? Your espresso is going to help you at least limit the selection of fruits and other ingredients possible for you to use. Unless it fits into your theme, you should probably work with foods and other goods that are similar or pair well with your espresso.
For example, I picked up lavender on my last forage into Whole Foods (I go to a grocery store almost once a day. Sometimes more.) and the next day, I thought, why would I pick this up? My espresso has no florality, and that’s not a note or a flavor I want to create. Looking at Katie’s ingredients, and even just thinking about what Ethiopian coffees generally taste like, all of her selections make total sense. Remembering the flavors of my espresso, and the way those flavors pair with other ingredients, helps manage your selection of ingredients and makes it easier to begin honing in on flavors you want to capture.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t pick off-the-wall ingredients if that’s not what you’re tasting in your espresso. ‘Creativity and synergy with your coffee’ is a category you will be judged on during your signature drink evaluation, but it’s only worth 6 points, and synergy ”how well the ingredients work together ”is just as important as how creative you get with your drink. Certainly feel free to go wild if you can hone your creative voices, but remember that you should only introduce weird ingredients or techniques if 1) You have a good reason for doing so, and 2) If it helps make your drink taste better.
And that’s the underlying question you should ask yourself during your signature drink prep: does this taste good? At some point, you’ll start to think a lot of things taste good that don’t because they’ll start to taste good compared to other stuff you’ve made. Tasting your drink with friends will help with this, but also taste with people who haven’t helped you make the drink or haven’t tasted past iterations of your drink before. A drink that is ‘better’ isn’t necessarily ‘good,’ so make sure you’re not just evaluating your drinks based on the ones you made previously. If you work in a café, test your drink on customers and see what their reactions are, and take them to heart.
Remember this: you drink has to taste like espresso. Seems simple, but espresso ”especially when pulled to emphasize certain characteristics ”can get lost quickly when mixed with other ingredients. I thought about that a lot when I watched past USBC winners, and I noticed a lot of them did either one or both of these things ”they either used more than one shot per drink (some competitors pulled 6 shots to be distributed between 4 drinks) or they used very few ingredients, and very small amounts of them.
Laila (Ghambari) Willbur’s 2014 USBC-winning signature drink only used espresso, coffee syrup, and smoke. Reigning USBC Champ Charles Babinski’s drink was a simple combination of pine honey, grapefruit, and juniper syrup (unsimply blended on stage, but still simple in its construction). While this concept can seem restrictive, for me it’s been really liberating and helps me hone my focus on two or three flavors that I want to emphasize, and think about ways that they can come together that doesn’t mask the espresso or overcomplicate things to the point of obstruction and confusion.
I don’t mean to stomp out originality and creativity, but you shouldn’t complicate things for the sake of being different and inventive. Remember: The point of the signature drink isn’t to invent a new drink preparation or do something that no one has ever seen, and there’s no real room for that in the scoresheets. Going back to the scoresheets (I must sound like a broken record), the judges want your espresso to make sense with your overall theme, taste great, and for you to tell them how and why it tastes great. This last part is new: Before this year, you didn’t have to give flavor descriptors to your signature drink, and if you look closely at the rules, the requirements for flavor descriptors are basically copied and pasted from the requirements for flavor descriptors in the espresso portion.
This can seem a little strange, since you presumably will be talking about your ingredients and why you chose them, so it can seem a bit redundant to then talk about those flavors again. The rules talk about the balance of acidity, sweetness, and bitterness, so I think I’m going to reflect on these sensations when I talk about the signature drink. Maybe the ingredients help emphasize the overall sweetness present in the espressos (and this is why I’m a fan of serving signature drinks after espresso, but that’s more of a personal preference), or you’re trying to mellow out the acidity, but I find it helpful to think of flavor building in these three categories, and I think this is a useful tool to start thinking about how to give flavor descriptors to your drink.
All in all, building a signature drink for me comes down to not overthinking things, and making something that tastes good and that I’m proud of. Again, this is a personal show to the judges of what you like about your espresso and what you want to share with them about yourself, so this will probably be the only time I tell you to not take my advice if it doesn’t work for you. You should be excited for your drink, and be able to speak about it in a way where everyone live-tweeting the event is sad that they’re not sitting at the judges table enjoying your drink.
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