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

Illustration by  Alabaster

Barista Training Camp, Weekly Series, Part 10: Final words.  USBC Qualifying Event

Editor’s note: This is the last in our 10-part series on preparing and training for the USBC Qualifying Event, which kicks off in Kansas City a week from today. A frequent contributor to  Barista Magazine, Ashley Rodriguez is a seasoned competitor, and has been exceptionally open in her efforts to bring  readers along with her in the 10-week training period. To read other installments from this series, click here.


Have you ever done that thing where you put off doing homework by cleaning your room because your homework seems so daunting in the face of other tasks? Writing this article feels like that.

At this point, every night after work for me has involved competition run-throughs and drills. After each practice run, I record my time, see how many mistakes I made, and then reset and do it over again. I’m definitely nowhere near where I want to be ”and that’s both good and bad. It’s good, because that means I have high standards for myself and am always reaching to do better. It’s bad because, well, I expect to be doing better and I’m not always hitting the marks I need to. I’m about 70% off-book. I keep, for some reason, forgetting to give the freakin’ signature drink notes in almost every run-through I do.   After a few practice sessions with friends, I made some major adjustments to my routine speech, and added more ways to show off my knowledge and skill because, according to one of my coaches, I was playing it too safe.

Perhaps you’re in this phase,  too, of constant run-throughs and intense criticism, both from yourself and from others. This is OK. This means you’re doing well. It means that you ”and your friends, too ”believe that you have the potential to do well. I remember during the very first run-through I did the first year I competed with some of my buddies from Irving Farm, and they had nothing to say to me. Because I sucked. I would have done better just to scrap the entire routine and start from scratch (which I did).

One of the best pieces of advice I did get from my Irving buddies (thanks Tamara!) was to practice your prep time. Time yourself, and have a plan for how you will use your 10 minutes of set-up and dial-in time. In past years, competitors got 15 minutes to set-up their workstations, and if I’m being totally candid, I think this decrease in prep time is possibly the single most critical  thing that’s changed in the format of this qualifying competition. Just because you’re preparing fewer drinks doesn’t mean it’s going to take you less time to arrange yourself and dial in. So, do everything you can to spend as much of your time dialing in. Even if you move fast, you will theoretically only be able to spend 5 to 6 minutes dialing in, with 1 to 2 minutes arranging your materials, and another 1 to 2 minutes cleaning up your station and making sure it’s clean enough to pass muster with  the technical judges.

How do you do this? Meticulously prepare your waiter cart. You’ll have plenty of time before you compete to make sure that every single thing is ready to go, so putting all your items on trays or in boxes should make the process of setting up really easy. Your bar cart should ideally be divided into five succinct sections:
1) things that you need to dial in that will go back on the waiter cart
2) things that go on the judges table
3) things that go on the prep table
4) things that’ll hang out with you by the espresso machine
5) things that you need to dial in that will go back on the waiter cart.

Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the USBC Qualifying Event. Part 10 of 10
Here’s the tray I’m using to hold all the things that will go on the judges table. Since it’ll all be organized here, I’ll simply unload that tray and set up the table, rather than scrambling to find spoons here or napkins there.
Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the USBC Qualifying Event. Part 10 of 10
More pre-organized trays.

We’ve talked a little about the first four, but let’s talk about the last ”what you need to dial in.

The objects you need to dial in will not just include the typical tools, like scales and timers (timers will be disabled on the Victoria Arduino Black Eagle competition machines,  so if you need one, bring it with you), but will need to include items for  cleaning up and resetting your machine. I’ve seen competitors lay out rags over their drip trays to make sure they don’t get dirty. I’ve seen people bring a second knock box so they don’t have to worry about cleaning the first. If anything, you should at least bring a separate set of rags that are only used for your dial in time. You don’t want to start with dirty rags when you perform, so have a few set aside that’ll get thrown right back on your bar cart. I’d also give the steamwands a purge or two during this time so they’re not teeming with water when you start.

Another thing  to remember is that you should bring a  set of cups to use for tasting while dialing in, but that you’ll toss back onto your bar cart dirty to go backstage before your judges come out. You won’t want to use the hot water dispenser on your machine to rinse them out for fear or dirtying the backsplash of the machine or getting espresso on the drip tray. Also, you won’t be drinking full shots while dialing in, so consider bringing a canister to dump the remaining espresso in ”again, to save your drip tray. Remember:  these things should all go back on your bar cart.  They should not stay with you on stage, so remember to give yourself a few minutes to bring all the stuff back to your cart that you won’t be using during your routine.

Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the USBC Qualifying Event. Part 10 of 10
Yup, I’m sharing this picture of spit cups, if only to give you a reminder that the cups you use during dialing in are so gross that they must be put back on your bar cart before you begin your performance time.

You will get a chance to inspect the machine before your dial in time to make sure the machine is clean and that there are no smudges. However, if you miss something or if you smudge the machine during your dial in time, it’s your job to clean it. So have something  unscented  on your bar cart to clean the body of your machine just in case of smudges.

Whenever I do a run-through, I try to mimic competition conditions each time. I put on my apron, time my prep time, and I also put my music on. I’ve gone through a few iterations of mixes (including one that featured only the first names of women in their titles), but I think I settled on a mix of songs that I like to listen to when I’m at work. All the songs are upbeat to match the energy I hope to bring to my performance, but innocuous enough that I can talk over them.

I was also very tempted to play only Billy Joel, but I’m sure that’d get me booed off stage immediately. And besides, ˜Scenes from an Italian Restaurant’ is only 7 minutes 30 seconds, and that’s not a song that easily pairs with anything else. I’d have to make my routine exactly that long, as well.

There’s not much more advice I can give, and as I stated in the beginning, I can’t claim that any of this advice is definitive or will ensure you more points. What I can do, and what I hope others will see as an open invitation, is be as transparent as possible, and share with you everything I hope to do. So this is why I’m sharing with you guys my entire competition speech. If you click here, you can read it, and maybe get some ideas for your own performance. Also, and I’m not kidding on this, if I can help anyone dial in or polish silverware or just be a friendly face, I’ll be around, and if I have time, I will help you.

Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the USBC Qualifying Event. Part 10 of 10
I’m happy to share and help any of my fellow competitors if I can. Camaraderie is one of the best part about barista competitions.

Although I don’t agree with all the SCAA’s  changes in format, I do appreciate the attempt to make this event more accessible, and will try to match that level of openness by making myself more readily available for anyone who has questions, concerns, or just need a bit of reassurance. I hope this series has been helpful, and I hope you’ll be around to cheer me on Tuesday, February 2  at 1:50 p.m. when I take the stage. I’m finishing this article on my last night ˜off’ (and by ˜off’ I mean not staying at my training lab until midnight, but instead practicing my speech in the mirror of the bathroom) until the competition, but please don’t stop reading or asking questions. My goal was to learn more about competition to better my own performance, but also to help others do better and take on the challenges of competition. I hope to see you all in Kansas City ”and, fingers crossed, in Atlanta.


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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