Illustration by Alabaster
Barista Training Camp, Weekly Series, Part 8: Competition Theme, USBC Qualifying Event
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
As we get closer to competition ”that would be the USBC Qualifying Event, which takes place Feb. 2 “5 in Kansas City as the precursor to the United States Barista Championship in April ”a ton of small details start to become important. For example, what am I going to wear? What ceramics am I going to use? Do I have an apron to use that I like? What kind of milk does Kansas City have? And what’s the theme of my performance anyway?
Because I’m vain, I keep coming back to the question of what I’m going to wear. For the guys, it seems pretty straightforward: nice pants and a button down, tie and vest optional. But for women, it can get a little more complicated. You don’t want to seem too dressed up, but you also want to look professional and feel confident. So I thought of the last time I wore anything that wasn’t jeans and a tshirt, and it was to Katie Carguilo’s holiday party. I wore a sleeveless turtleneck and black pants, and I was like, bingo. Simple. I looked just fancy enough to not appear destitute, but not so fancy that I looked out of place or like I couldn’t be behind a bar making drinks. I also had my full range of motion since my arms were free and my pants were stretchy and easy to move in. So my advice for your competition wardrobe is to wear what you’d wear to Katie’s holiday party.
The other questions are obviously important. It’s easy to say you’ll need a few espresso cups and glasses for your drinks, but making an itemized list of every last thing you should have on hand is sort of daunting. Your judges touch a ton of things, and need a ton of things in order to enjoy their drinks. Although there are fewer judges at the Qualifying Event than at all the barista competitions we’ve done up until now, and therefore fewer wares to use, you still need to factor in extras of everything to ensure that you have backups, and then backups for your backups.
Pete Licata ”whose accolades include winning the USBC in 2011 and 2013, and most notably, the World Barista Championship in 2013 ”recently wrote a helpful article about some things you should be thinking about when you’re traveling to a barista competition. I found all of his advice to be incredibly helpful. If you haven’t checked it out yet, consider it.
But I want to focus on the idea of theme here ”the theme of your competition performance. I’ve mentioned the importance of this a lot in past articles in this series, and eluded to their significance in terms of helping guide certain parts of your competition. But what are they and why are they useful?
A theme is basically the crux of your whole presentation. In the USBC Qualifying Event, you get 10 minutes to talk to the judges, completely uninterrupted, about a topic within the coffee world of your choosing. It’s a pretty neat and unique chance to search within yourself for what exactly brings you not just to the competition stage, but to coffee in general, and then share that with others without argument or interruption. Generally, competitors pick from an array of broader topics, but they generally fall into a few categories: coffee science (think past finalist Michael Harwood and his theme on coffee varietals); customer service (past finalist Sam Lewontin has spoken to this a lot in his past competition performances, as has 2015 second-place USBC finisher Cole McBride), relationships within coffee (2014 USBC Champ Laila Ghambari Willbur eloquently applied this theme in her winning routine, as did Pete Licata), and then passion projects or things that competitors want to bring to light or highlight for the judges and the wider coffee community (reigning USBC Champ Charles Babinski’s themes are all generally passion projects, like the importance of systems, or using espresso as a canvas for flavor). And it’s up to you to figure out what the story you want to tell the judges is, and how your routine is going to deliver that message.
Themes can seem sort of contrived, but they can be incredibly useful if utilized well. You could just talk at judges for 10 minutes straight, but a theme helps ensure that all the words that fall out of your mouth are cohesive and make sense. It helps the judges follow along with you and tie the words, ingredients, and processes you’re exhibiting together. It helps them to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and how you came to make the decisions about your coffee that you did, which is an incredibly powerful tool for someone who is constantly looking up from a scoresheet and then looking back at you for cues on what to do and what you’re talking about.
The most effective themes consider that fact closely. If the judges are scoring you on certain things, your theme should help them know what to look for, what to expect, and why it all matters. Looking at a well-executed theme helps explain this. In Laila’s 2014 USBC performance, she talked about three players in coffee: the farmer, the roaster, and the barista, and tied each of those sub-themes to various components of her presentation. During the espresso round she talked about the farm her coffee came from and how it was processed, during the cappuccino round she talked through the roast profiles her and her roaster came up with, and for her signature drink she used her role as the barista to tie everything together. Each ingredient of her signature drink tied to the three components, and her drink even had three ingredients to harken back to the theme of three players in this system.
So what do you choose? Well, what are you passionate about? What role do you play within the coffee industry, and what is a unique perspective you have to share? I’m a trainer, and I work with people all the time who have a million questions about the content I’m giving them. As a writer, I also think a lot about the things I tell people, and how I know them to be facts versus what I believe from experience and/or anecdotal evidence, and I think that’s a general theme within coffee in general. As a young industry, we sometimes hang onto ideas about what’s true and not ”but I want to begin asking the bigger question of how do we know what we think we know?
For weeks, I thought that was my theme: how do we know what we know? And I wrote a bunch of intro speeches, snippets of my presentation that spoke to that theme ”but the snippets never came together as a whole. I couldn’t tie it into my signature drink (which wasn’t coming together at that point either), so I re-examined my role and my strengths in coffee. Watching Charles’ most recent routine, where he talks about the things he’s learned as a business owner, I thought about the things I’ve learned as a trainer. And one of the most intense things I’ve learned is that not everyone is going to be passionate about coffee, but they will be passionate about something within the process of making coffee. Coffee can give everyone something, and I think about that when I meet new baristas and try to figure out how to best approach a training.
I thought about my own training when I first started making coffee, and the thing I loved wasn’t the coffee (I could barely tolerate the taste of espresso at that time) but rather, the tangible nature of drink preparation. I could take an order, make a drink, and see someone consume it. Before that time, everything in my professional life existed in intangibles and big pictures. Making coffee simplified things for me. I’ve always been interested in what I call ˜barista issues,’ and this let me think deeper about the future of our industry ”I’m the first point of contact for so many new baristas, and I want them to be lifelong coffee lovers like I am. But not everyone will be driven by the same passions, and everyone has different reasons of how they ended up in coffee and why they chose to be there. So how do I examine what coffee has given me and make that applicable to others?
So yes, this would fall under the passion project category.
Once I figured out that this was what I should talk about, everything else came together. The signature drink was a snap (the conceit behind that being that coffee has allowed me to experiment and learn to do things I’ve never done before, so I’m going to be making every portion to the best of my ability), and all the moving pieces came together. So consider your role in the coffee world and let it guide you to a theme. It doesn’t have to be overly worked or complicated (while effective and well-executed, Laila’s theme was very simple and unfettered) but it does have to speak to your passion and authenticity. You have to enjoying saying what you’re saying, and believe what you’re saying, and let the judges know that you’re serious about what you do and excited to share with them.
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