Barista Training Camp: Prepping for the USBC Qualifying Event. Part 9 of 10

Illustration by  Alabaster

Barista Training Camp, Weekly Series, Part 9: Everything In Its Place.  USBC Qualifying Event


So.  It’s that time. The USBC Qualifying Event in Kansas City Feb. 2 “5 ”prepping for which this 10-part blog series, Barista Training Camp, has been about ”is almost here.

It’s time to start focusing, which means cutting out distractions. For me, that means cutting out drinking and any sort of going out or big dinners. It might mean something else for you (perhaps you become  more  productive when you drink. I, however, become chatty and then very sleepy), but if there’s something that distracts you or keeps you away from competition practicing, it’s time to consider scaling back.

See ya later, booze! With the USBC Qualifying Event so close (starts on Feb. 2), now is when I need to cut out all booze and heavy meals to get my body focused for competition.
See ya later, booze! With the USBC Qualifying Event so close (starts on Feb. 2), now is when I need to cut out all booze and heavy meals to get my body focused for competition.

I’ve been trying to introduce practices that help me keep focused and calm: reading before bed, waking up early to run, getting to bed before a certain time, and surprisingly, not spending too much time rehearsing. Why? Because there’s only so much I can achieve in one sitting, and if I keep my practice sessions very narrow and focused, I end up getting more done. I try to single out one or two things I want to go over, and when I’m done with them, I either move onto the next thing or I go home.

Lately, I’ve been focusing more on how things will get done as opposed to what I need to do. At this point, most of my big decisions have been made: I know what my signature drink consists of, I know how I’m going to introduce all my drinks, I know what ceramics I’m going to use, etc. But  how will all those things actually play out? Where will I place my cups, where will the judges put objects like spoons, where will things end up when I’m done using them? Understanding your movements ”and the movements of the judges ”will ultimately help you keep your pace and create a sense of flow and understanding of service that can only be communicated to the judges through these careful and considered decisions. This will hopefully lead you to score well in the ever-elusive Barista Evaluation and Judge’s Overall Impression score sheet categories.

These two areas  are very distinct, but flow together and will largely impact the other. Going back to the rules, the judges award points in the ˜Barista Evaluation’ section essentially for being prepared and knowledgeable, while the ˜Overall Impression’ score is a reflection of the judges’ thoughts of you and your presentation. Basically, you should sound like you know what you’re talking about about, and move around like you know where everything goes. And while these two categories are very different, planning for them beyond what we’ve discussed with themes and drink preparation, primarily requires mastering your physical space and making clear decisions about where you will be and how the judges will enjoy their drinks.

These decisions all start before you even get to your station. You will be working in three distinct areas: the judges table, the espresso machine area, and your work prep station, and it’s key to know where all your objects will go, when you’ll need them, and where they will end up.

I like to plan out exactly where everything will go on my prep table, the judges table, and around the espresso machine.
I like to plan out exactly where everything will go on my prep table, the judges table, and around the espresso machine.

Let’s start with the judges’ table. This is the space where you can get as creative or as minimalist as you’d like. You can have a tablecloth, a table runner, or simply a few small accessories to dress the table. But you’ll definitely need at least water glasses and napkins for each judge (and it’s always good form to give the head judge a water glass, too). Competitors are expected to attend to their judge’s as they would a customer in a  service situation, which requires being on top of what the judges might need, and fixing any mistakes as they come. Little things, like placing the handles of a cappuccino cup towards the judges so that when they evaluate the foam, and then drink out of a different portion of the cup, will show the judges that you are a service professional and understand how consumers will enjoy their drinks. You won’t be able to anticipate everything perfectly, but you can be prepared for small stumbles and slip-ups. An extra rag on your judges’ table for espresso drips or cleaning up a dirty saucer show that you can roll with small hiccups, which could even endear you more to the judges.

Secondly, there’s your espresso machine. You should have your milks and your rags, and your espresso and milk-drink cups should be warming on the top. How many cups? More than you think you need. Have extra cups. Plural. Not just one, but multiple extras. Why? Because you might spill something. Your shots might channel. It might be worth it to re-pull shots as opposed to serving something you’re not confident in, and you don’t want to stumble in an already awkward situation by not having extra of something you need. Same with rags. If you have to clean up a spill with one, you don’t want to use that rag again to clean a drip on a judge’s cup or wear on your apron.

What’s interesting about the espresso machine table is that the machine, being so large, provides you a sort of secret ˜hiding space’ if you choose to place your grinder on the side closest to the judges. That’s a tactic 2014 United States Barista Champion  Laila Ghambari Willbur  employed in her routine, using that space to stash dirty cups and milk pitchers when she was done with them. Having the grinder on that side also allows competitors to continue talking to the judges while they’re prepping shots, which is important, especially if the judges have nothing to do or nothing to write down (like right in the beginning).

Lastly, there’s your prep table, which should mostly only have tools for your signature drink. The work prep table is almost going to be an exercise in restraint ”the judges are going to have to look at this table quite a bit, so you don’t want to clutter it with things you don’t need. The more things you have, the more likely you are to get confused as to where an object is supposed to go, and the last thing you want to do with whatever moments you have left in your routine (and you should definitely leave at least some time in the end), is sort through rubbish that’s gotten disorganized throughout your 10  minutes of performance time. From my own practice, it seems like trays are really helpful for this, and the more organized you can be ahead of time, the better you’ll be able to utilize your prep time. You don’t want to spend most of your prep time putting stuff in places or getting objects off your waiter cart. If you can, you want to spend at most 2-3 minutes placing objects where they need to go, and having things organized on trays (or boxes or however you want to organize yourself) that have specific purposes and homes on-stage, the more time you can concentrate on dialing in (4-5 minutes) and re-setting up for your performance (1-2 minutes).

There’s a lot of nitty-gritty to figure out, and this sort of critical discussion of it would perhaps imply I’m an organized person. I’m not. Although I’ve made, and featured in this blog series, a few lists of things to do and stuff I need, I have these lists scattered over four notebooks. When I have an idea, I have to write it down or I’ll forget, and I have smatterings of ideas on random pieces of paper, or on my notepad in my phone, or on pastry bags. Actually, most of my speech for my routine is written on a series of pastry bags. But that’s exactly why I need these lists, and why they’re so important. If I don’t get myself in check, I won’t know how to move around, where an object I need is, and I’ll quickly get flustered and off-point. Do what you have to do to prevent this. Nothing you say will be quite as important as how you say it, and it’s easy to get distracted if you don’t how what to do or where to go.

Lists upon lists upon lists. Feeling like you're organized is half of actually being organized.
Lists upon lists upon lists. Feeling like you’re organized is half of actually being organized.

In a way, I’m saying you should be super-practiced and ready, but in another way, I’m saying you should be flexible enough to roll with a mistake or a hiccup, because they can (and likely will) happen. Build mistakes into your routine, but make sure you have a solution for those mistakes ready to go. The judges’ Overall Score on the score sheet is meant to be a reflection of how you represent the role of a barista in the coffee industry, and the best baristas are those that always know what to do and can ensure that everyone leaves with a drink in their hand, no matter how many spills, slip ups, and mistakes it takes to get there.


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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