On the Road to the 2016 USBC

Illustration by  Alabaster

With 12 days until the USBC, our Barista Training Camp Series writer, Ashley Rodriguez, is in the final stages of preparation

Editor’s note: For the 10 weeks before the U.S. Barista Championship Qualifying Event in February, competitor Ashley Rodriguez wrote a series for our blog that was outrageously popular with readers. She was completely candid about every step she took to get ready, from choosing her coffee to writing her speech. And she did great ”she qualified and will be competing at the United States Barista Championship in Atlanta in ”gulp ”12 days. Ashley reflected on the Qualifying Event in an article she wrote just after it was over. I asked her to update it for the 4-part series of which this is the first installment. So here we go again. Hope you enjoy Ashley’s adventures in barista competitions as much as we do!

 

BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE 

Welp.  It happened. It’s been a month since the Qualifying Event, and I’m still replaying my routine in my head over and over again. I haven’t had the nerve to watch it replayed, but I’ve shared it with co-workers and friends, and boy, am I glad I didn’t embarrass myself too much.

I had a blast at qualifiers this year. I got to meet amazing new people, experience a roller coaster of emotions I didn’t know I had, and eat donuts and pizza for dinner. I was so lucky and thrilled to learn that I get to move on to the national competition in Atlanta in April, although I have had trouble articulating where I landed on the leaderboard (overall? 23rd  out of all 36. In western? 10th  I think?). I realized quickly that there were things I was prepared for and things I should have thought about and practiced before I got to Kansas City, where the qualifier was being held. Here are some of those things:

I should have done more research on Kansas City.

Kansas City is noted for barbeque, friendly Midwestern vibes, and a surprisingly robust and developed coffee community in the middle of the United States. You know what Kansas City isn’t known for? Its water. The water in Kansas City is hard. Not unpleasant or undrinkable, but not something I was prepared for nor thought about in terms of how it’d interact with my espresso. The first few shots of espresso I pulled were very, very acidic, and I couldn’t figure out why that was. I’m still not 100% sure about how water hardness affects acidity in coffee (a letter to Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood is clearly in order), but I noticed it throughout the competition, and some of my colleagues mentioned that they were having trouble compensating for this.

Lesson learned: research the water in Atlanta. There’s still time! My sources tell me it’s softer than the water in KC…

Our competition home base in Kansas City for the Qualifier in February, where it was determined who would go on to compete at the USBC in Atlanta. And I made it!
Our competition home base in Kansas City for the Qualifier in February, where it was determined who would go on to compete at the USBC in Atlanta. And I made it!
I’m glad I contacted shop owners in Kansas City.

 
First, I need to give a huge shout out to Cory and his team over at Quay Coffee. Not only did Cory let me practice making drinks at his shop and give me awesome milk recommendations, but he also let me, like a crazy mad scientist, make whey in his back office for my signature drink. I had, perhaps stupidly, assumed that I could make whey at the hotel, that some kind hotel attendant would allow me to use their kitchen for a few moments or that there would be some sort of portable hot plate available. There wasn’t. I was about ready to drive to the closest Target and buy a hot plate and a pot, but then Cory generously let me use his tools. I did cut it close ”I wasn’t sure the whey would come together about two hours before my scheduled performance time, but it did and I couldn’t have done it without the generosity that Cory extended to me.

Lesson learned: send emails to anyone who owns a shop in the Atlanta area. Surely someone will be willing to help.

I wish I had identified others in my area competing.

 
There were six other people in the Bay Area competing at qualifiers, and I didn’t know a single one of them until all our performances were over. After we all met each other and introduced ourselves, it sort of felt like we were in this thing together. We rooted each other on, we watched each others’ scores rise and fall, and we talked about prepping for the next round together. Just this weekend, I met up with one of my fellow Bay Area qualifiers, and we shared what we were most fearful of in the next round (milk drinks! How will we steam four drinks?!?) and bounced ideas off each other to improve our performances at USBC.

As helpful as this is now as I continue to practice (thanks, Kelly!), I wish I had that help, or at least that sense of camaraderie from someone else in the trenches, while I was prepping for qualifiers. I had some amazing support systems within my company and my group of friends, but I didn’t really know anyone else competing, and I could have gained some tips or shared insights with someone who was thinking about the same issues I was. And it would have been easy. When the list of competitors came out, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been hard to get some email addresses or ask around for contact info.

Lesson learned: Make friends! Ask questions!

Here I am making my espressos during the USBC Qualifying Event.
Here I am serving  my espressos during the USBC Qualifying Event.
I’m grateful I had someone there with me.

 
I’m going to gush for a moment.

I thought I might have to go alone to this competition, but me and my training partner, Rachel, were able to figure out a plan and get her to KC. Rachel watched my routine more than anyone else, and she was able to be the calming, supportive presence I needed. Rachel and I weren’t really sure how to divide up tasks or how she would help me, but as we dove into each new situation, she responded exactly how I needed her to. It helped that someone who works closely with me in my regular life was there since she knows my habits and I can anticipate where her mind is as well, but there’s also just the fact that Rachel is amazing and wonderful and I couldn’t have maintained my cool or gotten all the stuff I needed to get done without her.

Lesson learned: Bring a friend! If you don’t have a friend, call me! Again, seriously, I will help you.

After I was done with my performance, emcee and Barista Guild chair Lorenzo Perkins interviewed me about how it all went.
After I was done with my performance, emcee and Barista Guild chair Lorenzo Perkins interviewed me about how it all went.
I should have made more lists.

I made a lot of lists. I took pictures of a lot of lists. I shared a lot of pictures of the lists. However, in the rush of packing and getting my things to KC, I sort of haphazardly threw stuff in a suitcase and didn’t check to make sure I had everything. And of course, I didn’t. I had to repurpose some of my glass ware and just hope that I didn’t make any mistakes since I didn’t have any extra espresso cups. Michael Harwood was kind enough to let me tail him during his prep time, and he was so organized with his things and had a clear checklist, and I thought, duh. I should have done that.

Lesson learned: There’s never enough lists.

I’m so happy I wrote this series.

 
Truthfully, I didn’t think anyone would find this series helpful. I didn’t know if people would read it and I didn’t know if the suggestions I made or the advice I’d give would be helpful. And I didn’t get much feedback from people about the series besides a few friends and the wonderful staff at Barista Magazine. Then I got to KC, and a handful of competitors found me and told me that they found the series helpful. As new competitors, they were perhaps unsure of where to start or how to plan their training schedule or just needed assurance that they were on the right track, and it was probably more rewarding than any prize or place I could have gotten. I met so many lovely baristas and shop owners and roasters whom I might have never connected with without this series, and these are people that I’m sure are going to do wonderful things in the future. I hope to count them in my circle of friends and colleagues from now on.

Lesson learned: The coffee community is really great, you guys.

Here's my prep table for my signature drink.
Here’s my prep table for my signature drink.
So, what’s next, after all that competition and time to reflect? Well, this series isn’t going away! While the first iteration definitely was a mix of advice/experimentation as I learn about my competition styles and needs, this next part of the series will definitely push exploration. I’m going to have to learn a lot of new things, try a lot of new things, fail at a lot of new things. And I hope to share my struggles and victories with you as I chronicle the path to nationals. I hope to continue to be as transparent as possible (if you want to see my scoresheets, shoot me an email), and give you insights as to how I see the competition and where improvement and excellence come from. As we get closer to nationals, here’s what I’ve been thinking about:

1. Milk drinks will be  harder. Especially if you’re doing small milkys (what seems to be the catch-all term for these new drinks), waste is going to be harder to manage, and some people are going to have to figure out how to steam four drinks at a time and keep them all textured consistently.

2. Judges will be more calibrated. This new format left some ambiguities for judges, and many of those holes or misunderstandings will hopefully be ironed out. The national competition will also attract and necessitate more experienced judges, and with the reintroduction of four sensory judges, calibration will be much more important.

3. You might have had to change your coffee. I thought I might have to, but after vac-sealing the last 100 lbs I have of it, we’ve been monitoring its progression and I’ve been lucky that it hasn’t dropped off over the last month and a half. Hopefully that means I’m in a safe zone but we’ll see how it holds up. Talk to your green coffee buyer or roaster and make sure you have some viable options for April.

4. Figuring out your flow will be easier. Congrats! You’ve competed and seen the tricks, and have had enough time to think them out (just ask to start your music before your timer starts ”just do it and you won’t have to ask awkwardly to have Mike the mic guy up the volume during your routine) that people utilize to keep themselves on track, and now you know where your time can get away from you, what you can cut, and how to move around the stage seamlessly. However ¦

5. The competition will be  fiercer. There are no more handicaps. Everyone has competed now at least once, and everyone has feedback, notes, stuff to work on that’ll make them better. Don’t rest on a strong performance or great feedback. You should be upping the difficultly of your routine and you’ll have to work diligently to make sure you stand out.

Ashley-Rodriguez

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

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