USBC: “Overall Impression” What Does It Really Mean?

Illustration by  Alabaster

With 9 days until the USBC, our Barista Training Camp Series writer, Ashley Rodriguez,  examines the “Overall Impression” section  of the scoresheet

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 ”9 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 second  installment. You can read the first installment here. We hope you enjoy following Ashley’s adventures in barista competitions as much as we do!


I’ve looked at my scoresheets from the United States Barista Championship Qualifying Event, which took place in Kansas City in early February, over and over again. I learned a lot about what I needed to work on and what sat well with the judges. One portion that I’m still confused on, however, is the ˜overall impression’ score. My judges did not agree with each other on how I came off.

It might seem like a silly thing to care about, but if you look at the scoresheets, the judges’ overall impression counts almost as much as your entire milk course. And as expected, it’s the section that has the fewest rules. So, when we got our scoresheets back and I looked over my results, I asked my judges where this score came from.

One of my judges told me that it’s kind of a summary or average of all your scores ”sure, perhaps it is, but isn’t it a pointless score then? You have the scores of your three courses already, so do they really need to be averaged? The rules sort of say something about this score being a reflection of the overall experience of your drinks and how they flowed together, but there aren’t guidelines about how this should be determined. And once I got back home to San Francisco, it was easy for me to find competitors who got higher overall impression scores and scored  lower  than I did overall.

My other judge told me that I seemed nervous, and I think she might have hit the target more on what this score actually encapsulates ”what did the judges think you felt as you competed, and furthermore, did it make sense given  the presentation you were giving and what the judges expected of you? The crux of my entire presentation was about inspiring baristas and using education to empower them, and it didn’t make sense for me to sound nervous. So likely whatever nervousness I portrayed took some credibility away from me, especially since the judges I had at Qualifiers had never met me. Maybe that’s what I sound like all the time, but since they didn’t know, it’s easy to assume an emotion that maybe I didn’t feel (although I definitely felt nervous).

USBC overall impression
Nathan Nerswick was confident and smooth as he showed his empty portafilters to the judges in his performance at the USBC qualifier. How does that kind of confidence translate and factor into the “overall impression” score?

There’s a lot to discuss in the previous paragraph, and thinking deeply about this score has informed the way I chose to approach this next stage of training. Instead of tweaking recipes and changing the fundamentals, I’ve really focused not just on what I’m saying, but how I’m saying it and when.

Let’s start backwards with  when.  I mean this to refer not just to the presentation itself, but what you do before your presentation even starts. How did you greet the judges? Did you make eye contact? Did you sound mean? How did you ask Mike the Mic Guy to turn your sound up? Subconsciously, you begin your performance the moment your judges step on stage and see you, and I think something that really confident performers did well was come off the same way before, during, and after their routines were going on. I’m sure we’ve all seen a routine where someone sounds completely different in the routine than they do the moment they call time, and that makes sense ”this is a high-stakes performance wherein we do a bunch of unnatural things for silly points.

But in some way, the performance still needs to reflect you in a very holistic way. A judge should know something about you by the end of your routine, and in many instances, they’ve likely made some of those decisions just after you say hello or after you shake their hands. Like Casey Solaria, who took a selfie with the judges before he started his performance,  and had a very overall causal demeanor throughout his routine (he began by leaning on the table and talking directly at eye level with the judges), that certainly put me at ease just as a spectator. He had the prep station next to me, and watching his performance totally made sense to me. His routine spoke truth to who he was, and you got to know him in a way that the words he said or the drinks he made could never convey on their own.

USBC overall impression
Casey takes a selfie with his judges just before beginning his performance at the USBC Qualifying Event.

I think that’s where my misstep was, but it’s not a misstep I could have really predicted. Generally, I’m a very confident public speaker. I love leading cuppings for strangers. I like events that bring different groups of people together, and I like not knowing what’s going to happen next. That being said, I trip over myself a lot, and I have to balance my ability to jump into most situations and start a conversation with my need to know what the next word out of my mouth is going to be. I think I was too scripted for the qualifying round, so I’m trying to work now with an outline, and think of situations in which I excel in speaking in front of others.

Generally, those instances are when I’m actually teaching, and not just talking about teaching like I did in my qualifying routine. I’m passionate about education and barista empowerment, and although I was saying all that in my routine, I never felt like I was saying the words right.  I edited and edited and edited my routine speech. Was I conveying my ideas? Did the judges get me? Then I stepped back and thought, œHow do I show them what I mean? 

USBC overall impression
I decided to use a detailed outline to base my verbal presentation for the upcoming USBC, rather than a word-by-word speech, as I did at the qualifying event, which I think made me come off as nervous.

So now, my routine is a lesson plan. You can read it here:

It’s still a speech, but instead of reciting it over and over, I try to work in bullet points, like I would a lesson plan. Did I say x, y, and z? Yes, keep going. No, try again. I do this when I teach, and I try to engage others throughout and continuously check for understanding. I realized I wasn’t doing that in this routine in the qualifier, and it wasn’t allowing me to make the connections for the judges I wanted to make. Instead, I think I sounded rushed (because I was) and perhaps too stiff (because I was).

It’s hard to evaluate one’s ˜overall impression’ of another competitor, because we all are passionate about the topics we share or else we wouldn’t be talking about them. And I still don’t think this is a perfectly unbiased category of evaluation either ”I think it’s very true that there were experienced competitors that admitted openly how  nervous they were, and that served them positively by humanizing them. In general, I do think experienced competitors will always score higher because the judges expect them to perform well not based on their actual performance, but because of previous interactions with them where they have done well. However, you can only speak your truth in a way that’s honest and genuine, and that won’t be the same for everyone.   My biggest journey in this stage of preparation was finding that truth and finding the voice to say it in.


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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