What goes into competition preparation?

I cannot blame people for being puzzled when they stroll past the barista competition stage. As outsiders to the coffee industry attending the yearly homemakers expo in Cape Town, they must wonder what the fuss is about as the crowd applauds the rounds of espressos served. Even industry folk who have watched and supported peers within industry but have not competed themselves, do not realise that the 15min on stage is arguably the easiest part of the competition.

(Taken by Lee Henriques)

The days, weeks and months leading into the competition are the most difficult. I’ve only been competing for one and a half years, but the months I’ve spent preparing for competition have been the hardest and most testing of the two and a half years I’ve been working in coffee.

My competition set comprises of three main areas; the coffee, the theme and the signature drink. Preparation begins with either one of these.

The Coffee

Choosing a coffee for competition can at times be very straight forward. Getting that coffee up to standard for competition is a completely different story. There are endless days (and sometimes nights) spent building a flavour profile, working closely with your roaster to get the best out of that coffee and deciding on the perfect espresso ratio for both your espresso and milk courses. Keep in mind that after roasting the coffee has to be given time to age before it can be tasted which could amount to several weeks of trial and error.

The Theme

Ideally, you want to have a central theme for your competition set. This can be an idea you’d like to introduce to the coffee community, new processing techniques, equipment or even your personal coffee journey. Deciding on this theme can be a tedious process and developing the theme into a dialogue to be performed on stage can be even more tiresome. As difficult as it may be, this is part of the competition journey and cannot be forced.

The Signature Drink

In most barista competition sets, competitors reserve their signature drinks for last. There’s a reason for this. Unless, for sensory purposes, a competitor decides to change the order of their drinks, the signature beverage is used as the highlight of the set (other than the coffee of course). So when it comes to signature drink development the competitor has to bear in mind that the on-stage-preparation of the drink has to be visually appealing and engaging, the ingredients have to have a harmonious balance with the espresso and the final beverage presented to the judges has to be aesthetically pleasing in order to score well. This means that the competitor has to take an enormous amount of elements into consideration namely the espresso flavour profile, ingredients and processes, preparation methods and serving vessels, to name a few.

Once these 3 main areas have been taken care of then miscellaneous elements have to be taken care of such as cups, servers, milk, tasting notes, table setting, etc. This is followed by repeatedly running through sets with mock judges to improve on speech and delivery because this is a service competition after all.

Competition is by no means an easy task. Similar to sport, the winners are often the ones putting in extra hours on the practice field. Preparation is key.