Ok so first off, a huge congratulations to the amazing David Cullen of Clifton coffee who won this weekends UK Brewers cup competition, and an even bigger shout to Mat North who runs the competitions like a don, an organisational god.
Theres no way to dress this up, I’m a super bad loser, you may be surprised at this as I’m a Sunderland fan and should be accustomed to it, but I really am the worst. I know this post can only sound like sour grapes, and moaning and whining.
But I have to get this out my system before it eats me up inside. See it as spewing of thoughts and ideas to make myself feel better again, as since 6:30pm Saturday night I’ve been waiting to explode.
This weekend I competed in the Semi finals of the UK Brewers cup competition. Only the semi finals as I didn’t make it through to the finals (for the second year running). Last year I had a killer coffee (I know it was killer as Jeremy Challender went on to win it after I forgot to turn my kettles on).
A rookie mistake after getting a drop out place a few days before and not preparing. I kind of accepted that result. No lets be honest I didn’t but I understood the methodology a little. You see I had three minutes to make coffee, by the time the kettles were warmed up. I was messy in my workflow, but I knew I got all my descriptors and information out there (I did have 7 minutes to do so with nothing else to do), but my coffee tasted freaking amazing from those three minutes, like the best brews I’d ever made of them (I thought about using this technique this year they were so good). But placing just outside the qualifying group was easier to swallow (I did nearly scald a judge such was my enthusiasm to get the coffee out of the Chemex in the 1 second I had remaining before disqualification).
But this year left me more frustrated than ever. Lets rewind to Leeds a few weeks before and the heats. I hadn’t practiced, I chose the coffee the day before from a pre shipment cupping sample, and was badly prepared (I didn’t even have all my things for the presentation with me on my table). My work flow made me embarrassed, and I was clunky and stumbling, I didn’t deserve to go through if I was honest, but I had an amazing natural from Ethiopia that was just mind blowingly different in the cup. It didn’t taste of parma violets, it was parma violets (for non UK people parma violets are a floral and glucose and violet petals candy sweet and here). The coffee dragged me through. I placed 4th in that heat, and 6th overall, which was crazy considering how badly I performed and worked, after all its a brewing competition.
I left Leeds sad and disappointed in myself, and didn’t feel I deserved my semi final place seeing the other baristas who had put the work in and were so smooth and organised. So for them (and of course myself) I decided if I was doing it then I was going to be prepared organised, practiced and focussed.
I’ve thought of nothing else apart from this brewers cup competition since, and have competed many many more run throughs than I ever have before. Whilst driving from Leeds to Sunderland (to watch Sunderland loose again) I had a brain wave. You see I had a message I needed to share with the world. I love coffee and I love barista competition, but I regret the way that the competition has become a Geisha show, using caricature coffees that have no resemblance to the coffees that our customers drink at home. Coffee is multi faceted and has so many things it can give us. Focusing on this one area in high acidity or huge naturals makes us so elite and exclusive from the general public. Now I hear you saying competition isn’t for the public, its for the industry, and that we should be elite at the very top of our professional pyramid. But this was a show that was aimed at the public, aimed at a public that have no idea what we are talking about when we use blackcurrant, jasmine and black tea as taste descriptors.
So I decided that I was not going to use the Ethiopian (I didn’t have enough for the 2kg rule to use at the end anyway). So decided to make a presentation about this and used what I described in my presentation as an unexciting Brazil, a pulp natural thats grown at 1100 to 1250 masl and is a yellow bourbon varietal from Fazenda Cacheoria in Sao Paolo state on the border of Minas Gerias.
Quite a risk to bring this coffee to a Brewers cup competition, but after a lot of thought I decided actually not. There’s a clue in the name, Brewers cup. Its about brewing coffee, not airfreighting in micro lots from around the world that show off, I know, I’ve done that in the past, but it should be about making three drinks and ensuring predictable, intended, outcomes. Brazils are perfect for this, with a huge window of brewing opportunity. It is much easier to work with than Geisha or a Kenyan, so it would be actually easier for me to hit my brewing parameters and give the judges a delicious cup of coffee. It’s extractable and predictable.
I’ve worked with his farm for 14 years, slowly and surely increasing our volumes. I did some quick sums and and I’ve bought over 150 tonnes of this coffee in my time at Hasbean. I’ve brewed this coffee more than any other, and drink buckets of the stuff while I’m banging out emails. Its my go to coffee,I know it inside out. I’ve also worked out that in the last 14 years my customers have probably brewed around 10 million cups of this coffee. There has to be something in it right ? It has to be a good brewed coffee if we have sold so much of it and have such customer demand. They love it for the same reasons, easy to brew extractable, predicable outcomes and simple descriptors that anyone can get.
So I’m going to break down my frustration into some category’s
You see it’s okay for judges not to love the coffee. I went through and in fact it doesn’t even mention in the rules that they even NEED to like it. Whether they think its tasty or not is not one of their many criteria. Their job is not to find their favourite coffee, it’s not a talent show for coffee sourcing, it is a brewers cup competition. I thought that with this coffee it could be good on the score sheet as well as the message.
Unfortunately Brewers cup has become a sourcing competition though, there are some coffees that are guaranteed to do well. This is what happens when you use what is basically a cupping sheet to access a competition. Coffee professionals fall into treating it like a pre shipment sample/ am I going to buy this coffee operation. I don’t believe on purpose but it is just the way we are conditioned as people when we look at a cupping sheet.
There is also another problem with the cupping sheet approach to coffee scoring. I’ve sat in so many cuppings, and judged at the cup of excellence program. I’ve seen with my own eyes, how important to some it becomes to correlate with their peers and have consistency in their scoring. The easiest way to do this is shorten the range you work with. So what starts as a score out of 100 (as in a traditional cupping sheet) changes and becomes a range no lower than 83 and no higher than 90. So working on a range that starts out with 100 points becomes 7.
Even worse the mean becomes 85-87 so those 100 points are then down to 3 points. Now I’m not saying all the judges are at that extreme, but I’ve seen people give these kind of scores all day until there is one thats so obviously different. The same happens in barista competition where judges are is so scared to give a 10 (or a 6 in WBC) that they don’t for fear of getting it wrong back in the judges room. The feedback (that I’ll come to later) from my judge was my performance was awesome on the day, one of the most engaging and interesting they had experienced. Worth 8 points out of 10 from every judge? I’m not saying I was better than an 8 but how did they all get to the very tip of awesome (8-10 is classified as awesome on the score sheet). Was not even one them tempted to go 8.25.
Going back to the cupping scenario when I have judged cup of excellence competitions I rarely correlate with my peers but often but often am consistent in my own scoring. Getting behind a coffee that I love and killing a coffee I don’t. I have confidence in my own ability (god this blog post is so arrogant) to taste, and I’ll live and die by my scores. I remember in Bolivia in 2007 scoring Machacamarca 93 both times with it only coming 25th overall in the competition. I backed it up by buying it and if I could get that coffee today I’d sell it a million times over such is the demand, 4 years after its last production harvest.
I don’t think the judging experience (looking from outside in and after a million conversations about judges rooms) encourages you to get behind a barista, because of the culture of head judge toning down your scores if you get overly excited. So we put more and more pressure on our judges to correlate (after years of complaining that the scores make no sense and why don’t they correlate I can see the contradictions here). But I’d be more for a judge constantly scores badly then they are no longer a judge, than the production line of 7 and 8’s that role off the brewers cup line.
I think the judges are good people, doing the best job they can, but I don’t feel that they are being given the tools to do the best job, be it score sheets, be it not being allowed to have confidence in their own ability, and the relentless encouragement for correlation.
This is the part that frustrated me the most (and drove me to drink on the night after results). I went in to get my feedback and it was delivered by two of the judges who I personally really like and know are good people. They asked me where I felt I could have done better and I knew I could have done better on giving them a little bit more on body and acidity levels, I kind of brushed on it very gently (I said it has a huge body in a throw away comment that only one judge wrote down), but I missed the acidity. Mainly because this coffee doesn’t have any acidity until it cools, and I gave that in a descriptor (but still I get it, its the rules). I asked them what I could have done better, and it was silence for a while, and then “A more complex coffee”. I don’t see anywhere in the rules that I need complex coffee. More attention to the pours of my brew ( I was a little out on my amounts but I was on stage with people watching me and a camera crew in my face). But this was no worse than in Leeds, in fact a lot lot better. I’m not sure if I’m alone on this but I get within a few ml but rarely on the button. Now either I’m a bad brewer or others suffer from this, but I can’t imagine this is the only reason I didn’t make those elusive finals.
I was also told my work flow could have been smoother. But from the same judge who a few weeks before had given me a 6 for workflow in Leeds. As I’ve already said Leeds was a car crash. I was told I lost points for reading notes in Leeds (again couldn’t find this in the rules) and spilling coffee on the judges table. Fast forward to Glasgow and the Semi finals the same judge gave me a 5.75. I was so much happy with my workflow here, I didn’t make any moves that were not needed, I was clean (ish) and brewed much much better.
I was also pulled up on my choice of serving vessel, a chemex shaped cup, because they could not get their spoon in towards the end, again not in the rules.
Apparently I didn’t give enough reason why I used chemex too. I went through the video and I said.
“I’m using Chemex as this is how I brew at work and at home. I love chemex for the unique cup profile and the aesthetically pleasing design. Its also according to Ian Fleming the choice of brewer of James Bond, and who can argue with 007. It also gives a clean sweater lighter cup removing lots of suspended solids with its thick paper filters which is perfect for a normally thick gloomy pulped natural Brazil, making it lighter and cleaner while retaining its inherent sweetness and tasting notes. “
I’m not sure what else I could have said here, left confused and not helped to do better in the future.
it just sounds like I’m bitching because I lost (and trust me I know I am), but all I left with was that all I could have improved by pouring better, more complexity and work smoother.
I want to look at this in a more broader sense. If barista competition is about innovation and pushing us forward then why don’t we reward that in any of our barista competitions. When Matt Perger competed in Melbourne WBC 2013, I saw the most truly innovative barista performances and on of the key reasons we have better grinders today, he came second.
When Colin Harmon talked about water in a barista competition in 2010 I was nearly sick I’d not even thought about it, he came 4th. When Ben Putt placed espresso in a vacuum packer, why do ou even do that, 3rd.
Maxwell Colonna Dashwood when he went up on stage and talked about water and its importance in coffee, changed the direction of our industry and made us all buy his book, 5th.
When Agnieszka Rojewska didn’t use a steam wand to steam her milk and was amazing 34th. One of my favourite performances.
Now I’m not saying I did anything innovative (nothing innovative has ever come from the brewers cup, but thats another blog post), but I tried something different, and said something we have all been saying for a while behind closed doors, that the brewers cup has become a geisha show. We don’t reward innovation, so lets not hide behind barista competitions are the pinnacle of the pyramid, it’s a side show that makes us coffee celebrities, and some of them don’t even win.
We have to decide if its a coffee sourcing competition (WBrC and WBC) or we want brewing competitions that pushes the industry forwards.
I believe that something on the score sheet for something truly innovative would be amazing. Now I know that this is something more to set to personal preference and would lead to arguments and disagreements, but were having those arguments and disagreements already. I think we can agree on some of the moments we have all had at barista comps where we just stop and go wow. Competitions should be about creativity, originality and innovation and not button pushing. Who isn’t thinking about one of the above performances above right now.
I want our competitions to serve a purpose, to help us improve, push and innovate within our community, but until we find a way to reward creativity, originality and innovation then I see the road ahead a bumpy one.
I’d also like to see us encourage judges to really get behind something they love. I know this is subjective, but coffee is subjective. Giving judges freedom to really score will move us away from the super close scores that we see time and again in competitions where the very slightest thing can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Thats my competition time over, I’m hanging up my Chemex for good. Thats why I feel I can write this now. If you see me near a competition your allowed to come hit me on my forehead and tell me I’m stupid (people do that anyway).
I never expected to win, I’m a roaster not a barista, I’m playing a world I have no right to be. But I really hoped that it would have made the finals, and I could have made a bigger point. It didn’t, I know the rules and I understand them, I knew them when I entered. But it all just left me feeling a little bit angry, and now more sad. Am I proud of what I did and yes even knowing my score sheets and the final result I don’t think I’d change anything and thats what so frustrating about the competition. I’m proud of what I did on stage and I’m sad that it didn’t correlate into scores.
Again congratulations to David Cullen of Clifton coffee, I’ll be the one at the front cheerleading you on in Budapest, but please please don’t use a Geisha.
I’ve stolen the video of my performance from the UK SCA without permission, so better to ask forgiveness than permission, “I’m sorry !!”