Saturday, June 10, 2006

sameness as a means of distinguishing

[i'll get back to part two of "creating a new blend" from the last post soon.]

i've been doing some thinking lately about the whole barista competition thing. [warning! here comes another piece on something about which i have no direct experience.]

i've been hearing folks talk to and fro a bit about the espresso each competitor chooses for his or her competition espresso. various and sundry discussions and opinions are bandied about discussing, among other things, optimal temps for the blend (or even finding a temp that harmonizes and synergizes the various component beans in the blend).

another common debate is about dosing quantities and tamping techniques. in all, there are myriad variables that go into one's espresso expression.

but something my cyberfriend steve from across the pond at the illustrious brit outfit has bean mentioned to me the other day got me thinking about a particular aspect of said competition espresso. he mentioned his love for a particular country's contribution to some highly touted espresso blends he's created in the recent past (most notably, james hoffman's u.k. barista championship blend) and how that country figures to be producing some highly prized beans good for espresso (among other things, i'm sure).

so here's what i was thinking. what if every competitor in a particular year were required to use the same exact coffee(s) for their espresso? each year some neutral party would determine, based on whatever criteria they chose, to feature a different country, region, etc., for that year. (it could be based on coe auctions, or a desire to spread the love to deserving farms or whatever. not the point here.) each competitor would have access to the same beans for practice. perhaps every sanctioned competition would be required to use it as well. if you are a registered contestant you will be given a certain number of pounds for your personal practice.

i recognize there are significant costs associated with mailing all that coffee to competitors. maybe you cut that cost by only having the blend at the actual competition. this would add an additional X factor to the competition but shouldn't be an undue hindrance. i mean, everyone will be working from the same blank sheet of knowledge with this espresso. the technique needed to create a solid shot of espresso doesn't change. only the taste of the actual shot based on the blend's components.

which brings me to another potentially cool sort of calibration thought...the tasting judges would all know whether the shot was "good" because they would be familiar with the blend and would have tasted it prior to competitions to calibrate their palates to what it should taste like. the governing body at the competition could calibrate the machines to the same temps to ensure a level field and one that highlighted the best from that blend.

essentially what would there be to complain about? so you don't get to pick your espresso. big deal. nobody does. can you shine with what you've been handed? even under those circumstances, some shots from some contestants will still taste better. that will make the focus come down more on technique--where it should be--and not on who has what blend for their espresso. leave that for the signature drink. (hey, here's another crazy thought: maybe everybody has to use the same ingredients in their signature drink! they could use varying amounts prepared various ways; but they have to all be in there. that could be interesting.)

i've simply observed a few conversations about these competitions and would humbly put forth--having never even been to one--that standardization might be a strong ally in taking these competitions to a new height. there is, to my mind at least, no compelling reason for each participant to have their own blend, except as maybe a rock star component. but that can best be expressed in the signature drink portion of the competition, where creativity is exactly what you're after. the espresso portion is not--i would guess--designed to express individualism via the blend, but rather to judge technique at creating an incredible taste experience.

i don't claim any special insight on this; nor do i feel i have exhausted each possibility in the points i have briefly raised above. again, i point out that i have never been to a barista competition and am not trying to make myself out to be an expert on them. just opining. that's what blogs are for. but they are also for exchange of ideas, so i'll solicit yours...what do you think?


At Saturday, 10 June, 2006, Anonymous Mark said...

Been discussed ad hominem at times - on coffeed, on my podcast, I even think Nick and Jay may have discounted it on the pf podcast - but I'm not sure.

Personally, I don't see any issues with possibly moving the comps so that we have a coffee supplier and a cups supplier even, for at least the espresso and capps round. On top of that, they should use the sponsor's supplied grinder as well.

BUT... major caveat. There better be a bullet proof way of choosing a top knotch blend sponsor. Perhaps having a panel of last year's top six finishers (every year) blind tasting and pulling shots from companies submitting their blends for consideration. The time frame would be as beneficial to both the coffee and the competiting baristas as possible.

Those wanting to be a Blend Sponsor for a national competition have to agree to the following:

a) supply xx lbs of the blend for jury consideration 45 days before the national comp.

b) the jury (last years six finalists?) will blind evaluate the submitted coffees. Score and choose one based on a set of criteria and their personal opinions.

c) winning blend sponsor must submit no less than 6 (10?) lbs of the blend to all registered competiting Baristas, perhaps in two or three split shipments, 30 days, 20 days, 10 days before competition. This way, all the competiting Baristas, those who enter early enough can have sufficient face time with the blends.

d) winning blend sponsor submits xx kilos (maybe 3kilos per competitor?) for the competition in lots set aside for each day of comp.

There's been heaps of resistance to this, but here's my deal on this. This competition thang is about finding *the best barista*. In my opinion, the best Barista is one who can walk up to any machine, any coffee, any grinder, and within a very short time, can deliver you the best that combination has to offer. It shows a very deep knowledge of coffee in general, and about the process of making espresso in particular.

Where I tend to lose a bit of admiration is when Baristas go "oh, my coffee didn't perform so well because we have it tuned for 202.6F in our shop, and these machines are at so and so..."

Anyways... yoda's your uncle.

At Sunday, 11 June, 2006, Blogger blanco said...

yeah, i'm totally with you, mark. having your espresso as "the" competition espresso is like a sponsorship...and a huge potential pile of customers afterward. you could use that marketing angle for a whole year--or beyond.

"taste the 2007 world barista championship espresso blend from frick and frack roasting company."

it doesn't really matter in the end, but i would still say maybe the baristas don't get pre-shipments sent to them. if it really is all about the techique then let it be about the technique and let the judges be the ones who worry about the taste.

people resist because they are afraid of change. there is nothing to suggest--at least to my mind--that this move would in any way cheapen, hinder or destroy the competitions.

but then again, i'm not the expert here.


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