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Reports From the Road
2005 USBC Judges' Certification
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: March 16, 2005
Article rating: 7.9
feedback: (15) comments | read | write

Becoming officially certified to judge a national barista championship is not an easy task for those who take the responsibility very seriously. The process for this year's United States Barista Championship (USBC) was a two day affair, held at Hines Public Market Coffee in Seattle. We have the Barista's best interest at heart and we all want to pick the most worthwhile person to represent the United States at the World Championships, so going through a rigourous certification process is the very least a judge candidate can do.

First Day

The first day started off with a slide show presented by the SCAA about the importance of sensory skills, with some education on what goes on with your tongue and its taste buds. We learned about "supertasters" and how roughly 30% of the population on this planet are in that category (and how many more women then men are supertasters). We learned that as kids, we have roughly 10,000 tastebuds, but by adulthood, the average goes down to 2,000 of the little buds on your tongue (and interestingly enough, at the back of your upper throat!).

We learned the reason why your bitter-sensing tastebuds are at the back of your tongue and in your throat: since most of nature's poisonous things to humans are also bitter, it's evolution's way of giving you a warning system and it's cooperative gag-reflex to reject stuff that could harm you. Ironically, coffee elements (not just caffeine, but other things) include bitter qualities, but it's how they intermix with the sweet elements and others that makes the bitter palatable - even desirable.

The slide show and discussion was interesting, and it lead into something I personally was fearing - the dreaded "sensory skills test". I'd heard about this test from some of the folks who attended last year's Roasters Guild retreat, and how many who have amazing palates didn't pass the test. I was sure I wouldn't either.

The test involves three types of liquids - one group is sweet, one group is salty, and one group is sour. Within each group, there are three intensity levels of the element within - intensity I for the weakest solution, intensity II for the middle, and intensity III for the strongest. There isn't a heckuva lot of difference between the three intensities either.

The test is in three segments. The first segment gives you 9 liquids in numbered cups. You have to accurately pick out the three sweets, three sours, and three salty samples, and you have to score 100% accuracy on this to pass.

The second test gets harder. Once again you're given nine sample cups with only numbers on them (different numbers from the first test). This round, the test-taker has to not only pick out the three sweet, three sour, and three salty drinks, but also score the intensity level of each. You have to score 90% or better to pass. I did this test by first isolating the three tastes, then tasting each three cups in each group, picking least to most intense.

The last test is unbelievably hard. You're given eight numbered cups. Within these eight cups are combinations of two or three of the testing drinks: four of the cups have two ingredients, four of the cups have three.

You not only have to guess what combination of ingredients are in each cup, but also guess the intensity level of each of the ingredients. For example, I'd sample one cup, and say "salt and sweet, and the salt is intensity II, the sweet is intensity I". You have to score at least 70% on this test to pass.

It was so freakin' hard. After the first few cups, all I could taste was the sour components, and barely the sweet. Salt was fighting a losing battle. But (and I still can't believe it myself), I passed. I barely passed. I got 100% in the first round, 90% in the second, and 70% in the third round. Woo hoo!

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Cups all lined up
Cups for the second test are all lined up and ready to drink.
No intimidation!
Jeff Taylor refuses to be intimidated by the testing cups. Go Jeff! He passed too!
Happy Face!
Yours truly gets a happy face and a 100% on the first test. Woogah!

If you managed to pass the sensory session, and also passed the written test the next day, you would be a USBC certified judge for two years, and also, you don't have to take the sensory again at the WBC Judges' Certification prior to the WBC this year in Seattle in April. If you didn't pass sensory, but passed the written test, you'd be certified for one year.

Once the testing was over, we moved on to discussion of the competition, with a lot of focus on technical judging. We hovered around the test machine and watched as different aspects of the technical skills were laid out. We had discussion on what constituted waste in the grinder. We looked to see how a machine should be flushed properly. We were taught that repetition and consistency were of utmost importance.

There was plenty of discussion on how the competition relates to shops "realtime". In other words, does the competition stress skills that pay off in real cafes. The answer is generally yes. One prime example: the double shot (two 1oz shots into two cups, from one double basket pull) vs. the ristretto shot (one 1oz or less shot into one cup from one double basket pull). The ristretto is a beverage that, when prepared well, produces an amazing shot of espresso. But it also costs a shop owner more money.

An awesome, full bodied and rich double shot of espresso can be pulled from a double basket. I've had plenty in my day, many from competition shots, but even in my own home. In many ways, the single ristretto is a crutch drink - one that pulls less water through more coffee to achieve a great shot. The reason why the barista competitions stress pulling doubles is to not only show that 17-19 grams is sufficient to pull 2oz of espresso with awesome extraction, but also to save cafes money on bean costs, and speed up production on the machine.

There are other important elements. Emphasising consistency and proper packing, tamping and pulling shot techniques not only make the production faster, but aid in preventing work related injuries. Stressing improper packing techniques for example is one of these things. (note, the judging does not claim there's only one way to pack a portafilter - but it does stress there are wrong ways).

Towards the end of day one, another discussion happened, this time stressing the importance of judging, and the importance of being able to give feedback to Baristi who request it once competition is over.

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Cindy Chang
Cindy evaluting cups in round three of the sensory test. Very difficult stuff.
Alexarc
Alexarc from Black Drop Cafe having a serene time after sensory testing was over.
Jeff Taylor
Jeff had his video camera out and was taping some of the certification session.

Day Two of Certification

Day two started off with a written test. Fifty questions. Sometimes it seemed like there were more than fifty answers though ;) (and one of them was just plain wrong - the official answer was not the correct one!). Part of the test had to be read out because some of the questions were difficult to read, but the judging candidates' group plowed through it and finished it off. Yours truly got 86%. My main man Nico Cho got the highest score of the day, 88% (way to go Nick!).

Once the test was over, it was time for some mock competition with all the judges doing a session as sensory, technical, or both. This took up a lot of the second day. We went through several competitions. I did technical once, but was excused from sensory because I've done sensory at four national competitions and five or six regionals by this point. (there just wasn't enough time for every judge candidate to do both, so the seasoned vets sat out some of them).

There isn't a lot to type about this stuff, other than to say we were tested well. We had Stephen Vick and Bronwen Serna (both judges' candidates) go through as Baristi, and we were looking for mistakes. We tasted drinks, looked at them, pointed out flaws, pointed out good stuff, the works. We saw how much 1 gram of wasted coffee was vs. 5 grams. We saw how much foam is acceptable and how much is not. We saw good foam and bad foam. We saw good crema and bad. The works, I tell you.

The day wrapped up with the scores announced, and judges seeing their flights for day one and two. Then there were two days off before the competition started. Stay tuned - I missed Day One of the USBC because I was in Vancouver on personal reasons, but I photographed every other day, including the semis and finals. My next article will feature Day Two, and after that, an article with the semis and finals. For now, enjoy the rest of the photos.

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Meeting
Jeff Taylor, John Sanders, and Barry Jarrett have a discussion before Day one of the certification starts.
Evaluating Cups
Leah evaluates the cups in the dreaded round three of the sensory skills test.
Cindy Chang
Cindy Chang looking effervescent and happy on day two of certification.
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Nick Cho
Nick of Murky Coffee (and a forums regular) having a contemplative moment.
Bronwen Serna
Bronwen during day two of the certification. This is her first time as a nationa judge, but she did well! So well she was a head judge in some of the flights.
Alexarc
Alexarc, the former Greek, looking absolutely spiffy at the certification process. Alex is a good techie judge.
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Dismas Smith
Dis was hanging around, but opted not to go through certification this time around. Thinking of competiting again? :)
Barry
Barry's having a conversation with Mireya (left) and Alexarc (right) after sensory is over.
Bill Crossland
Bill from La Marzocco dropped by to have a convo with John Sanders about the machines.
Article rating: 7.9
Author: Mark Prince
Posted: March 16, 2005
feedback: (15) comments | read | write
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