Wondering where my Survivor, Top Chef, and American Idol recaps have been? Fear not: I haven’t abandoned them. Instead I spent the day down in Long Beach, CA getting certified to be a judge at the Southwest Regional Barista Competition, and let me tell you something: it’s not easy. Aside from it being a terribly exacting process — prospective judges are trained in everything from taste balance to foam persistence and consistency — the certification has taken a full on physical toll. You see, here’s my problem. I don’t really drink coffee. I indulge in some foofy mocha lattes socially, and yes, on occasion I’ll enjoy an iced coffee, but espresso and cappuccino are not really my things. Furthermore, after half a coffee, I’m pretty wired.
Still, when I was invited to participate in this event, I thought it could be a ton of fun. What better way to earn coffee bragging rights than by becoming a CERTIFIED JUDGE?
Well, now I’m paying the price. I’ve spent the past five hours shaking with occasional sprints to the bathroom. This is not for the faint of heart, and I’m starting to think that I’m VERY faint of heart.A little background about the event: the Southwest Regional Barista Competition aims to promote awareness of specialty coffee and the barista profession. Winners advance to a U.S. Barista Competition, which in turn folds up into a World Competition. This isn’t just some folksy local event. It’s a highly organized global quest. Naturally, a perfect fit for me.
The entire process began back on Tuesday. Some of the judges were invited to the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf world headquarters for a little seminar on what to expect from today’s certification process. The purpose of the workshop was to give us a helping hand and catch us up with some of the other judges we’d meet — some of whom are very seasoned baristas. The event, which lasted about three hours, casually guided us through the judging process: we received a breezy overview of the rules, learned about the various criteria that go into a winning espresso shot or cappuccino, and basically got to try on some training wheels before today’s nine hour crash course.
Oh Tuesday. Things were so innocent then.
When I left the Coffee Bean headquarters, I was full of energy and excitement. Granted, that’s probably thanks to the six or seven espresso and cappuccinos I’d sipped, but hey – life was good. I knew I’d be able to handle this. Sure, I’d be buzzy, but I would listen to the warnings: drink lots of water and eat plenty of bland foods. Easy!
Our humble tasting table at the CBTL headquarters.
Driving down to Long Beach this morning, I was most enthused for what the future would have in store for me. In no time, I’d be an expert on all things barista-y. I’d be able to spout off fancy proclamations about “crema” and make weighty observations about “groupheads” and “portas.” I would soon become super annoying to all my friends, happily reminding them that I was the only one officially certified as a barista judge and therefore the most knowledgeable when it came to discussing acidity and bitterness and body and blah blah blah. I could see it now: my cohort jash rolling his eyes at some flavor observation by me and me retorting with a sharp, “Um, CERTIFIED JUDGE HERE.”
It would be awesome.
Well, I soon arrived at the Specialty Coffee Association of America headquarters and joined the ranks of many would-be judges. Almost all of them worked in the coffee industry, with several being actual baristas already. I was instantly intimidated. They knew about things like “body” and ” finishes” and “notes.” I mean, I could say all those things, but I wouldn’t know what I was talking about. I could already feel their wrath.
I was instantly reminded of a time about two years ago when jash and my friend Sly and I all headed to Intelligentsia coffee here in LA. The shop is widely known as the best in the city, and while I respected its vaunted reputation, the honest truth was that at the time, I was actually quite new to coffee. Just as the three of us reached the register, I turned to my friends and said, “You know, I think I really like Starbucks the most.” I might as well have said, “Does anyone mind if I RAPE THIS WOMAN OVER HERE?” I swear the barista didn’t hear me, but Sly and jash will tell you differently. To this day I have never been able to live that moment down.
It was that story that raced through my head as I sat there: will all these knowledgeable baristas sense that I do enjoy my Starbucks? And Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf? I was nervous (and I hadn’t even started drinking yet).
Well, after some pleasant introductions, we were all handed certification tests. I knew we’d be tested, but I wasn’t quite prepared to bust out the #2 pencil right off the bat. Needless to say, I was a bit hazy when it came to the finer nuances of tamping and dosing.
I flunked the test.
And if I’m not mistaken, that was the very first test in MY LIFE that I’d ever failed. Landmark day.
Anyway, we then sat through a lengthy lecture held by two of the head judges for the competition. These guys were sort of like weird parental figures. They were all about imparting valuable information and guiding us on our way. It was like some caffeine-fueled Disney movie involving bluebirds and buttercups or whatever. Hmmm… strange analogy. I should note that the caffeine is still coursing through my system.
Well, after a hearty lunch, it was time to do some hands-on testing. We all moved into a lab area where we stood around tables and prepared to sip and sip and sip and sip some more. Before that all happened, I turned to a guy named Mike, who seemed particularly up on his coffee info. I asked him if he had ever judged before, and he answered that this was his first time. He had always been a competitor.
“Why did you stop competing?” I asked naively.
“Well, it’s sort of poor form to keep competing after you’ve won the world championship.”
Yes, we had the reigning WORLD CHAMPION BARISTA standing at the table with us, and I was talking to him like he might have once bought a tin of Maxwell House. Clearly I looked like a jackass, and as everyone chuckled, I realized that literally every single person knew who he was. I was just about ready for some jazzy music and a hook to yank me off stage.
I should note that Mike hails from Intelligentsia, a.k.a. the hallowed ground I had previously insulted with my Starbucks remark. If I were dating Intelligentsia, I would most certainly be dumped by now. (But then again, maybe that counts as a neg, and maybe now Intelligentsia is feeling all self-conscious and is TOTALLY into me. I’ll have to consult with Neil Strauss on that point).
Anyway, Mike was actually totally cool about it all, and soon the espressos arrived. We all engaged in our specific protocol: first, analyze the crema, which is the foam on top. Is it reddish-brown or hazelnutty? Or is it “blonding” and pale (BAD!!!). Are there bubbles, and if so big (BOO!!!) or micro (Yay!!!). Then tilt the cup and see if the crema remains intact, or does the dark body of the espresso peek through (not good)? All these observations would affect the score of various categories, ie. color of crema and persistence and consistency of crema (or PerCon — my favorite new slang).
After taking in the visuals — a process that should last all of about five seconds — we must stick a spoon in the espresso and stir it three times. However, stirring is not a swirling motion. It’s instead a front-to-back sweep more akin to folding, with the idea being that the crema (top), heart (middle), and body (bottom) will fully mix. Then it’s time to sip. First sip: look for taste balance. Do we have a harmonious balance of bitter, sweet, and acidic? Second sip: the tactile sensation. How’s the mouthfeel? Good body? Nice finish.
It was intense.
And this was just espresso.
Cappuccinos required analysis of the foam on merits of symmetry, balance, gloss, and contrast (between white and brown). Then we’d have to stick a spoon in and brush a swath of foam away to look for microbubbles and judge the PerCon of the foam. Thin or tight?
Tasting involved more issues of harmony, but this time between espresso flavor and milk.
And again, this all had to be done in a manner of seconds. It was no walk in the park.
This whole process was called “calibration” because we were essentially calibrating our judgements to a generally universal standard. You see, each category is graded from 0 to 6, with 0 being unacceptable and 6 being extraordinary. I’m happy to report that my personal calibration was all sorts of wacky, but in the end, I did get into the sweet spot. And even better, I got the added bragging rights of saying “I’M CALIBRATED WITH THE BEST BARISTA IN THE WORLD!” Yeah, I’ll say that.
Of course, calibration is not a quick process, and one needs many espressos and cappuccinos to get in the zone. There was one after another after another after another. I drank water, but most certainly not enough. Soon I was jittery. Then I was beyond jittery. It wasn’t long before I felt like a cat in a perpetual state of getting a static shock.
Still, for as much caffeine as I’d consumed (Mike estimated around 17 cups — and that was only about three-quarters through) I thought I was holding up pretty well. Sure I didn’t feel fantastic, but I was alive, and that meant something.
Well, after some mock judging rounds, those of us who had failed the test earlier (oh the shame) got a chance to retake it. I’m fairly certain that I passed the second time; although, truth be told we were allowed to go home once we were done.
That’s when things got funky. It was like the moment my car rolled on to the highway, my body had an epiphany — the sort of epiphany that’s goes something like this: “Hey, I don’t normally drink caffeine, and I certainly don’t drink this much. Maybe I should shut down. Oh, and let’s clear out the intestinal tract while we’re at it.”
Did I mention that during rush hour traffic, it takes an hour to get home to Hollywood?
The drive started off just fine — the 710 freeway actually moved like a dream. I thought there had been some sympathetic, divine intervention. Then I arrived at the 101, and I realized I had merely been the victim of a cosmic prank. The traffic was stopped. Not rolling, not inching along. Stopped. This was not good.
My joints were aching, my stomach hurt, things felt cloudy, and on top of everything else: I was turning into a huge grouch. Crankiness is an understatement. Now I could suddenly realize why all my caffeine addicted friends are such surly beasts when they haven’t had their fix. I was angry at everyone and everything.
Luckily, I somehow made it home without incident, and while my apartment amenities certainly improved my physical state, I was still a total mess. Dinner with jash and my friend m_ruv proved to be a nutty experience, replete with random bouts of shivers and general malaise. Caffeine and I do not mix, I’ve discovered, and while this is partly mind over matter, I can assure you that matter totally has the upperhand.
The good news is that the drinks won’t be coming as fast and furious during the actual competition; so I think I’ll be a bit more stable. I can assure you though that I’ll have a full bottle of water by my side at all times. The adventure continues.
If you’d like to see what all the fuss is about, check out the competition at Siren Studios in Hollywood. It’s open to the public. Information here.
Wish me luck…