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An Inside Look at Barista Competitions

Mallory Roth on the merits of calibration, curiosity, and community

In late June, Mallory Roth, Program Manager of Blue Bottle’s Foundational Programs, attended the World Barista Championship as a Sensory Judge, where she witnessed Agnieszka Rojewska become the first woman to take first place in the competition’s history.  

The chance to serve as a judge fulfilled a longtime dream for Mallory, who entered specialty coffee eight years ago. We sat down with Mallory to hear how she first became involved in coffee competitions, their impact on her professional trajectory, and why curiosity—rather than competitiveness—is the trait Mallory values most.

Why did you first become involved in coffee competitions?

When I was working at The Coffee Ethic in my college town of Springfield, Missouri, I became curious to know what was happening in the larger coffee community. The region had a nascent specialty scene, but I felt far away from key players in that world. There were no importers nearby, and the idea of “origin” seemed a world away. I thought a way to learn more would be to meet the coffee professionals working at all points along the supply chain who attend competitions.

For those of us who aren’t familiar with coffee competitions, when did they start?

The competition that led to the World Barista Championship started in 2000 in Norway. In a matter of years, other countries began to hold national competitions whose winners would then feed into the world event. Now, within individual countries, regional events occur, too. In the U.S., for example, we hold preliminaries in different regions, but all of the competitions, big or small, follow the same rules set by World Coffee Events, an organization under the aegis of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA). Like any competition, it’s a way to drive innovation and to build community.

In one sentence, what happens at a coffee competition?

A competitor prepares three different drinks—espresso, milk beverage, and signature beverage—for four judges in a fifteen-minute period as two other judges evaluate technical skill, all while telling the story of the coffee they chose and the sensory details the judges can anticipate experiencing.

Why the emphasis on presentation?

At the center of this competition is the experience of being a barista. A barista needs technical skills and coffee knowledge, but they must also connect with their guests. The competition mirrors the rush in a cafe, when a barista must make delicious drinks, one after the other, calmly and graciously.

One of the things that a competitor does, and that a Sensory Judge evaluates, is to communicate the entire taste experience of a coffee: How will it change from sip to sip? What will its mouthfeel be like? If the competitor’s words are beautiful, but not accurate, that counts against the final score. But if the presentation is both evocative and true-to-taste, then the experience is magical.

You began as a Sensory Judge and are now a Head Judge for U.S. Competitions as well as the Vice Chair on the Competitions Committee. What are you working on now?

Both roles have to do with equipping judges to evaluate competitors based on a shared understanding of the rules. The Competitions Committee oversees judges’ training, which happens in two parts, with online learning sessions and one-day mock competitions. Those happen the day prior to the real competition. All of the judges come together to practice scoring mock competitors. These sessions provide judges who may have never worked together, and who have various professional backgrounds, the chance to compare their approach and to calibrate their vocabularies. It’s kind of like a pick-up basketball game, where the players know the rules, but then they have the real-time chance to work things out with other players.

“Calibrate” is a word you often say. Tell us more what that word means in this context.

When you’re a Sensory Judge, you’re essentially getting the chance to broaden your palate by identifying the tastes you gravitate toward, as well as the tastes that are new for you. If you’re not aware of your own bias toward specific tastes, then you’ll have blind spots when judging. We’re constantly reminding ourselves of the difference between preference and evaluation—just because you don’t love how a coffee tastes, doesn’t mean that the coffee shouldn’t earn a high score.

How do you help judges to see their own bias?

Well, first off, I need to acknowledge that there are more biases than just taste. But one of the forms of bias that we, on the Competitions Committee, focus on is this concept of “familiarity bias,” which simply means that you’re drawn to what you know. Judging can be a high-stress situation—it’s easy to become over-caffeinated and over-stimulated, and in those states, bias is an easy crutch to lean upon.

So if you’re tasting coffees whose profiles are less familiar to you, it’s easy to jump to a conclusion based more on a gut reaction than knowledge. The other thing is, simultaneous to a competitor making coffee, they’re also telling a story.

Depending on a judge’s professional background, it can be quite easy to contextualize a competitor’s storytelling within the judge’s own expertise. But the judge must only evaluate a person on what they said; a judge can’t fill in any gaps in the presentation with their own knowledge. This is so much harder than it sounds. It’s in our very nature to listen and interpret simultaneously—we do it all of the time unconsciously.

That’s where the role of the Head Judge comes in: After a person competes, the Head Judge compares the scores from the four Sensory Judges and the two Technical Judges. If there are outliers, the group needs to make sense of that, and they do that by reflecting back on the rules, and even go so far as to examine whether or not they had biases at play.

Access is another barrier to competition. What are some of the ways in which this is being addressed?

Yes, absolutely, to compete or to volunteer as a judge takes resources. You need time, permission from your workplace to be away, and of course, money. Many participants have sacrificed a great deal to be involved. And yet, there are many who are excluded because of a lack of resources, support, or just the confidence that they too deserve to participate.

We don’t want competitions to comprise only those who can afford it or who represent a narrow spectrum of the industry. Last year, the SCA started preliminaries in different regions in the U.S. in order to bring competitions to areas of the country with nascent coffee scenes. This often lessens the burden of travel, and the competitions themselves are more reflective of a region’s culture and history.

In many ways, I think that these smaller events, which feel much more community-focused, are where really valuable learning takes place. Some baristas set their sights high, but I’d argue that you gain just as much when you compete at this level because you have the opportunity to network where you live while mastering technical skills.

One person who has broken barriers and done so with great persistence and humility is this year’s World Champion, Agnieszka Rojewska. Could you tell us a little about her presentation?   

Agnieszka, or Aga, as she is called, has competed for years. What I loved about this year’s presentation was that it was so centered on guest experience. When preparing her first beverage, she began with something approachable—a cappuccino. And she welcomed judges in like they were first-time guests. With each new beverage, she shared more specific knowledge of the coffee—just like a barista might with repeat customers. When it came time for her espresso, she used not only descriptive language, but also tactile materials like a multi-textured cloth and a weighted wooden ball to convey the mouthfeel and body of the coffee.

The skill of a successful competitor is bridging coffee knowledge with sensory experience. Aga’s presentation did this—it pulled you in and made you curious. It was really moving to witness.

This all sounds so incredible, if not a little intimidating. Why would you recommend a person consider participating in regional or national competitions?

Competition is a great way to gain perspective of conversations happening in the industry at large. No matter the scope of the competition, challenging yourself and learning is the goal. I think the best approach is to view it as a way to grow, rather than as a way to “win.”

Lastly, do you have recommendations for readers who are interested in this world? Are there resources out there to support baristas who may not have the resources to compete?

Yes! There are a lot of exciting things happening to address access and fuller representation in terms of the people who participate in competitions.

Two emerging competitions that are exciting and travel to different regions in the U.S. are The Barista League and La Marzocco’s Crush the Rush.

A few companies are stepping up to support members of marginalized communities in competition, like Cafe Imports and Revelator. I’d also encourage anyone interested in competing to ask your employer—you may be surprised by the support they would lend to you, be it time off, or more.

Women Investing in Northwest Coffee Champs (WINCC) provides educational and material resources to women and have gone so far as to set up a tool library in order to defray the expenses of competing.

Glitter Cat Barista Bootcamp(GCBB) facilitates an all-expenses paid barista training program for marginalized communities, including the LGBTQI community, people of color, and people with disabilities.

Finally, Pour Coffee Festival is an educational resource and events organization who is partnering with WINCC to build a scholarship fund for marginalized coffee professionals in the Southeastern U.S.

Curious? We're always looking for coffee professionals to join our team


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By Blue Bottle Staff

Published Aug. 16, 2018

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