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    Entries in NWRBC (8)


    Let's get ready to....pull shots! (NWRBC 2013 is almost here)

    The Northwest Regional Barista Competition (NWRBC) is coming up the first weekend of February, and to help potential competitors prepare, the Barista Guild and hosted a mock competition run-through on January 5th at the American Barista and Coffee School in Portland (there was also one in Seattle the night before).

    Laila Ghambari, who now works for Caffe Ladro in Seattle, put together a 15-minute performance to demonstrate what a typical entry would look like. To make the demonstration as real as possible, two technical judges and four sensory judges (including me) gave her a set of scores, just as we would in a real competition. Marcus Young, of Central City Coffee acted as the head judge and led us as we discussed our scores in front of everyone.

    The event informed (and hopefully inspired) the baristas in the audience who were interested in competing at the NWRBC and beyond. Afterwords, Sprudge put together a nice video that explained Laila’s performance as she went through it. Check it out below:

    NWRBC details:
    When: February 1-3, 2013
    Where: Urban Enoteca, 4130 1st Ave S, Seattle, WA, 98134 (map)
    Why you should go: You like coffee and/or Seattle
    Cost: Free to watch, as far as I know (it has been in the past), and includes as much espresso as you will ever want to drink in a day
    Website: In case you don’t go, you can watch it streaming online at:


    Competitive coffee II - Judgment day

    Day 1 – How I became a judge

    When I woke up Friday morning, the first thing that popped into my mind was the four elements of the espresso category along with the things I should be looking for in each one. I was focused. At least I hadn’t dreamed about cappuccinos.

    We went to the convention center an hour before the start of the competition to do a little more calibration of our palates. We judged a few espressos and cappuccinos and returned to the judges’ chambers (really just a side room).

    At 12pm, we got the call to come judge. We filed out into the competition hall, were introduced, shook the competitor’s hand and took our places. It was time to see if our training had prepared us.

    Competition protocol

    The protocol for SCAA-sponsored barista competitions is standard throughout the United States. During the competition, baristas have 15 minutes to prepare their competition station. The station is set up with a machine table (where the espresso machine sits), a preparation table (for storing milk and other ingredients) and the judges table (where the four sensory judges sit, and act as customers). As the barista prepare, they calibrate their grinder and carefully lay out the tools they will need to make the drinks. Usually, they set out plates, napkins, water glasses and spoons at the judges’ table.

    After the 15 minute prep time, the judging team enters and takes its place. That’s when the main competition really begins.

    Each barista must make three sets of four drinks during the 15 minutes – an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature beverage for each of the four sensory judges. That’s 12 drinks in 15 minutes! It would be a difficult challenge for a barista accomplish anytime and even more so with the pressure of competition weighing on them. Baristas must be efficient and fluid with their movements. The baristas are expected to talk about the coffee(s) they are using, describing the origin and the characteristics that make their chosen coffee special.

    Seven judges evaluate each competitor’s performance. This includes two technical judges, a head judge and four sensory judges. The technical judges hover over and around the competitors while they are presenting, watching how the barista grinds, tamps, uses towels, keeps the station clean, and a myriad of other details.

    The head judges watch the other judges to make sure they are judging consistently. The head judge tastes many of the drinks, often writing down their own scores. These scores do not count, but it does help the head judge estimate what the sensory judges should be scoring each drink. If there are any major discrepancy between the judges, the head judge helps resolve them.

    I chose to be a sensory judge, for several reasons. First, I had done a lot of “sensory evaluation” (drinking espresso) over the last year and a half, so I knew I would feel more comfortable as a sensory judge. Second, technical judges have a large number of small things to watch and it helps to have a lot of barista experience. Most importantly, the sensory judges are the ones who get to taste the drinks. How could I go to a barista competition and not taste the drinks?

    Put your tastes aside

    As a sensory judge, one challenge was to put my biases aside and base my observations on the rules set by the competition committee. When I go cafés, I often “judge” the espresso and talk about its flavors. Most of my observations are highly subjective, which is fine in context of the blog. However, it doesn’t make for good competition scoring. To be a good judge, you have to be able to discard your own preferences and judge the espressos against the standards in the rule book. For espresso, this means you evaluate the crema, first for its color, then for its persistence and consistency.

    Next, you mix the espresso three times from front to back, using the small spoon that the barista is required to provide. An espresso should have a balance of sweetness, sourness and bitterness, and these reside at different levels in the cup. Mixing the espresso allows you to detect all three flavors in each sip (assuming they are present). In addition to the taste balance, you also evaluate its “tactile balance,” or what coffee people often refer to as mouthfeel. These characteristics test the barista’s skills at pulling shots.

    Cappuccinos are judged in a similar manner. The first criterion is visual appeal, which doesn’t mean the barista is skilled at latte art. Instead, judges are looking for contrast, sheen, balance, symmetry and whether or not there is a complete brown espresso ring around the outside of the milk in the center. Once the judges have evaluated the visual aspect, they take a spoon and push it across the foam of the cappuccino to check the persistence and consistency (“per-con,” in judging lexicon). Foam must be 1cm thick or more for the cappuccino to score Very Good in the per-con category.

    After checking out how they look, the judges sip the cappuccino to determine its “taste balance.” Both sips must be taken in a location on the rim where the foam was not disturbed by the spoon. The judge should be able to detect a pleasant balance between the sweetness of the milk and the more bitter espresso flavors. The temperature should also be a temperature that you can drink the cappuccino immediately, without letting it cool.

    The third category of drinks, the signature beverage category, has criteria that are less defined. The baristas get to express their creativity in making a drink, so some of the drinks are very complex. I have seen baristas add coffee reductions, gum syrup, star fruit juice, a raspberry ganache, an infusion of hops—you name it, and a barista has tried it.

    It is somewhat harder to calibrate for the signature beverages because they are different from competitor to competitor, but no matter what, the drink should be designed to feature the espresso. One of the keys for baristas who want to score well in the “sig bev” category is to clearly explain what they are doing so that the judges know what to expect. They should also remember that the espresso is central to the drink – i.e., whenever they are thinking about how to compose the drink, they should think how all of the additions showcase the espresso. It is easy to forget that. The beverage can be delicious, but if the judge cannot taste a strong espresso presence, it will receive a low score.

    During the calibration, the head judges and trainers drilled the procedure and evaluation criteria into our heads, constantly reminding us that we had to remove our own tastes and biases from the evaluation process as much as possible. They had us focus on describing what we saw, so that we could justify the scores that baristas would receive.

    Speed is important when you are a sensory judge. You need to quickly evaluate the drinks, because any time lag negatively effects the quality of the beverages. The crema on the espresso is its thickest and most stable when it is first served. So is the foam on the cappuccino. A judge cannot hesitate. With an espresso, for example, the judges’ thought process is something like, “color, tip forward, tip back, stir, stir, stir, sip once, sip twice, give it a score.” Then you take a couple notes to support the score you give it. You have to do this in a few seconds. At first, you go slowly trying to remember everything, but the process becomes automatic over time.

    After each competitor, we went back to the judges room to finish our score sheets. Our head judge gently pushed us to make any corrections necessary. His experience was super helpful as we struggled a couple times to come up with the justification for our scores. Instead of telling us to change our scores (both upward and downward, by the way), he had us justify the score we gave the competitors. If we had good justification for what we experienced, he let the score stand.

    The trainers’ instructions rattled around my mind as I sat at the table, trying hard to concentrate on what the barista was saying. While we were finishing the score sheets, the head judges told us to be sure to make eye contact and smile with the competitors to make them feel more at ease. I thought we had been, but apparently we were all concentrating so hard on getting the judging right that we forgot to smile. It was easier to smile for the next two. We were all more relaxed by then.

    Worth doing again

    Each of the competitors put in a lot of work preparing, and I felt honored to be a part of the team that judged them. As they told us in the beginning of the training, one of the main roles of a judge is to support the baristas as professionals. We’re not there to “judge” them (okay, yes we are), but rather to give them feedback for all their preparation and make the competition as much fun as possible. Everyone wants to help raise the specialty coffee industry’s profile and these competitions are an opportunity to do that.

    We (the judges) appreciated the hard work they put in as they prepared for the competition. My highest praise goes to our trainers, the head judges who got us ready for judging (and scared the hell out of us with those tests). Above all, I would like to thank Mike Strumpf, of Swiss Water, who was the head judge on my judging team on Friday. Mike did a fantastic job guiding us. His experience and expertise was obvious as he led us when we needed help making the proper scoring decisions.

    Looking back, I had a great time judging, and plan to do it again sometime. Hopefully it will work out to judge at the USBC when it comes to Portland in April. See you there?


    I left Tacoma for Portland on Friday (if you missed the story of that misadventure, it’s here), but I did watch parts of the next two days on my computer. If you look closely, you might see a couple of local PDX coffee people in the screen shots of the competition.

    The finals took place on Sunday afternoon. The top six competitors from the previous two days presented their routines for the judges one more time. This year, the six finalists were all from Portland (I told you Portland was the center of the specialty coffee universe). Sam Purvis (the 2010 NWRBC champion), and Devin Chapman represented Coava, Laila Ghambari represented Stumptown, Collin Schneider competed for Sterling/Coffeehouse Northwest and Tyler Stevens and Marty Lopes came from  Barista.

    Devin Chapman finished first, Laila Ghambari, second, and Tyler Stevens, third. Chapman also won the regional Brewer’s Cup (for the second consecutive year), so he had a heck of a Sunday. He will automatically be entered in the semi-final round at the USBC, and the other five competitors can enter the first round of the USBC, if they choose. Portland is going to be well-represented as it competes on its home turf. 


    Competitive coffee – How I became a barista competition judge

    Day 2 - Judgement Day

    Brrriiiiingg! Brrriiiiingg! Brrriiiiingg!

    My eyes popped open and I looked around, trying to figure out where I was. The room was still dark. What the hell? Will someone shut that bell off please?—I thought, half-dazed. Then I remembered—the bell was my 5:15 alarm going off. It was Thursday, January 26, and I was supposed to go to Tacoma for the 2012 Northwest Regional Barista Championships (NWRBC). Yawning, I rolled slowly out of bed, grabbed a quick breakfast and made my way to the bus stop by 5:50am.

    The bus took me to meet Brandon Arends, who was driving us up to Tacoma. The NWRBC didn’t start until Friday, but we were going up a day early to get certified as judges for the competition. Over the last year, ever since we volunteered together at the 2011 NWRBC, Brandon has been trying to get me to try judging. For a long time, I was reluctant because I didn’t think I had enough relevant coffee experience. It’s one thing to regularly drink and write about coffee, and quite another to be working with it all the time. He finally convinced me though, which is why I found myself rolling up I-5 towards Tacoma at 6:15am.

    I was a little nervous about the day ahead. I didn’t know what to expect at the training because I had waited until the last minute to register and never got the email with the day’s schedule and instructions. Brandon, who registered on time, had given me a little advice on Wednesday night, when we discussed our travel plans.

    “Make sure you check out the rules and the score sheet,” he told me.

    “I’ll do it,” I replied, not really intending to do much studying.

    I should have heeded his warning a little more closely.

    Tacoma – center of haute café (for a few days, at least)

    The barista competition was once again being held at the Tacoma Convention Center in downtown Tacoma, where bail bonds shops outnumber specialty cafés. Since Tacoma is not the hotbed of coffee in the Northwest, you might wonder why the SCAA decided to hold its convention here two years in a row. I know I did.

    Brandon suggested two reasons. First, Tacoma’s proximity to SEA-TAC airport makes it easy to travel there. Second, it would have been Portland’s turn to host, except that the city is hosting the United States Barista Championship in April. My theory is that if the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) held both competitions in Portland, it would be too openly admitting that Portland is the center of the universe when it comes to specialty coffee. Portlanders already know this to be true, but we wouldn’t want to hurt Seattle’s feelings.

    Whatever the reason, the Tacoma Convention Center makes a good spot for the competition. It has lots of space, there’s free parking just a couple blocks away, and hotel rates in Tacoma are reasonable (late January is the low season for tourists in Tacoma).

    Ready or not…

    We scooted in through front doors at 9am and took our places at the only available seats in the room (the training was kind of like going to church—if you arrive late, you sit up front). The head judges welcomed everyone and introduced themselves before going over the protocol for becoming a judge. Each of the head judges had worked in the coffee industry and had years of experience judging competitions all over the world.

    But what about the rest of us? What type of people are judges for barista competitions? Most of the people in the room worked full time in the coffee industry, as trainers, café managers, baristas, marketers—all types of roles.

    However, not everyone had years of experience in the industry, so I didn’t feel as out of place as I thought I might. One woman was a writer from Seattle who was trying to learn more about coffee. Another woman had only worked in coffee for a year. She had never been to a competition before, but her manager encouraged her to come to judge.

    After introductions, our teacher said it was time to take the certification test, and that we “have to get an 80% on the exams to get your certification to judge.”

    Test?! Already? Eighty percent? I felt a whoosh of air around me as the test takers gasped in unison.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get the memo about knowing the rules beforehand.  Could they really expect us to know how to judge before we got there?

    Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recalled Brandon’s advice from the night before. At least I had read through the rules in the car on the ride up to Tacoma.

    How much do you know?

    I started down through the exam, which consisted of multiple-choice questions and fill-in-the-blank questions about both technical and sensory elements. The test took me nearly an hour to complete and covered the USBC rules and the official competition score sheet. It had questions like, “How do you judge the integrity of an espresso’s crema?” and “How thick does the foam on a cappuccino have to be for the drink to be eligible to receive a “Very Good” score?”

    As I worked my way through the exam, I pictured myself back in college, sweating my way through an English literature exam I hadn’t prepared for. I employed every trick in the book I could think of, eliminating obviously incorrect answers and leafing through the different sections of the test for clues.

    When everyone had finished the exam, we took a short break before resuming our training. Multiple people I talked to during the break were pessimistic about their results on the test.

    It’s not getting easier

    After we had been tested for our knowledge of the rules, we moved on to actually figuring out what made a good drink and what didn’t. One of the most difficult things about judging is to get all the judges to grade consistently between competitors. This process is known as calibration. The head judges showed us slides of what to look for when we looked at a good espresso crema (and a bad one). The crema is the foamy layer that sits on top of an espresso. It is formed when the steam is forced through the coffee grounds, emulsifying the oils inside. 

    In each slide, the crema looked a little different. We discussed how they differed and which deserved good scores and which did not. The session helped us better understand the official standards of the competition.  We then took a quiz, looking at several photos of espressos of varying quality.

    Just before the lunch break, we did a triangulation test to check our palates. I propose another name for it: the Sesame Street test (“one of these things is not like the other, one of these things just doesn’t belong…”). A triangulation test is an exercise where three coffees are set out on a table together. Two of them are the same and the other one is different.  The testers sip each one and mark down which of the three is different.

    If I felt fairly confident about the capabilities of my palate before Thursday, I finished the triangulation test wondering if I had ever tasted coffee before in my life. We did six groups of three, and I was confident about only two of the groups. The rest of them were similar enough that I ended up guessing. I figured I had failed the test and would end up washing dishes instead of judging.

    Everyone seemed relieved when lunch was served. As we gathered around the buffet table, I overheard several people in shock at the difficulty of the triangulation test. I don’t know if it really helps to know you aren’t the only one struggling, but I know I felt a whole lot better after eating.

    After lunch, the head judges gave us our test results. By some miracle, I had passed! I was relieved (the judges also passed around a new exam for those who needed to re-take it. It turns out the first test was not our only opportunity to become a judge—but we didn’t know that at the time).

    The real calibration – testing drinks

    When everyone had their tests done, the group finally got down to calibrating with real drinks. We went to the main hall where the three espresso machines had been set up for the competition. Technical judges grouped up at one machine, and the sensory judges divided into two groups and gathered around the other machines. Each machine was staffed by a barista who made us a variety of drinks. Our barista tried to vary the quality of the shots he made, attempting to make the calibration more like the competition.

    We began by evaluating espressos. Espresso is the main focus of the Barista Championships. Espresso is the most difficult type of coffee to make well and make consistently. If a barista wants to score well, he or she needs to make great espresso, not only in the espresso course, but also in the cappuccino and signature beverage course. As the baristas pumped out the espressos, the trainers let us write down our impressions, helping us keep to the regulations in the rulebook.

    The calibration was fun, but challenging. All of the judges who were new to the certification process were reluctant to make a definitive score for each of the drinks we tried. We would taste a drink then look to our trainer for guidance, instead of writing down the score we thought it deserved. After a while, when we had evaluated shot after shot and cappuccino after cappuccino, we began to get a pretty good sense of what was good according to standard and what was not.

    Each drink gets the following scores. Unacceptable=0, Acceptable=1, Average=2, Good=3, Very Good=4, Excellent=5 or Extraordinary=6. You can give scores with half-point increments, but no scores of 0.5 are allowed, and the head judge must approve any scores of Extraordinary. As we practiced judging, we were encouraged to use the words instead of the numbers in order to accustom ourselves to the official scoring language. The language helped us score the drinks more accurately.

    We finally finished up the calibration about quarter to six. The head judges sent us home and told us to be back at 11am the next morning. We were well-caffeinated and ready to go find some dinner. My fears about being judged unworthy to be a judge had not been realized. When we got the schedule for Friday, I was assigned to the first, third and fifth competitors. I knew I would be nervous, but thanks to our trainers, I felt confident that I would do a good job.


    Tacoma to PDX: it shouldn't be so hard, right?

    [I spent a couple days in Tacoma last weekend as a judge at the Northwest Regional Barista championships. I’m still working on an article about that experience, but I wanted to first share my misadventures trying to get back to Portland.]

    Under most circumstances, I’m a big fan of mass transit, mostly because it means I don’t have to drive and can focus on doing other things. However, when you rely on someone else to get you places, you are at the mercy of forces beyond your control. Most of the time you get where you want to go when you want to get there, but not always.

    Riding up to Tacoma (I came with Brandon Arends), I figured I would be able to find someone who was headed back to Portland from the NWRBC on Friday afternoon. The barista competition runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but I needed to leave early to get back to Portland. If my efforts failed, I knew I had some friends leaving Tacoma for Portland on Saturday morning, so I had a backup plan.

    Unfortunately, my original plan was faulty. It was a parade of bad luck and even worse timing. It seemed like the universe had conspired against me to slow my travel down.

    Swing….and a miss!

    When Friday’s competition ended, I asked around to see if anyone was headed back to Portland. I was told that ‘someone named Jeff’ was going back, but that he had already left. Rats. Another person suggested I take the train. That sounded like a good idea. Amtrak is a nice way to travel between Tacoma and Portland. I pulled out my laptop and checked the schedule. The next train to Portland was leaving about 3:10pm, which would  put me in Portland by 5:30. Perfect—except that it was already 3:00 and there was no way to make it to the station, buy a ticket and get on the train in time for its departure. The 6pm train was sold out, so Amtrak wasn’t an option. Double rats.

    That was two near misses, and I wasn’t even out of the convention center yet.

    Brandon, who was staying until the next day, and I went back to the hotel about 3:20pm. The first thing I did was check the Greyhound bus schedule to see when the buses left. There was one leaving at 5:10pm that still had seats available. I almost bought a ticket, but then I remembered that sometimes you can find people on Craigslist (CL) looking to share rides. What the hell, I thought, I’m up for an adventure, so I went to CL to try to find a ride.

    If you’ve never used CL to purchase or anything, the site is a free online classified ad site that has a very unique etiquette model. Whenever you try to sell or buy something, you have to accept that people won’t necessarily give you a response. If they don’t call you, you have your answer—no. Therefore, when you are trying to get something on CL, you have to send out multiple feelers. Some bite, most don’t. It’s not that people are being rude—rather, that’s just how the game is played. You just have to accept it.

    On the Seattle rideshare section, I found a few different possibilities. One person named Josh was leaving Tacoma at 3:30pm with room for three people. He left a phone number to call.  He didn’t answer, so I left a message and a contact number. Another ad said that two students planned to leave around 2pm. Two o’clock was already long past, but people’s intentions don’t always work out, so I sent them an email in case they were behind schedule.

    A third ad said that she was leaving Seattle for Portland that evening (see picture).

    I sent an email, trying my best to convince her I wasn’t dangerous, creepy or looking for more than conversation, but I must have failed, because I got no response.

    Finally, I found an ad saying that someone was leaving Tacoma for PDX about 3:45pm, asking $20 for help with gas. That was better than the $35 that Greyhound wanted. I sent the person a text, saying that I was in Tacoma at the La Quinta hotel, right off the freeway. No response. About 10 minutes later, I wrote and was more direct: “I have $20 and I’m right by the freeway exit,” I clarified.

    I waited another 20 minutes, figuring that if no one responded I still had time to buy the bus ticket. About 4:15, I decided to go ahead and buy the ticket. Reluctantly (should I wait?), I pressed the ‘Confirm Purchase’ button. I received a confirmation email that told me to be at the station an hour before departure to pick up the ticket, which made no sense because it was already less than an hour before departure. I love computers. They give such great customer service.


    As I closed the screen of my laptop, I heard the familiar bzzz-bzzz of my phone, indicating an incoming text message. The person I had texted earlier said that he would be there in a few minutes and asked for the address of the hotel. Aaaggghhh! I knew I should have waited (I had bought the cheaper, nonrefundable ticket, of course). I texted back that I had just bought my bus ticket and that I didn’t need him to pick me up. Damn. That was about 4:20. Had I ridden with him, I would have gotten back to PDX about 6:45pm. As it was, my bus was scheduled to pull into Portland at 8pm.

    Since I was supposed to be at the station an hour before departure, I left the hotel at 4:30 and walked toward the station with my bag. It was a beautiful day in Tacoma, the sky was blue and the crisp air was invigorating as I walked briskly toward the bus stop. It felt good to be traveling on my own again, even if it was only from Tacoma to Portland. There was an extra bounce in my step as I made may way down the hill to the Greyhound station.

    When I got to the station, it was dark, and locked. A man waiting outside told me that the station doesn’t open until 5:00. But doesn’t the bus leave at 5:10? Didn’t Greyhound’s email tell me to be at the station an hour early? Who’s in charge of the  computer system?

    It wasn’t much fun standing there on the street, waiting with nowhere to go. In the back of my mind, I was marginally worried that the station might open late and there not be enough time to get the tickets printed out before the bus left. I was prepared to try to talk my way onto the bus using nothing more than the confirmation email on my phone. The message clearly stated that a paper ticket was needed for boarding, but if you couldn’t get the company to print it out on time, that wasn’t my fault, was it?

    It turns out my worries were unfounded. The customer service rep was on time, and he printed out my ticket by 5:05pm, though it would not have mattered if I had shown up late. The attendant soon informed us that the bus was running “20 minutes late.” Of course it was.

    At fifteen minutes to six (35 minutes late), the bus pulled in. We boarded the bus and were on the road ten minutes later, 45 minutes after the bus was scheduled to leave. At that time of day, the traffic is pretty bad in the region and the driver had to fight stop and go traffic until almost Olympia, where the bus stopped to drop a couple people off. Our expected PDX arrival kept getting later and later. I spent time writing about the NWRBC experience until my laptop battery quit, then I shut off the light and sat in my seat staring into the dark night.  

    In all the excitement, I had forgotten to eat, so I sat there staring out the window trying to ignore my growling stomach. One of the rules of the road is that you should always have some backup eats for situations like this. I had violated the rule. One more thing.

    We finally pulled into Portland at 9:00pm. I checked the Tri-met bus arrivals at the nearest station for my route home. The next #19 bus was coming in three minutes, which meant that by the time the bus finally parked, the opportunity was gone. Yep, that’s just how the whole trip was – one more missed connection. The next #19 was not coming for another half hour. I could do nothing but throw my hands up and laugh (and swear, if I’m being honest). To kill time, I decided to walk from the Greyhound station up to PSU. The exercise felt good after sitting around for so long.

    As I was waiting at the PSU stop, my phone buzzed as it received another text from the mystery driver who nearly gave me the ride. He offered to take me back to Tacoma on Sunday. In my reply, I thanked him for the offer and said I lived in Portland, taking the time to lament that I still wasn’t home. I could picture him laughing as he responded with the news that he was headed out to a bar. That was the end of an anonymous conversation with an unknown fellow traveler. Craigslist has a funny way of bringing people together.

    Thankfully, the #19 arrived on time – ahhh, the last leg of the trip. At 10pm, I finally walked in my front door, tired and hungry. Instead of taking two and a half hours, the trip took just over five and a half hours from door to door.

    An iffy day

    The day could have been much better, if only:

    If I had found “Jeff” before he left, I would have probably made it back to Portland by 5:15pm. No dice.

    If I had checked the Amtrak schedule 15 minutes earlier, I would gotten on the train and made it back by 5:30. Nope.

    If I had waited one more minute to buy the bus ticket, I would have ridden back with the mystery texter and made it back to Portland by 6:45. Negative.

    If the bus had arrived at the Tacoma station on time, we would have made it back to Portland at 8pm, and someone would have been available to pick me up at the Portland station when I got back.  Afraid not.

    If the traffic between Tacoma and Olympia had been lighter and we arrived a few minutes earlier, I would have caught an earlier Tri-met bus home. Instead, I missed the bus, which cost me an extra half hour. Go figure.

    Like I said before, I like mass transit. I enjoy seeing and meeting new people, I like the fact that people share resources and I really like letting someone else do the driving. But after a day like Friday, I remember why people drive. Mass transit can be a real pain in the ass. But it does make for some interesting stories....



    I'm not sure who Ed is, but he has some advice for travelers passing through the Greyhound station in Tacoma, Washington. Take heed.



    Return of the Links

    Break out your umbrellas! After a dry December, the rain has returned to the Rose City—and how! We’re pushing record levels of precipitation over the last few days and the forecast is for a lot more over the next week. Meanwhile, I received an email from a friend in Orlando who said it was 82 degrees and sunny there today. Do you suppose there is good coffee down there? Might be worth taking a trip to find out.

    Don’t let the gray get you down, though, there are plenty of things to do inside. Here are a few links to take your mind off the weather for a while:

    This story about DD made me want start a campaign “Stop! America does not run on….well, you know.” The last thing this country needs is more opportunities to by more sugar, fat and mediocre coffee.

    David Lynch, who produced Twin Peaks,  is obsessed with coffee, though he is down to only seven cups per day (from a high of twenty).

    Headed to Seoul? Check this café out.

    For the environment, which is worse—throwing nine billion (9,000,000,000!) K-cups into a landfill, or making coffee and not drinking all of it? This article from the Kansas City Star takes a look at that question.

    The political philosopher Leo Strauss once wrote that democracies need apathetic populations to function properly. Apparently that’s true for dictatorships too. Coffee consumption has a history of scaring rulers bent on controlling their people, according to NPR. In some cultures in the past, coffee drinkers faced capital punishment for sipping up. Imagine what such a policy would do to the population of the Pacific Northwest.

    The Northwest Barista Championship is coming up next week in Tacoma. Here’s the link to the competition’s site, where you can see the schedule of events and (soon, hopefully) the list of competitors (currently there’s a nice video from last year’s event on the site too, by the way!).

    Stay dry (and out of low-lying areas)!


    My first trip to the NWRBC

    On Friday, January 28th I attended my first barista championship—the Northwest Regional Barista Championship (NWRBC), held in Tacoma, Washington. If you didn’t know that the NWRBC was happening, don’t feel too bad—I didn’t even know it existed until last fall, when I interviewed Brandon Arends.

    Brandon is probably the biggest coffee enthusiast I have ever met—he is as enthusiastic, knowledgeable and opinionated as any of the highly-skilled baristas and café owners I have met around Portland—so I was glad when he agreed to go to Tacoma with me. On the trip up, he told me all about the competition and about the experiences he had volunteering at previous regional and national barista championships.

    Before we went up to Tacoma, Brandon got in touch with Marcus Boni, Marketing Director for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), to see if we could volunteer. Brandon had worked for him at the NWRBC in 2009 when it was held in Portland, and Marcus was happy to let us volunteer. I was excited because volunteering would give me a closer look into the competition.

    We left Portland on Friday about 7am, giving us time to stop for coffee along the way. We stopped at Lava Java, near Ridgefield, Washington, which turned out to be a great stop, despite my initial reservations. I’ll share that story with you soon.

    The NWRBC is the first step in the path toward the US Barista Championship (USBC). Finalists at the regional level are eligible to compete in the USBC, which you might say is kind of like the Miss America pageant for coffee nerds. The Northwest region covers Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming and anyone who lives or works in one of those states is eligible to compete at the NWRBC.

    Walking into the competition area at the Tacoma Convention Center felt somewhat familiar, even though it was my first time attending the championship. The large conference room smelled just like walking into a specialty coffee shop in Portland. The sweet, toasty smell of freshly-ground coffee greeted us as we entered, and I saw many faces in the room that I recognized. Some of them had been at Coffee Fest in Seattle and others I had seen or talked to around Portland. One of the first people I recognized was Nathanael May, from Portland Roasting Coffee. He had come up earlier in the week to get certified as a judge for the competition. He told me that the certification test was more difficult than he thought it would be, but he passed and was going to judge the second day of competition.

    Brandon and I went over to talk to Marcus, who assigned us to station maintenance. It would be our job clean up the stage after each barista competed and make sure that the espresso machines were immaculate.

    The room was a typical conference room, and up front there were three different performance areas. Each of the areas consisted of a Nuova Simonelli espresso machine, an adjoining preparation table and a high presentation table where the four sensory judges would sit and taste the drinks.

    Three stations, waiting for competitors

    The competition works like this: competitors have 15 minutes of preparation time to set up their area. The baristas set out their tools, pitchers and cups, go over any last-minute adjustments on the grinders and set out any other props they have for the presentation. The competition is a combination of skill and style, so many of the set-ups were fairly elaborate. The baristas set out napkins and saucers for each of the sensory judges and many of the place settings resembled that of a fancy restaurant.

    One interesting place setting

    At the end of the 15-minute prep time, the judges come out and shake hands with the competitor before taking their positions. Each competitor is judged by a total of seven people: two technical judges, four sensory judges and a head judge. The technical judges hover around the grinders and espresso machine as the baristas grind the coffee, pull shots and steam and pour the milk. They are looking at all of the little details that go into making the drinks. Baristas are expected to dose and tamp the coffee correctly without wasting coffee, flush the group heads before pulling shots and to keep the stations clean while they work. The judges closely watch all of these.

    The four sensory judges sit at the presentation table and it is their job to evaluate the beverages. They stir, smell and taste the drinks to evaluate their consistency, balance, mouth feel and overall quality. They also judge the competitors on their presentation skills and enthusiasm for the coffee.

    The sensory judges, listening attentively to Bryan Arndt, from Coeur D'Alene, Idaho

    The head judges have the role of making sure that the sensory judges and technical judges are judging in a consistent manner. They taste all of the drinks so that they have an idea of how the judges should score the drinks. If one judge has a score that is abnormally high or low, they can correct the score. Head judges have a lot to watch, but their scores do not count toward the competitor’s score.  They essentially referee the other judges.

    As you might imagine, there is a long list of technical and sensory specifications that the judges are looking for (If you’re interested, the rules and regulations for the Barista Championship can be found here). It takes both technical skills and presentation skills to be a champion. According to the USBC rules, a champion barista is someone who:

    1. Has mastery of technical skills, craftsmanship, communication skills and who is passionate about their profession, in addition to service.
    2. Has a broad understanding of coffee knowledge and serves high quality beverages.
    3. May serve as a role model and a source of inspiration for others.

    In other words, a barista has to have the skills and passion necessary to be an ambassador for the specialty coffee industry. That is the overarching goal of these championships—to promote the craft of specialty coffee and elevate the standards of coffee as a beverage.

    The baristas have 15 minutes to make a total of 12 drinks: four single espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty drinks they have created on their own. They have to work quickly and efficiently as they describe to the judges what they are doing. The limited amount of time adds pressure to the competition. A large red LED timer is posted at each station and during the competition, you can feel the tension in the room rising as each barista nears the allotted 15 minutes. Most of the baristas finished on time, but there were a few who didn’t quite make it. They generally got hung up when they made their specialty beverages too complex.

    To give you a better idea of the way the competition goes, I shot some video of Ashley Rauch, from Sterling Coffee Roasters in Portland, explaining her espresso selection to the judges. She was competing in her first competition and was a little nervous, but she did a nice job (and finished within the time limits). You can see how she put a lot of thought into her presentation. Take note of her descriptions of the complex aromas and flavors that the judges can expect when they taste the espresso.

    Being a barista is truly an art. I like to joke about the tattoos and interesting fashion that baristas are known for, but when it comes down to it, a barista’s skills make a huge difference in the way your drink tastes. They are the final step in a very long, complex process that brings the coffee from where it is grown to your cup. As Brandon said to me, if baristas think about how complex the process is to produce high-quality coffee beans, they should feel an obligation to prepare it in the best manner possible. As consumers, we should appreciate their efforts.

    Brandon, making sure that the machine is spotless

    About half way through the competition, I was re-assigned to busing tables. After each round of drinks was judged by the sensory judges, I had to help remove the drinks from the table. It was more fun than station maintenance because I had a closer view of the baristas in action and could more easily taste the drinks that the baristas made.

    Speaking of tasting the drinks, I probably tried about 40 different beverages throughout the day. Even though I had just a sip of each one, all of the sips added up and by the end of the competition, I was floating around in a caffeine-induced haze.

    The drinks I tried varied in quality. On our way up to Tacoma, Brandon and I had talked at length about what went into making a good cappuccino. He told me that the espresso needs to be able to stand up to the milk and create balance. Some of the more floral single-origin espressos tend to disappear when they are mixed with milk, making the cappuccino unbalanced. At the competition, I probably tasted 15 different cappuccinos and now I understand what he was talking about. Some of them had very little coffee flavor, while others were much more balanced between the milk and the coffee. That’s one of the reasons that people like Stumptown’s Hair Bender Blend. When it is used to make a latte or cappuccino, you can still taste the coffee.

    Watching the competition, you could tell that some of the baristas really enjoyed the spotlight. Confidence and a flair for performing were definitely two characteristics that separated the better competitors from the rest. On the first day of competition, Laila Ghambari of Stumptown Seattle and Ryan Wilbur of Stumptown Portland were the two competitors who seemed to most enjoy performing, so it was no surprise to me when they made the finals.

    While most of the competitors at a competition work for a café, there are a few independents that compete too. One independent was Rick Cox, a self-described “super-passionate home barista” from Auburn, Washington. He developed a routine and competed at the NWRBC without support from a café. He didn’t make the finals, but hats off to him for having the courage to try. Becoming a competitive barista requires lots of practice, and the baristas who spend hours each day at their cafés honing their skills naturally have an advantage over non-affiliated baristas.

    Rick Cox, at the beginning of his presentation

    Even though it is a competition, the baristas are generally friendly and supportive of one another. They want each other to do well, because they know that ultimately, they are all trying to do the same thing—to help spread the word that producing specialty coffee is an art form. It is not something that can  just come out of a machine (McCafé, anyone?). It takes skill, practice and pride in the craft to become a great barista and that is why when you go to a great café you should always be appreciative of what the baristas are trying to do. They work hard to help you experience the coffee in the same way that they do.

    After watching and helping with nineteen different performances over six hours, I left the convention center tired, but thankful that I had been a volunteer. It was much better to be an active participant than just a spectator. I learned a lot about what it takes to become a top-notch barista and enjoyed my front-row view. Next year, when the regional competition comes to Portland, I may try to become a judge. It would be a great way to learn more about this thing called specialty coffee, because once you start learning, you don’t want to stop.