The Other Side of the Table

I haven’t really written very much about my visit to Toronto, though I have uploaded a few pictures.

The most interesting part of the trip for me was my first opportunity to judge.  I was delighted when they asked me to judge and didn’t really think too much about it until we started the calibration day.  I didn’t get to judge too much that day as I was one of the test baristas, along with Stephen, who were pulling shots and serving drinks for assessment.  Some good, some bad (on purpose of course….).  What threw me was that when doing a little 8 drink routine I got really quite nervous – and there I was thinking I’d never have to go through all that again.

Whilst I hoped my palate was up to the task, I wasn’t really prepared for how I would feel sitting the other side of the table from a competitor.  I found it, at first, terrifying.  No one tells you this, as a competitor anyway.  When I was competing I expected a great deal from the judges – a sympathetic and open attitude to coffee, an attention to detail, and for them to be as fair as they could.  How capable would I be committing to paper that I thought a drink was truly exceptional.  As baristas we are often critical of the lack of ranging in scoring competition performances – would I be confident enough to give an espresso a 5 or a 6?  I really wanted to, and it was interesting talking with some of the judges that they feel the same way – they would love to be giving out higher scores but on the day, under pressure, espresso is often a little elusive.  Whilst I hope to remain critical of my own scoring, I do feel confident standing behind every score I gave.

Within a few rounds I really got into it, I loved listening to all the presentations and taking the time to evaluate drinks.  The discussion afterwards was great and Brent Fortune and Tracey  Allen were both great head judges helping me iron out a few things in my judging.  I hope there is another opportunity in the future to judge with them again.

I spent most of the time on sensory and felt quite comfortable with the flow, trying to take as many notes as I went as well as leaving as much explanation for my scoring as I could as there is nothing more frustrating than getting a scoresheet back empty save for the numbers.  I did tech a little, with Scott (who tech’d me in Berne) and I have nothing but respect for seasoned tech judges like that – their understanding of the flow of a performance is so important to getting the job done really well.  I am pretty comfortable with the scoresheets and the physicality of the routines but I still felt I was playing catchup with him.  Very impressive.

What brought a wry smile to my face, as I sat backstage in between rounds, was thinking back to my old scoresheets from competitions.  When you compete there are always points you feel are contentious, you feel hard done by or that the judges were overly harsh.  In light of actually judging and scoring I felt that those scores had probably been very fair.  Funny what a little perspective can do.

I was really pleased when they asked if I would judge some of the finalists, I think I judged 5 of the 8 and all of the top four were in my flights.  Even though I had judged around 8 the day before I was nervous through every one of my rounds for the finals.  (I asked Anette and she still gets nervous too – and she has judged well over a hundred competitor performances)  I didn’t want to miss anything, wanted to really concentrate on the drinks and in finishing every espresso and trying to drink a lot of the other drinks I probably ingested more coffee than I have for a while but I didn’t really suffer too much.  I am not going to talk about specific drinks or performances (though anyone who I judged is more than welcome to get in touch once they get their scoresheets back and ask about any comments I made or what my handwriting actually says!)  Congratulations to Mike Yung!  I think Mike will be a great champion and will be a very strong competitor in Copenhagen next year.  There seemed to be a real jump from last year to this in Canada and I hope a lot of the baristas there compete again in Montreal in 2008.

6 Comments

  1. Interesting… reading of the judge’s perspective makes me rethink the attraction of more lively music in competitions. Although it may make things more interesting for the audience, anything ‘catchy’ might make the judges’ already difficult jobs unnecessarily more difficult.

    I guess ambient jazz is here to stay.

  2. great post jim! wish u all the best at the judging table :) though i dont know what it feels like behind that table, i hope to find out one day and reflect back on your first thought! happy travels
    :)

  3. James
    I had a very similar experience some years ago when I went from competing to judging… and now when i do training of judges i always remind them of how important their job is, in terms of the level of responsibility involved in assessing, judging and commenting on their peers. It is a great pressure from my experience to cast judgement with a 4, 5 or 6 on barista after barista with the level of passion that is clearly evident.

    I would encourage as many competitors as possible to get involved in judging as I think it makes you a better competitor (and a better judge if you’ve had a go at competing). Unfortunately, at the WBC there is a rule in place (at least last time I checked) that WBC competitors cannot be judges, and if they are there is a 24 month waiting period before they can compete again.

  4. Interesting to hear your perspective. Many competitors often underestimate the role of the judges and the
    effort they put in. Its great to see ex competing barista getting involved in judging and helping out the
    organising commitees. We have several ex regional heat winners who have volunterred for judging workshops for the UKBC this year – this we have encouraged. I’m sure you will be joining them in time.
    In the meantime enjoy the Nordic Cup!

    Gary

  5. James, I can relate to what you are saying. I am a Field Hockey Umpire when I’m not making coffee, and I’d love some (if not most) of the players that I umpire to experience what it’s like to make decisions under pressure in a split second. It’s all very well to know the rules, but to apply them in a fair/balanced way, and to effectively communicate your decisions/reasons to the competitors is a real skill.
    Although this is my first year competing as a Barista, I have received some interesting scoring for my beverages. In hindsight I can see where my performances/beverages were lacking, and I’ve read between the lines for what wasn’t being communicated directly.
    I agree that it is beneficial for competitors to experience judging, not only so they are empathetic of what the Judges are going through, but so they can also see how they can improve their communication to the Judges.
    The flipside is that the Judges may not truly understand what the competitors are going through, because the Judges may not have competed themselves. In Hockey, the players are more critical of Umpires who don’t currently play, and especially those Umpires who have never played. Umpires who understand what the players are trying to do, have better rapport. Playing experience obviously assists Umpires understand players intentions.
    The Umpires who are there for the players, and not themselves, are also more effective. I was grateful to hear Head Judge Justin Metcalf say to the competitors and Judges at the briefing of the Victorian Barista Championship this year, that the Judges are there “For” the competitors.
    Perhaps we should be creating interactive workshops for Baristas and Judges so there’s more understanding from both sides. Surely this will only improve specialty coffee in the end.

    Simon.

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