This is by no means an exhaustive guide to winning a competition, far from it. (And I am a long way from writing one!) These are just some of the things I’ve picked up from competing over the last three years, from talking through my sheets, from watching a lot of heats, regionals and nationals and also from my tentative forays into judging. I hope there is something here for first time competitors (because I remember the lack of info when I started competing).
1). Practise your routine
This first point, like the ones afterwards, may seem disturbingly obvious, but I wouldn’t open up with it if it wasn’t so important. I am constantly amazed by the amount of people who compete without ever having done a full run through – perhaps they did a few set of capps, did their espressos a fair few times and practised their signature drink but they never put it together.
More than that you need to think about the implications of your practise:
-Are you finishing with 30 seconds to spare? If so then what happens if (and probably when) something doesn’t go exactly to plan. Is there enough time to remake a set of shots?
-What happens next? You need to know where you are in your routine at all times, and know what is coming two or three steps ahead.
-Have you ever practised your prep time?
2). Practise in front of people
Like a lot of people who compete I was very surprised at how different it felt to be onstage, and how nerve-wracking it was next to the relative comfort of my practise sessions. Whilst there is no way to absolutely replicate a performance without being on the stage for real it does help to do your routine in front of people who make you a little nervous – your boss, your friends, your coworkers, someone within the industry.
3). Talk to the judges
I am aware this one seems forehead smackingly stupid in its obviousness, but bear with me. By this I mean that you should only talk to the judges – not your espresso machine, your grinder or your prep space. They have no interest in your coffee, your milk or your signature drink – your judges do. We often talk about this being a performance, and you wouldn’t expect an actor to talk to the back of a set so whenever you are talking you should do your utmost to engage – eye contact is very welcome too. (Talking to the audience is ok, but remember they have nothing to do with your score).
4). Know the Scoresheets
And read the rules. Are your cups the right size? Is that very expensive table setting really going to earn its cost in points? Like it or not barista competitions are a game, and they have rules and knowing those rules is very, very useful for scoring the points. It is quite common for competitors (and I have been guilty of this as well) to do things that score imaginary points – points we think we ought to get for being clever or different, but that just are not on the sheet. Taking time to add decorative items to drinks may not be the best investment of 20 or 30 seconds, when that time could be used later to gain points in cleaning down your station.
5). Make your signature drink taste of coffee
Like it or not most judges want to taste plenty of coffee in your sig drink, so assuming you are working with a single shot then that will probably cap the drink size at a max of 5oz/150ml. Of course you could use a double shot, but why take extra time when you could just use half the amount of other ingredients instead. With this in mind you have to ask – do I like this drink. I was very proud of the drink I took to Berne, I felt it was unusual and very creative. It tasted pretty good, but it wasn’t something I’d order a second one of – something I aimed to change with my drinks this year. Clever doesn’t beat tasty.
6). Go through your scoresheets afterwards
Oddly a lot of people don’t stay behind afterwards to go through their sheets. Whether you have won/qualified/had a shocker or come last it doesn’t matter. You will always, always learn from your sheets. Follow up with the head judge afterwards and get copies sent to you – you may find the points you thought were contentious were actually fair in the cold light of day.
You shouldn’t be competing just to win, because competition is an opportunity for the most intense 15 minutes of learning you can experience and everyone should take something positive away from it.