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Should judging be mandatory for coffee competitors?

How can you judge coffee? How can a number of people agree on a subjective experience of a coffee? And how can competitors prepare a performance if they aren’t knowledgeable about how they will be judged?

Coffee competitions are the Olympic Games of the coffee world. They demand a skilled coffee professional that is creative, has found a coffee (or coffees) they believe to be world-class, and that is a great presenter. In regional, national and world level, these competitions usually cost quite a lot of money, time, nerves and resources.

In the following I want to explore coffee competitions, the experience of competitors and in particular, the judging of these competitions. I believe that as the quality and popularity of these competitions continues to increase, two things are happening: (i) there is a growing divide between the competitors who interpret/work within the rules and scoresheets, and the judges who use these scoresheets and; (ii) competitors and judges are approaching the competitions from very different angles.

I propose the idea that it should be mandatory (if not strongly encouraged) for coffee competitors to gain experience on the other side of the stage – to judge, volunteer and be part of the non-competitor side of competitions.

Before we get into this idea, let’s look at what a competitors’ experience is like.

When investment doesn’t pay off

We’ve all had that experience of spending too much money on something, only for it to end poorly. It could be a fancy pair of jeans you ripped, a new phone you smashed in the first week, or the most expensive coffee you could get your hands on for a coffee competition.

When I attended my last World Coffee Competition in 2022 in Australia I met several competitors that had issues with their luggage, as it simply got lost during transit. One competitor that I spoke to had to repurchase a lot of his equipment in Melbourne. Repurchasing all this equipment, in addition to coffee costs, roasting, travel, accommodation and more meant that his costs for the year's competition campaign were close to €100,000 – which is mind-boggling.

This shows how expensive it is to travel the world for these competitions. Bear in mind, this does include the costs of coffee and probably the money that went into developing this coffee with different experiments on fermentation and roasting, so it’s an extreme example. Despite this huge investment, and all the time and stress over many months, this competitor did not place in the top 6, the finals. The judges simply did not agree with a lot of what he said, and didn’t experience the coffee in the way he believed that they would.

This story isn’t entirely unfamiliar to me, and I have also experienced this feedback more than once. Luckily I have spent way less money on my competitions, but I’ve dedicated months of my free time, sanity and a fair chunk of savings to purchase coffee, train and travel for coffee competitions.

What does it take to win?

So, what is that we have to do? What can we do to impress the judges? What are the judges calibrated on? And the question I have heard many competitors ask over and over: Do the judges understand my coffee? If we bring something new to the table, will they even appreciate it? How can the winning coffees year after year always be different trends?

And these are questions I have asked myself after a world competition. When we talk about national championships, there are many other problems. I would say that a huge percentage of competitors in the nationals have absolutely no idea what they should do to win – that isn’t due to a lack of talent or passion, purely a lack of experience or a misunderstanding of the rules.

Receiving bad scores is never a fun experience. Unfortunately there is always a great deal of frustration and many competitors in the national rounds, after having invested so much time and effort, don’t want to compete again. This leads to a stagnant coffee scene and a huge distance between what judges want and what baristas are bringing to the table.

That’s not to say that this is always the case. Whether you’re someone who didn’t place as well as you wanted in your national competition, or you’re a World Coffee Championship competitor who received bad scores, many people choose to return to competitions to prove to themselves (and the judges) that they have what it takes.

More than once I felt unfairly judged or misunderstood after hearing my competition debrief. During these debriefs, I have often felt crushed and twice in my life I was unsure if the judging was truly fair. I am a person that grows after criticism, but sometimes the debrief after your competition isn’t really satisfying. But instead of giving up, I got back on the horse and had to understand that a lot of competition at the world level, no matter what you do, is plain luck.

The judges are not there to coach you, they don’t (or won’t) say ‘You should have done this’ or ‘do that instead’. All you see are low scores on a presentation you worked on for months, and you have to listen to their justifications as to why their scores are low.

Crossing to the other side of the table

I believe that high-level coffee competitors are some of the best trained coffee tasters in the world. They focus on every single angle of extraction in order to give a very accurate and detailed coffee experience, whilst maintaining a comfortable environment for their “guests” aka judges. They bring a great value to the world of coffee and are billboards for our slowly but steadily growing message to the world: that coffee is special!

As I mentioned, I try to use debriefs and feedback to make myself a better competitor and to come back better than ever. This year, after feedback from last year’s World Brewers Cup and the 2022 national competition, I went into the World Brewers Cup feeling more confident than ever. I had a great coffee, a great concept and had my sights set on a place in the top 6 – however, some of the judges didn’t have the experience that I promised.

Once again, I had to deal with the disconnect between competitor and judge. I was so sure about everything I described about my coffee – where did I go wrong? How could they have such a different experience? Why didn’t they taste exactly what I tasted?

My debrief was crushing, and after speaking to judges and friends in the industry I have made my peace with what happened. However, I still eel that there is something I can do to give myself some more closure and to become a better coffee professional and competitor. I could become a judge to understand why my past competitions and this year's competition failed at certain points, and to gain insight into what judges actually get calibrated on.

It's an open secret: want to become a better competitor? Become a judge!

Many competitors have taken a year or two off from coffee competitions to gain experience as a judge and came back stronger, better equipped and more informed for their future competitions. And if we look at it: who is better to judge than a person who already spends so much of their time tasting coffee over and over and over, finding the right recipe, explaining detailed fermentation processes or choreographing every single step and speech pause.

If we had more competitors among our judges, we would have a better connection to the people on stage and less discussions if the judges actually understood the stress and effort behind the whole event.

This brings me to an extreme sounding thought experiment, and the point of this article. If so many competitors are confused or disheartened by judges' feedback, should it be mandatory for competitors to participate in coffee competitions as judges?

Should judging (or volunteering) be mandatory?

I propose three different ideas for mandatory (non-competitor) participation in coffee competitions. The first (which I will call ‘Legacy Judging’) focuses on giving back to the community after success in competitions, and the second (which I will call ‘Eligibility Judging’) enables new competitors to gain insight before taking the stage for the first time. The third I’ll simply call ‘Chapter Participation’, referring to volunteering for a national coffee chapter or a certified coffee event. I’ll provide some brief pros and cons for each idea.

(i) Legacy Judging

The idea of Legacy Judging is that coffee competitors who win their national competitions would be required to participate as a judge in the next years’ competition.

As a national champion you are an official ambassador for your country and in my opinion, your goal should be to make the coffee scene in your nation better, more seen and to evolve. By providing your knowledge and insights as a successful competitor and a judge, you can assist new and less experienced competitors and leverage your position as a champion to promote the status of the competitions further. And as a winner, what is better than giving back to the competition?

By making any national champion a mandatory judge for the next year, we would have immediate learning and involvement from the competitors into the system of the competitions. The following year, should they wish to compete again, they would have better insights and a better chance to place well in the world championships, it also would make the nationals harder and more evolved.

With Legacy Judging, I believe that the SCA and other coffee chapters would become more diverse, with more people with competition experience being able to share their expertise with new competitors, rather than just winning and owning a title for a year. I say this also criticizing myself, because I have not yet judged – it has taken me a long time to realize how important it is to contribute not only just as a competitor. I also think it would have saved me literally years of competition if I would have had to learn how to judge.

Pros: Sharing your knowledge with your community; elevating the competitions; giving back to the community that provided you with a win; learning more for future competitions

Cons: Conflict of interest should you wish to coach a competitor (or competitors)

(ii) Eligibility Judging

In the Eligibility Judging model, prospective coffee competitors would only be eligible to register for competitions having previously volunteered as a judge.

This is probably the most controversial of the three ideas I propose. On one hand, future competitions will learn what the judges are actually judging and we would have more people that contribute to the sustainability of the national coffee chapters. On the other hand, this means that once someone decides they want to participate in a coffee competition, they have to wait another year to finish their judges volunteering (assuming they haven’t already done it).

I think that aside from insight into how coffees are judged, the greatest benefit of Eligibility Judging would be seeing what the experience of competitions is like for judges themselves. Most of the people that run the national chapters and judge in these competitions are coffee loving people that invest their private free time without getting any pay. Most of the time, they are also the ones coping with all of the complaints and criticism.

Pros: Gaining insight and experience prior to competing; learning what competitions are like for judges; creating a more rigid criteria for competitors

Cons: Longer time invested in order to compete

(iii) Chapter Participation

The idea of Chapter Participationis much like Eligibility Judging, but rather than prospective coffee competitors needing to volunteer as a judge before being eligible to compete, they would only need to volunteer for their local coffee chapter. This could be timekeeping, as a stage runner, and more.

We need to find a way to reinvest in our own coffee scene. I believe that we can do this through Chapter Participation volunteering, creating a sustainable competition scene, and sharing knowledge. We all stand on the stage of the coffee competitions and claim to love coffee and the scene and so on. However, the people that truly support the coffee scene are the people in the background, that do so year after year and get nothing in return.

The great thing about this idea is that some countries are already adopting it. For example, the SCA Germany has stated that prospective competitors who have volunteered will get first preference for registration in coffee competitions. I think rather than being restrictive, this idea is enabling more people to become involved in the coffee community and the volunteers who make everything possible.

Pros: Engagement and participation with community; insight into competition structure; volunteering for a great event!

Cons: Investment of time (but I think it's worth it); volunteer position potentially not relevant to competition itself

Why else should you judge or volunteer?

If more prospective competitors participated in competitions and events in nationals and world levels, it would be an incredible way to gain great insight into coffee competitions. You can see what is actually happening on stage and backstage, to learn from mistakes that others have made, and to observe what long-time competitors are doing to be at the top. It also gives you an inside of all the stress and emotions backstage – and trust me, there are a lot.

An essential part of many great competition presentations is tasting, so as a volunteer you might also have the chance to try some coffee and simply just understand what competition coffee tastes like. I can’t emphasize enough that these coffees are not normal, and outside of the competition scene it is hard to experience coffees of this quality.

Being part of these events might open new doors and to connect with other coffee professionals. It might be the opportunity to find your future mentor, or to connect you with people that can help you build a presentation, find a coffee, and more. I truly think that global coffee events are a great place to start sourcing coffee, as many producers are present.

What do you think?

As I already said, I am also being critical of myself. I always try to give as much to the community as I can and I am taking my ambassadorship for the German coffee scene very seriously. However, I still only started thinking about becoming a judge after my experience this year, to become a better competitor and to increase the number of experienced judges in Germany.

Going out of a competition and resigning because one doesn't agree with the judges decision isn’t right, although it may feel like a reasonable decision at the time. Instead, we should all try to improve not just ourselves, but the competitions as a whole – if we think something went wrong, we should be part of the solution to make it better.

The bottom line is, we need more judges and more skilled coffee professionals who are willing to improve the competition format.

Please feel free to discuss this topic with me and to tell me your thoughts about this.

If you enjoyed reading this article, feel free to share it on your socials as well. Thank you for reading!

All Photos property of Sinan Muslu @coffeesomething

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