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Things I wish I knew before my first Coffee Competition

Updated: Oct 25, 2022

I started competing in 2016.The decision to compete came after I watched Erna Tosberg, at the time the reigning champion and her presentation looked so smooth, so effortless. I was convinced I could do that too but in reality, I had no idea what I agreed to.

Since then I have competed many times in different categories, I have made many mistakes and I have learned a lot.

Many of my followers have a lot of questions regarding the competitions I have entered in the past years. In this article I want to answer the question: ‘What are things you wish you would have known for your first competition?’

First of all, I have learned that I have never felt more welcome than during coffee competitions and that the coffee industry is my home. I can only recommend taking part and enjoying the ride.

Otherwise, here are some tips I have gathered over the years:

Check the rules

Every competition has a different rule book. Whilst the rules for the Barista competition are quite clear and this entire competition is streamed during the events, there are other competitions where you as a viewer only see a part of what is going on.

For example in Latte Art: yes there is stage time but you also have to compete at the ‘Art Bar’. This part of the competition is not live streamed but very important to make it to the next round.

Here is an excerpt from the WCC Latte Art rules and regulations 2022:

“B. In the Preliminary Round there are 2 components:

i. Art Bar – The competitor will produce 1 designer latte at the Art Bar, according to the schedule arranged by WCE during the event.

ii. Stage Presentation – The competitor will present 1 set of matching free-pour lattes and 1 set of matching designer lattes.”

In coffee in good spirits you also have a second part of the competition, the so-called Spirit bar round and this is what the rules say in the WCIGS rules and regulations:

“2.2. Spirit Bar

A. Each competitor will use a randomly selected type of provided alcohol and/or ingredient, from a pre-selected list. Prior to the start of preparation time, the alcohol and/or ingredient for the competitor’s drink will be chosen by spinning a wheel, drawing a sheet of paper, or some other method of random selection (method to be determined by the organizers). Competitors must use this randomly selected alcohol and/or ingredient provided by WCE sponsors for the Spirit Bar to create their beverages.

B. Only competitors are allowed in the bar area during the preparation and competition times. Spectators, photographers, etc., are to be kept at a suitable distance as to not interfere with the working barista. “

At the brewers cup we have a similar case. The mysterious compulsory service that no one knows about. If you would like to more know about this part of the competition, feel free to check out my article about it:

You see, not all the competitions are the same, it takes a while to learn all the rules but it saves you a lot of stress and frustration if you know them beforehand. They tell you in detail how many drinks, and with what parameters you have to serve.

If you have any questions regarding the rules and regulations, the national chapters and the World Coffee Championships offer help as well. You can email them with specific questions, just note that they are not allowed to coach you, so you can't ask questions like: ‘Is it better to use this or that?’

Do you have a trainer?

First of all, having a trainer or a team that helps you prepare is worth gold. Unfortunately I didn’t have one so I had to struggle and guess and tap in the dark for a long time. When I met my husband, I found my partner in crime. He helps me write my skripts as he is a native English speaker and professional editor.

The value of having a trainer became more obvious to me once I was a trainer myself and helped Sinan Muslu to place 3rd in the world in the World Czecve Ibrik Championships 2019 and Vladimir Demonenko to place 2nd in the world in the World Coffee in Good Spirits Championship 2022.

Helping others reach their full potential, going with them every step of the way and sharing their frustration, happiness and successes has shown me how important it is to work as a team.

So if there is anyone out there who would like to train me, please help :) I wish I would have a trainer for once and not be alone most of the time.

Trainers help you to look at situations through a different perspective with a different pallet. Together you can create something truly special and no matter what position you will place, you will connect and make a friend for life.

When asking someone to be your trainer, be prepared. You should know why you want to compete, what you want to say, use and deliver. Know your vision. Imagine it like going to the bank asking for a loan, you need to show them your business strategy. If not, why would someone train you when They don't even know why you want to do it or if they agree with what your vision is.

Sourcing your coffee

Preparing for something I had never done before was probably the hardest thing. I wish I had known green bean companies with outstanding competition coffees, and I wish I had had a sample roaster to decide the roast for my competition coffee.

For my first competition, we went with a coffee that we got recommended, it was clearly a coffee I didn’t know well and I had no say in if I wanted to use it or not. At the same time I was glad I didn’t have to make such important decisions.

Sourcing your coffee and feeling confident with your pick is one of the most important things because that coffee should really be your favourite coffee! Only then you can say that on stage, believe it yourself, and the judges and audience will believe you. The stage is not just for winners, it is for coffee passionate people that want to share something they really love, this is how we can connect with the judges, and in the end this is exactly how we connect with our customers every day in the coffee shop.

Allow for at least 2 Months getting to know the coffee inside and out. Try to source a coffee that is actually in season. If you want to use a fresh Panama coffee and your competition is in November, but Panama's harvest is from November-March you will make things difficult for yourself as the fresh crop will not make it in time.

Organise a roastery that you can work with.

If you want to import special amounts of coffee, I have often had problems with customs. Be sure to have a valid Tax ID and EORI Number to import.The EORI number (Economic Operators' Registration and Identification number) is a single number assigned by the competent authorities in the European Union, which is used to identify economic operators and, if necessary, other persons to the customs authorities.

Roasteries import coffee all the time and will have this number.

Organise a sample roaster, to figure out which roast profile matches the coffee best.

Experienced roasters usually sample roast their coffees to understand how the beans react during the roasting process. When do they crack? How much development do they need?

Once the sample roast is delicious and everyone likes it, it is the roasters job to create a similar profile on a bigger production roaster.

This is super frustrating and not always successful because a 15kg drum roaster reacts differently than a 100g hot air roaster.

Because there are a lot of potential problems and competition coffee is usually quite rare and/ or expensive, many competitors, including myself, started roasting their coffees exclusively on sample roasters.

Personally, I find the low waste and the accuracy of profiling very handy. I also learned more about roasting, profiling and my coffee during the process and it helped me become a better Barista, spending a lot of time cupping and trying different profiles and trusting my instincts to choose the right coffee.

Never try the coffee just by yourself. Gather a team around you of coffee professionals that you can try the coffee with and listen to others peoples opinions. By staying open minded you can grow and learn more about coffee.

Preparing your competition speech

When it comes to stage presence, my biggest advice is watching other competitors on youtube. And not just watching them but understanding why they say certains things at certain times, when they leave brakes for the judges to write things down and notice their rhythm and flow.

For national competition I can not say it enough: please present in english! The nationals are your job interview for the World competition and there you will have to speak english. Also most of the time your judges will not all be able to speak your national language as they get flown in to judge you. It is just sad how much information will get lost if the judges have to guess every second word.

Be sure to look at the score sheet and see what you get points for. Do you get points for telling the story of how you visited your first coffee farm and met José, the farmer and his wife with their 3 kids and how they made you dinner and you really connected? No!

Storytelling is important but the judges literally CAN NOT JUDGE a story. They can judge relevant information such as ‘origin’ to understand what the terroir gives to the coffee, processing, variety, literally everything that has to do with flavour.

A story will connect all the information that you are saying, but you need to find a great balance.

You will in every course have to explain why you chose to do what you are doing. Why did you pick this coffee? Why is it special? Why are you using this recipe? What are you adding to certain things?

Why why why, this is what you have to ask yourself when writing your script. I found it useful to create a big idea first, like consistency or temperature for brewers cup or my hometown berlin for coffee in good spirits and then incorporate all the information woven in within the story.

Be prepared to change and edit your script about 100 times. Trust the process, no one will write the perfect speech on their first go.

Ask a native english speaker to check if the text makes sense. Over the years my English drastically improved, but by training Vladimir this year I saw how even small mistakes with wording can change the whole meaning of your text.

Cups and gear

A tricky thing is to find the perfect balance between super nice and pretty presentation equipment and functionality.

I had porcellan and equipment specifically made for me in 2018, the most beautiful setup I have ever had. Dried flowers, ingredients, it was just so pretty. BUT the espresso just didn’t taste good out of the pretty cups. The shape and size and material made it taste flat and boring, whilst the ordinary espresso cups from the bar made my espresso explode. I had to choose because once again, the judges CAN NOT JUDGE pretty. Only taste.

Don't overcomplicate your first competition setup. Be creative, craft your own gear. I Pads will not win you a competition, neither do golden spoons or silk napkins.

The only thing I always wanted is to look professional. Make sure everything is spotless, looks kind of nice and people find it interesting. Imagine going to a nice restaurant with beautiful tableware, you will catch yourself commenting on how pretty everything looks and it will make you more excited for the food and drinks that are coming.

Allow for a lot of practice time

Barista competitions are like little dance choreographies and the penalties for going overtime is not worth the loss of points.

Most competitors are working full time in a coffee shop and can only practise after the shop is closed. This is super exhausting. So if you have big projects lined up, maybe you can not give enough attention to your comp preparation. One of the things I hear the most at nationals is that competitors say they had no preparation time. That might be true if nationals are announced 4 weeks in advance. But one thing is sure: there is a competition every year! So if you want to compete, start prepatring”! The event date isn’t your time limit. You can start looking for ideas, glassware, concepts and get tips from others in advance.

You will run out of time anyway and things will never go smoothly. But no one is stopping you from preparing but yourself.

I am usually prepping for 4 months and training every day for 2 months prior to a competition. What you see on stage took a lot of practice and hard work to look so easy.

When you practise, practice in front of people. It doesn’t matter if you perform in front of coffee professionals or customers or even people on a live stream. The more people see your presentation, the less nervous you will become. Most competitors underestimate how nervous you will actually be on stage and the best way to practice is to calculate mistakes into your practice routines. For example people that stand up in the middle of your routine, wrong music, phone alarms, etc.

Not everything will go perfect on your final day, but at least you will be professional enough to work through some mistakes and they will not throw you out of line.

Don't be scared of the judges

A trick that helped me a lot was manifesting that the judges should be honoured and consider themselves lucky to be my guests and sit in the front row to see my amazing performance.

Judges are scary, they can give you points, but do they decide who you are? If you are a good coffee person? Absolutely not!

It took years for me to build this confidence and it would be strange if you have it right away, but be proud of yourself for having the courage to stand on a stage and share your coffee passion! You've done all of this! And this is a huge reason to be proud!

Organise sponsors

Competition costs money, so ask for help. What's the worst they can say? No? That's ok!

Sometimes sponsoring isn’t money but glassware, ingredients, knowledge or space to practice.

Try to organise the sponsored equipment somewhere. The SCA usually tells you places that have the competition machine and then you can go there and ask to use it. The coffee scene is very helpful and supportive and you will be surprised by the amount of help you will get.

Be aware to be polite and not pushy. Neither the SCA nor the sponsors are obliged to give you access to the competition equipment.

Use social media platforms to ask for help, I have done this and I got so much help, it was really overwhelming.

Tips for your stage time:

Do not go overtime

I see many first timers that underestimate their time limit. What is better than getting disqualified for going overtime is actually staying in the competition and getting the drinks judged that you served. In any competition you can bet that a couple of people always go overtime. If you have strong drinks and time is running out to serve the last round or the last judge, call time. All your drinks that you have given for evaluation will get scored as long as they are made within the rules. Yes, you will lose points, but maybe it is still enough to make the next round!

Have a timer on stage

To make sure you are in time, you are allowed a timer on stage that you can check. You will have designated time keepers, but maybe you will be too focused to hear them, maybe they will talk too quietly or maybe they will say the time whilst you are talking and that might throw you off.

My suggestion: use the time keepers only during prep time or when you want to know the time, as you are allowed to ask for time at any given moment. Otherwise trust your own timer on stage.

Don't talk to anyone and don't touch anything after your prep time

The rules state very clearly that competitors are not allowed to speak to anyone during their prep time. Even if your coach just wants to help, do NOT talk to them. Now it is only you and no one else. They can not bring you things that you have forgotten as well. Everything from the first second of your practice time is you and only you.

Also please don’t forget that you are not allowed to touch any equipment after your setup time as well as after your competition time. As soon as you call time to finish your performance, you have to step away and can’t clean or hide anything.

Serve all of your beverage

Most competitions require a certain amount of served liquid, make sure to always serve more than minimum requirement, just to be safe. Under-pouring or underfilling are unnecessary and can disqualify you.

Secure your backstage equipment

Coffee competitions are usually held at bigger events or conventions.

As your equipment is essential to your performance and probably also quite expensive, make sure to secure your equipment. don’t leave your gear unattended or overnight. If possible, organise your own cart and place your equipment on it, then wrap it in foil and label it with your name and country. I often take bike looks with me to secure my own cart.

If you do not bring your own cart, you will have no right to keep the cart you got from the event for longer than your given time slot.

Attend the debrief

After your competition, the judges will sit down with you and go through your scoresheet with you. They will explain to you where you lost points or what was already good.

Unfortunately the judges are strictly forbidden to coach you. Take the scoresheets and analyse them at home. It actually is quite insightful comparing them year after year.

But most of all:

Have fun, meet people and support the other competitors.

Coffee competitions are a great place to connect and make new friends, a lot of times even making new professional business connections.

Enjoy yourself and trust the process. A lot of people are very stressed at competitions, I am one of them. For me, the best was to just keep to myself and be quiet. Other competitors thought I was arrogant and didn't want to talk to them but that was not the case. Everyone handles stress differently and we are all humans.

I did lend some of my equipment to other competitors if it didn’t interfere with my competition schedule like scales or pitchers and I know that if I would have forgotten anything, I would get help as well.

Be a community and instead of competing against each other, compete with each other.

I am absolutely astonished by the amount of things I would have loved to know before I competed for the first time and I am definitely not sure if I even know enough now. I am constantly learning and as the competition evolves, so do we.

Coffee competitions are a great way to get more reach, to spread your love for coffee, your beliefs and to evolve you as a coffee professional and a person. I would not be where I am now if I wouldn’t have gone up that stage and am grateful for the opportunities it gave me.

Please keep in mind that the national competitions are organised by volunteers, who invest a lot of time and nerves to host these events. Treat them with respect and honour their work because without them, we wouldn’t have this beautiful platform to connect and grow.

I hope I have covered most of the basic tips that you should consider when you start competing.

If you have any more questions, let me know! Otherwise I hope I could help a little bit.

Happy brewing!

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