Barista Judging Certification Day

Yesterday was a blast. First of all, I did pass the written test. Whew! (However, come to find out, you can retake the test at the end of the day.) Regardless, it was a honest to God test: multiple choice, true/false and fill-in-the-blank. The last time I took a test like that was a LONG time ago back in college. I am glad I passed on the first go around for my own sake.

The day started off like any other day for a New York tourist. I underestimated the time it would take to get to the Milk Studio, so I was pushing the clock. Then I missed my stop on the train. (I realized two stops later.) After reversing directions and getting off at the right stop, I hit the street speed-walking with my 20 pound laptop bag in one hand and my overloaded purse in the other. Naturally, I walked in the wrong direction. For those of you who have yet to be a tourist in New York, it’s very hard to tell which cardinal direction you are going. I was supposed to head west, and I walked east. Once I hit 7th, I realized my mistake and hoofed it back in the other direction. So much for the fresh and confident entrance. Luckily for me, they were running late, too, so all’s well that ends well. Plus, I passed the test, so there.

As for the day, the test and overview took all morning. We broke for lunch and then resumed with the tasting calibration. What a great opportunity to spend time analyzing shot after shot after shot of espresso. There are four main criteria we look for: color of crema, consistency and persistence of cream, taste balance, and tactile balance. With 62 points riding on the espresso shots alone, this is the most critical thing to get right.

Color of crema: It should be hazelnut and dark brown in color with reddish reflection, and relatively centered.

Consistency and persistence: This is a measure of the quality of texture of the crema. You tip the cup forward until the espresso barely touches the edge of the cup. Ideally, the crema should not break, meaning the liquid underneath is exposed.

Taste balance: This is an important score. The taste should be harmonious with a balance of sweet/acidic/bitter with a pleasant aroma. Plus, any specific taste notes described by the barista should be present.

Tactile balance: The other important score. How the espresso feels in the mouth, the tactile quality, is determined by the full body, round and smooth mouth-feel.

Both the taste and tactile balance are worth 24 points each, so they are heavily weighted. Naturally, they are the hardest to describe and score. That is why there are four sensory judges and a head judge all sampling the espressos and then talking about it at the end. With that in mind, note taking is a critical element in judging. How to organize the notes between what the barista says, what is actually present in the drinks, and judging all of that against the criteria. For me, organizing my note taking will be the most important element of properly recording what the barista did during competition. I talked with a few experienced judges to find out their tricks. One draws diagrams; another one makes a grid chart. So, with that in mind, I have formulated my own note taking process. (I will let you know how that goes!)

Near the end of the day, I sat on the panel to mock judge Billy Wilson. Billy is a 3x winner of the North West region, and had made a name for himself in the barista community. Being my first time at the judges table, I was pretty occupied trying to make sure I did all the proper motions: look at the drink, use the spoon properly, sip from the right place, etc. The mechanics got easier the more times I mock judged.

The judges calibration starts at 11am today, and the competition starts at noon.

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