NERBC: The Northeast Regional Barista Competition, at last

After months of delay, the NERBC finally took place. The competition was held at Attic Studio in Long Island City, NY, just over the East River from Manhattan. Most of the contestants were from New York, and five of the six finalists were from the city. (The lone outlier was from Philly.)

I was a tech judge for six of the twelve contestants on both Wednesday and Thursday. I also tech judged the finals on Friday. In other words, I saw a lot of competitors. Below are my observations.

What separates the finalists from the other contestants? From a technical side, it is efficiency and consistency of motion. The finalists are so dialed into their equipment and mechanics they do the exact same motion in preparing their espresso every single time. They are extremely clean: no grounds around the grinder, sparking portafilters, clean drip tray, and no dried milk on the steam wand. In fact, no drips anywhere. If there is a drip, they wipe it up immediately. The milk waste per drink is almost negligible.

I was able see how they dialed in their shots. Apparently, distribution is not as critical as it once was. If the grinder dose is symmetrically in the middle of the portafilter, distribution is an option. Dosing was around 19 grams for those who weighed their shots. Dose; some type of tap; mild distribution if any; tamp, sometimes only one; wipe flanges and spouts; purge group head; insert and immediately brew. Extraction time was between 20-25 seconds on average. The weight of a double espresso shot, when weighted, was 28 grams. The four espresso drinks were served at the same time. The cappuccinos were usually split two and two. Everyone would pull a double shot, then steam enough milk for two caps. To be efficient, they would steam one pitcher and split it between the two drinks. All these techniques can be implemented in a cafe to create more efficiency, a cleaner work space and, ultimately, better tasting drinks.

Weighing the dose and a shot is something new. It does not lend itself to judging based on consistent motion, but it give the barista accurate information on how that espresso shot will taste. The difference between an ounce of water and an ounce of espresso is the total dissolved solids in the espresso. That number directly correlates to total dissolved solids of coffee in the espresso. As mentioned, the weight of a double shot was 28 grams. That can vary based on the dose. Unfortunately, as a tech judge, I do not have the privilege of tasting any of the drinks.

No matter how perfect the contestants are on the technical side, the sensory scores carry the most weight. In other words: the drinks have to taste good. The one drawback to being a tech judge is not being able to sample the drinks. Just because a contestant had perfect technical skills did not mean they were guaranteed a spot in the top six. The espresso still had to be balanced with sweetness, bitterness (brightness and acidity) and body. A new trend is single origin espresso, many from Central and South America. They have incredible sweetness and brightness. This is certainly a departure from the traditional three to four coffee espresso blends.

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