The Big East Barista Competition

The Big East Barista Competition

Written by Brittany Feltovic

For over 10 years, barista competitions have been taking place on many different levels. Starting with regional events, then at the national level at the US Barista Championship, and then further on to an international level at the World Barista Championship. The competitors have 15 minutes to showcase a coffee of their choice as an espresso, cappuccino, and signature beverage. They must explain why they chose that particular coffee, accurately describe it’s flavor components and how they are highlighted in each preparation, and deliver an outstanding, professional experience. Did I mention that there are four sensory judges that they must serve? Plus two technical judges that are evaluating their every move? AND a Head Judge overseeing every aspect of their performance?! They are also performing in front of a crowd, on camera, and if they go over 16 minutes they are immediately disqualified. This year the SCAA decided to group together the regional barista competitions. There are 6 separate regions, but they are grouped together into 3 events: Big West (North West and South West), Big East (North East and South East), and Big Central (North Central and South Central).

(photo courtesy

We are lucky to have 2 active participants in these competitions. The owner of Bard Coffee, Bob Garver, is a WBC certified Head Judge, and has been participating in the competitions since 2007. Kari Guddeck, our marketing director, has been a US Barista Championship Head Judge for two years with six years of judging experience total. Together they pushed me to try my hand at sensory judging this year at the Big East Regionals in Durham, North Carolina. I was terrified and didn’t believe that my tasting abilities would be good enough, but decided to go for it. No matter what, it would be a good learning experience.

The 4 sensory, 2 technical judges, and competitor are all overseen by a head judge. The head judges have been in the judging world for years and are specifically chosen based on their abilities to both taste, score, and be a good leader. To become a sensory or technical judge requires memorization and full understanding of the scoring sheet and the official Rules and Regulations.  We were all required to take an E-learning session that fully described each part and different protocols important to evaluating certain categories. The final part was a day long calibration “event” that included espresso tasting, espresso and cappuccino protocol, and a blind taste test. This took place at Counter Culture’s Durham training center.

I have been a barista for 7 years and was still very intimidated going into this calibration. What if I wasn’t on the same level as everyone else? What if I didn’t pass the calibration? I would not only disappoint myself, but surely it would make both my bosses look bad. One a USBC head judge and the other a WBC head judge, I was expected to do well. From the moment that everyone walked into the door, we were being evaluated. Our participation, tasting skills, ability to complete protocols, and understanding of scoring were all being looked at and noted by the 10 head judges around the room.  There were about 50 people there interested in judging. We were split up into 3 groups and took turns going through the 3 modules. After making our way through the modules, each one of us got to take part in a mock competition.

That concluded the calibration day, it lasted about 7 hours. Afterwards, all of the head judges got together to plan out the schedule. They were in a room for what felt like hours figuring out what the next 3 days would look like. A few of us were riding with head judges and got to bond in the roastery portion of Counter Culture’s training center.  Here's what that looked like:

(photo courtesy of Adam Wilson of Thrive Farmers)

The next day, bright and early, Kari and I showed up to the Cotton Room to find out what the weekend was going to look like. There were 48 competitors that showed up to the Big East, I was to judge 9 of them, 3 each day.  That day was the start of the most gratifying weekends of my coffee career to date. For the first time I was able to prove to myself that I could accurately describe and evaluate taste.

Over the next 3 days I had some amazing and inspiring coffee experiences. Each day, I was under a new Head Judge, their jobs are to oversee all 4 sensory judges (taste every drink!), 2 technical judges, AND watch the performance.  There’s a lot going on in those 15 mins!  We are required to maintain eye contact with the barista while being spoken to or approached, take notes on what they tell us we are going to experience, follow protocols, taste, and score.  After each competitor, judges have 15 minutes of calibration time to finish writing notes and review scores.

(photo courtesy of Adam Wilson of Thrive Farmers)

I had the pleasure of judging J. Park Brennan of Counter Culture New York, who went on to win the North East Regional.  He brought in a Natural Burundi Buziraguhindwa that he purposefully rested at different times for his espresso portion and cappuccino portion. He was professional, knowledgeable, and prepared tasty beverages. For timing purposes, many competitors make their cappuccinos 2 at a time. Steaming one larger pitcher of milk to share between the 2. J. Park decided to make each one of our cappuccinos individually, giving more attention to the judges and the beverage he was serving.  He still manage to slip some multitasking in there by using the other half of each double shot he pulled for his signature beverage. He highlighted the Burundi’s soft cranberry and red wine like qualities with an amazingly complicated tonic water. He was kind enough to provide the judges with a recipe to take home with us (though, I don’t know where I would find half of the ingredients).  I later found out that he went 25 seconds over time (one point is deducted for each second over 15 minutes), yet he still managed the win!

I also judged the South East Regional winner, Camila Ramos of Panther Coffee in Miami, Florida.  Her performance started off with a cold cupping of her coffee, Nicaragua Kailash roasted by Panther Coffee.  She also played a recording of the farmer talking about his coffee, then translated for us. Her connection and passion really shined through the entire performance. She used panela, a form of raw sugar, that was sourced right near the coffee farm in her signature beverage as well as an barrel-aged cold brew of the same coffee as her espresso. It was sweet, but still worked with the coffee and the notes she was trying to extract out of it.

I’m happy to say that my first time judging was an amazing experience and I’m very excited for future opportunities. I have two wonderful people in my little coffee world- Bob Garver and Kari Guddeck that I owe a lot of thanks to. Without them pushing me and believing in me, I would have never taken the chance to try it out. What’s next? The US Barista Championship at the end of April in Seattle! The top 6 of every regional championship has the opportunity to compete for the title of US Barista Champion. The winner of that goes onto the World Barista Championship which is taking place in Rimini, Italy this year.  Maybe one day, I’ll be judging at a World Barista Championship…


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