Being a Calibration Barista...what the F*** is that?!

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Calibration what..?

We chatted to Matt about being the Calibration Barista at this years barista comps and what goes into competing in the coffee industry!

Barista competition? Calibration barista? This stuff exists?

It sure does, and it’s what keeps us up at night. Well, at least it keeps me up. So, you see every year we have competition season it involves a regional qualifier, national competition and then onto the world stage. There’re four different disciplines, Barista, brewers, latte art and cup tasters, I’m going to focus on the barista competition for the sake of this blog.

During a barista competition each competitor gets 15 minutes to perform a routine for a panel of 4 sensory judges, these are the judges that score you based on taste as well as presentation. There’re 2 technical judges who score you based on your technical proficiency and a head judge who keeps track of it all.

While taste can be subjective its important to note that at the highest levels of the coffee industry people have been tasting and discussing coffee in a way that is universal for a long time.

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to go over to Melbourne and be a calibration barista for the national barista completion. The point of a calibration barista is to provide a point of reference and to get all judges scoring to the same standard. While taste can be subjective its important to note that at the highest levels of the coffee industry people have been tasting and discussing coffee in a way that is universal for a long time.

Most judges are what we refer to as Q graders, which is a worldwide accreditation that allows people to score and judge coffee to a set of standardised parameters. For competitors this means that they are being judged by people with highly trained palettes and an ability to articulate what they are tasting very well.

WHAT does the Calibration Barista actually do??

So, the calibration barista does a full routine for all the sets of judges, in my case I repeated the same routine 4 times for 4 sets of judges. Once they had watched my routine they would disappear and discuss and break down the routine, this is where the head judge makes sure that everyone is on the same page about how to interpret the rules, listen to the competitor as well as how to correctly record information on the score sheet. They then break down the score sheet, why they scored what they did and discus the routine with the barista. This is where the real learning happens.

As baristas we can often find ourselves trapped in our own little bubble, sometimes we don’t look at what we are doing and question it and we don’t try new things. This is where being invited to calibrate judges has huge advantages. You’re given the opportunity to take any new idea, technique or concept to the judges and go to town on it. You of course must stick within the rules (if you feel like geeking out then have a read of the rules & Regulations apart from that you are free to explore any rabbit hole you like.

This opportunity for exploration and reflection is invaluable.

My routine focused on the signature beverage part of the of the competition, something that I have always struggled with. I wanted to try and recreate and highlight the flavour of cherry in my coffee but without using any cherry in the ingredients. The idea was to explore flavour as being multidimensional, basically an idea that you can recreate the flavour cherry by using things like lemon juice, sugar and vanilla. I found when these were mixed correctly, they dramatically highlighted the flavour of the cherry in my espresso. The concept is still a work in progress and the recipe might need some tweaks, but the judges gave interesting feedback. And there is potential for the concept to work (watched this space!!)

So all in all it was a good experience, but I would never have done something this risky in a competition, so by having the chance to do this with pretty much no consequences I was able to step out of my comfort zone and push an idea that I was really interested in, and then have about 16 coffee professionals tell me exactly what they thought of my routine. 

Being asked to be the calibration barista for the national competition was a true honour and privilege. It was a huge learning experience too. Hopefully this blog has opened your eyes to the big wide world of coffee - it’s far more than just your morning cup of coffee & questioning if the barista burnt the coffee or milk!

There’s a huge coffee industry around the world, and it’s so much ore than just a “$1 barista made” coffee…bleugh.