Thursday, November 13, 2008

Nicaragua: Training Judges

Self portrait at the Hilton Princess.

Day Two in Managua starts off with the front desk missing my 7am wake up call. At least I think they missed it. The message light on the phone is flashing when they call at 7:38am. I'm a bit irritated since our meeting time downstairs is 8am.

After a quick shower I'm downstairs by 9:10am and the bus has departed. Crap. Jump into a cab and six bucks later I'm at the Galleria Santo Domingo mall - one of Managua's fancy malls for the rich and famous. It's early. Too early for a mall. The only people in the mall are a handful of baristas arriving to set up for the trade show and their practice times and about twenty mall employees whose task it is to clean and do general maintenance.

Rouki and Brent launch paper attack fighters from their loft.

The mall itself is a pseudo open-air design with vaulted steel pipe ceilings that's open to the environment without actually letting the environment in (too much). Essentially, it's an outdoor mall with a sort of sky dome that's non-retractable.

Our space is a large air conditioned space that may have been a department store once upon a time but for now, it's our home base and tomorrow will be converted into a trade show slash barista competition. Julio and his team have been hard at work getting everything in order and organized.

Judge Candidates taking their written examination.

First up is the continuation of the judges certification workshop. This is Day Two of judges training. Most judges here in Managua have little to no experience, some have no coffee experience at all, which makes developing judges qualified to judge the competitors a challenging proposition.

For them, it will be a day long affair of watching videos, taking a written examination and doing a practical judging test in addition to the sensory test they took yesterday. Many of the candidates have little to no coffee experience and it shows. The written test was difficult (as it should be) and some of them struggled with it. Whatever the case, our crew is optimistic about finding a set of judges ready to meet the challenge of choosing their national champion.

Cloefas Arreola - The One True Cafe Latino.

The La Marzocco Linea 2EE - perhaps the last competition to use this Grande Dame.

Meanwhile, we've been hearing rumors about how protests on the mayoral election are supposed to start at 4pm today. Considering the fact that the opposing sides have been courteous enough to schedule their conflicts, it seems downright civilized.

The Hippo at Hippo's.

Lunch time comes and we're off to Hippo's, an American style pub. It's got the usual selection of pub grub: fries, burgers, nachos, ribs and a whole lot more. I'm not one to complain and I'm certainly grateful to our hosts for their very generous hospitality and accommodations but I'm from the United States. I left there so I would have the opportunity to try something different. I really would prefer not to eat American food while getting away from America.

Our intrepid crew ready to eat.

That said, my rib and pork platter was decent enough. Smoked meat with barbecue sauce. Not too bad. It's hard to really screw it up but it's also hard to make amazing. This pork was neither. It was just okay. Stuck somewhere in the middle.

My BBQ platter - decent barbecue.

The under temperature and overcooked french fries with cheese and jalapenos.

The fries, on the other hand, were absolutely atrocious. Frozen shoestring fries that were overcooked in oil that was under temperature, causing the fries to soak up excess oil and become oil-logged, Then it cooked for a long time (since it wasn't hot enough to properly fry) until they turned golden brown. Of course, when fries in oil that's under temp reach a golden color they're basically obliterated and inedible. Drop a ramekin of processed nacho cheese sauce in the center and garnish with some sliced jalapenos and leave it under the heat lamp for ten minutes while you prep the rest of the order and you can imagine how those fries tasted.

A lonely La Marzocco FB80 2AV.

Back on the farm, it's time to put the candidates through mock presentations. I start off as the "barista" and present a performance riddled with all sorts of mistakes to see how many of them they can catch. From inconsistent dosing to improper use of towels to uneven tamping and distribution to improper use of milk and whatever else I could think of - including odd facts and misleading information, like coffee from Lithuania.

If one must submit to a judge, why not submit to Erika?

The candidates worked it and worked it. Up next is Violeta from El Coche Cafe, a passionate and interested barista who's just a little bit on the shy side. She's never trained for competition but would like to give it a try next year. She goes before the judges without prior prep or experience and even though she makes some mistakes, she does just fine. In many ways, I think it's better for judges to see mistakes that they can spot and correct than just the flawless performances in the 2007 WBC Finals videos.

It's 4pm and the Sandinistas have massed and shuttered the mall.

Outside, the masses are gathering beyond the gates of the mall. The Sandinistas have scheduled a protest/demonstration/riot. At least they had the courtesy of scheduling it and letting people know it would happen at 4pm. That way you could plan for it and avoid the area. Of course, we're on Ground Zero for the protests and should it get violent, we'll be caught in the crossfire.

As a precaution, the mall decides to shut down. All the stores close and the guards "encourage" everyone to leave and by 4:30pm the mall is deserted except for our judges and other personnel setting up the trade show. There's a window in our area and we can see the parking lot, the gates and the protesting beyond. Well-to-do Nicaraguans are fleeing the mall in their Range Rovers, Land Cruisers and Mercedes. Even the security guards look on edge.

It's only 6:30pm and the mall has been shut down.

Edgy armed guards, civilian riots, I'm just hoping that the walls of our building can withstand a hit from an RPG (rocket propelled grenade). In the back of my mind, I think that our perch can take small weapons fire but if the rioters storm the building, we could be in deep trouble.

Happily, the gates are closed and the protesters maintain calm. By 8pm, the whole thing is over and everyone will have gone home.

My barista station with a 2 group La Valentina and Mahlkonig K30 on top of a cupping table.

Judge candidate and 2008 Nicaraguan Barista Champion, Luis "Cappuccino" is chomping at the bit to give it a go and show off his style. I actually didn't get to see his presentation since I was working on something else but then it was my turn to go again and while I had been planning on doing a slow presentation that went way over time, Cleofas asked me to do one that's a bit more serious and a bit more representative of what he remembers of my previous USBC presentations.

There's some Stumptown Hairbender around here, so I grab that and load it into the Mahlkonig K30 we're using for practice. It's a decent enough on-demand doserless grinder that's maddeningly infuriating with its' propensity to throw excess coffee off the portafilter and irritating clumping. After using it all day, I find myself disliking it's propensity to just make a mess of itself.

Judge Candidates Juan Carlos, Enrique and Erika vie for spots in The Show.

I'd like to tell you in detail about the presentation, but I can't . Basically, I can't remember what I did. But I was trying to make it as good as possible. Deliberately paced, calm, smooth, relaxed, fun and with quite a bit of banter, and quite a lot of bullshit. Beautiful and carefully crafted, but still bullshit nonetheless.

Interspersed with a description of the coffees in Hairbender and anecdotes about my visits to those farms were thoughts on the state of the nation and a story on how I ventured into Managua to meet and interview the average coffee-drinking Nicaraguan to find out his and her flavor preferences and that the flavors in my signature drink would compliment their palates. That the lemon citrus in the Yirgacheffe would be augmented by just a kiss of pomegranate.

It was truly beautiful bullshit.

Judge Candidates ready for their sensory evaluation. Some will make it, others won't.

But it was also subversive in nature. The words I delivered weren't necessarily meant to convey my passion and knowledge about craft and coffee, but rather to test their judging skills and to see if my words would guide them into believing they were tasting something they might not be tasting. Could the words used help to subconsciously raise my scores?

In the end, there was some influence but not enough to overcome the experience and guidance of a head judge.

Our day ended with the naming of the 10 candidates who would now go on to judge the Nicaraguan Barista Championship in the morning.

Time for a shower and some dinner.

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