Tuesday, November 29, 2011

5th Uganda Barista Championship

Barista Jonathan Ddumba presents to Head Judge Clare and sensory judges Miriam, Richard, Evelyn and Emma.

A few weeks ago, I received a call from David Roche of the Coffee Quality Institute. He was calling to ask me if I would be willing to go to Kampala again to be the head judge and trainer for their barista championship. He said they had been asking for me personally. An honor.

Not too long later, I found myself boarding yet another trans-Atlantic and trans-African flight to Uganda where we would be holding two days of barista workshops, one day of judges training and then three days of competition.

Surrounded by competitors for a "photo op."

Last year, I thought it was a bit odd to have a barista training literally hours before the competition. I mean, how much could the competitors digest, make changes and (perhaps) improve right before the championship. But I was tasked to do a job and I did what I could and shared as much information as possible on how to compete, methods of flow and even ways to improve your scores.

While I was at first a bit skeptical, I'm now a fan of. One of the greatest problems in barista competitions is the disconnect between competitor and judge. One person within the USBC once remarked that the WBC Rules and Regulations are the only training manual you would need, but the interpretation of those rules can vary wildly from judge to judge and competition to competition. Add to that the WBC's reluctance, or outright refusal, to provide materials and information to illuminate these areas and you've got a situation where only a small percentage of competitors have the ability to truly be competitive.

Joseph Kyeyune rocks it to the Finals.

Of course, the pundits will argue that it's a "level" playing field and that one doesn't need to have money to win. These are also the same people who never comment that those who win have also spent time training with the likes of World Barista Champion Fritz Storm - whose rates are in the thousands. So much for the average competitor...

Which is what the majority of the competing world is comprised of: average competitors trying to learn finer points of our craft and doing a better job in the world. Everyone wants to do well and win a trip to Vienna, but not everyone has the resources available to them. And that's what the barista workshops are designed to do: bring the information to the competitors before the competition when they will have some time to perhaps make changes and incorporate them into their performances.

Daphne awaiting lunch.

And that's what I see here in Kampala. Lots of passion. Lots of interest and the desire to do well and improve. So, after two days of instruction, we're off to the races.

The competition itself went very smoothly. With a resident WBC Certified Judge, the duties of Head Judge were split between myself and Clare - relieving me of the intensity that comes from Head Judging 26 competitors non-stop.

As with any competition, we want to judge the competitors on the same level at the rest of the world. Meaning that a score of "5" is equivalent to a "5" elsewhere in the world. What we don't want is a "5" in Uganda to mean a "3" at the World Championship. We want a realistic evaluation according to world standards, which is a difficult proposition when you're trying to wrangle local judges who've never seen competition before (or maybe never outside of their country).

In my world, there's a bit of pushing, prodding and even outright challenge to judges' evaluations. Scores go up, scores go down, but always with lots of information, discussion and detail as to why. The hardest part is getting the judges to write enough information on their sheets to be helpful to the competitor later.

Finalists Emma Katongole, defending champion Mark Okuta, two-time champion Roberts Mbabzi and Joseph Kyeyune.

As the competition winded down and the finalists announced, I looked over the scores compared to last years competition and was pleasantly surprised. The average scores had improved considerably. Only one disqualification this year compared to four in 2010. And the finalists all performed very strongly - one could easily see the improvements from the previous year.

When the Finals got rolling on the last day, the excitement was palpable. The Defending Champion Mark Okuta versus the former two-time champion and a slate of some very tough competitors. Quickly, four of the finalists pulled away from the field. Nearly 100 points would separate the fourth and fifth positions. While Simon's cultural smoked milk electrified the audience, Mark's tour of the coffee bean was fascinating and Salim's dazzling performance rocked, it was the former two-time champion, Roberts Mbabzi who came a calling to reclaim his title as Barista Champion of Uganda.

They said I was looking "smart" at the barista awards party.

Many hours later, after the partying was over, some of the competitors came to me to ask how they had done. What they really wanted to know is: how could they have lost? And: how did Roberts win again? I understood their question because it's common amongst those who don't take the title. There's always the wondering if the competition isn't somehow, fixed. Especially for someone who always seems to win.

I sat down with them and pulled up the electronic scoresheets that I keep on file as the Certifying Judge for a national championship. And I compared their scores. Even without the actual notes of the scoresheets, the scores tell a lot. The top four were very close. Each of them within striking range of the Champion spot. An improvement in this set of espressos, or an improvement in your professionalism, plus a slight mistake on the part of the Champion could easily have switched positions. Even hitting an even 4.5 on cappuccinos taste balance could have scored you the title.

In the end, I discussed it with them to show that there's nothing rigged about the competition. The scores reflect the performance. Maybe that one puck was off and you served it because it would burn time to redo the shot. That shot got you 1.5 in scores. Maybe it would be worth it to burn the additional 30 seconds to grab a 3.5 in scores? All things that have to be considered by the competitive barista.

I think they all left understanding the process a little bit better. Perhaps still not happy that they "lost" but at least with a better understanding.

And if I can leave a place with a better understanding of our craft, then it's been a worthwhile trip.

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