My entry into the judging world at barista competitions initially came because I was sick of lugging all the competition equipment, place settings, cups and coffee across to the other side of the country as a competitor. I thought, ‘Stuff this!’ — I’ll save on the excess baggage fees and give judging a spin instead.

Along with the reduction in bubble wrap, I was also doing a lot of barista training and wanted to learn more about how to objectively assess espresso coffees. Aside from the great impact the Barista Championships have had on the development of the barista profession, and their contribution to the drive towards better skills and coffee knowledge, the Championships have also helped develop a pool of judges around the world who have been able to adopt a common language and calibrate their palates against others from all around the world — a pretty amazing achievement in itself!

How many times have you had someone say to you, ‘Ooh, that espresso’s really bitter!’ You taste it, and all you get is sharp acidity with no bitterness? This disparity between the words we use to assess the experiences on our palate can cause all kind of headaches, especially when we’re trying to translate that experience into a score from 0-6. The World Barista Championship (WBC) has, over the years, culled the areas for assessment into a few key words that are relatively easy to calibrate internationally. Judges progress through various levels of certification, starting at a regional and state level, moving through to judging at a national level and then sitting for the world level. Over the past several months, the WBC Judges’ Certification Committee has been running certifications in different regions around the world — the most recent one being in Wellington, NZ.

Judges accepted into the WBC workshops must have at least two years experience of judging at a state/national level and submit a proposal as to why they were selected for the WBC workshop. From the submissions, invites are sent out to the most qualified. This last time we predominantly had judges from our region, including New Zealand and Australia, although one dedicated judge candidate travelled all the way from Uganda to attend! It was certainly a positive, but nail biting, experience for me personally. All judges have to re-apply and re-sit their certification every two years, to ensure that their skills and knowledge are up to date.

The WBC Judge Certification workshop covers a number of different areas to ensure that attendees have the skills needed to consistently apply the rules on the world stage. Broadly speaking, there are five main tests: the first was a test of the accuracy and speed of assessment of the visual components of both the espresso and cappuccino rounds. This was in the form of a video series. Coffee after coffee was placed in front of a fixed camera — the invisible judge would pick up the spoon, push back the foam, put the spoon down and then the screen would go black. With 10 seconds between coffees, you had to put down your score for Visual Correct Cappuccino and Consistency and Persistence of foam. It was relentless! A great way, though, of assessing a judge’s snap assessment of the coffee. The other tests ranged from looking at your scores and comments in mock competitions, a blind press pot tasting, a written exam and another video test with the camera rapidly scanning a workstation setup, followed by a series of questions asking you about details in the scene — were the cloths dirty? How many cups were on the machine? etc.

It was a great certification challenge, run over two days, and I think it truly represents the strong commitment the WBC is making to ensure that judges are all as equally experienced and qualified as those who have spent months and months practicing for their presentation on the other side of the table. Obviously, as you begin training to become a judge, you learn the intricacies of applying the rules and filling out the scores and comments appropriately — and how to deal with crazy left-field situations e.g. when someone asks to close your eyes, or eat a cookie and think of Kansas. But any certification programme is a great way of confirming that you’re all on the same wavelength. In this case, that meant sharing the same sensory calibration as 52 other judges from 24 different countries.

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