After a long few months of prepping and practicing for the 2022 UKBC, I managed to take the 2nd place spot in the finals on May 14th. It wasn’t easy but it was a massive learning experience and hopefully some of the tips below will better equip you – if you’re thinking of competing.
1. Make a routine about something you’re passionate about.
When you enter a barista competition, you’re going to be on stage delivering a routine to 4 sensory judges who need to believe you’re passionate about what you’re talking about.
If you care about what your theme is based around – that will translate into your body language and how you deliver. There is a lot of crossover for the Professionalism and over-all impression on the scoresheet for this.
2. Find a coffee you love.
You don’t have to compete with a 90+ scoring anaerobic gesha, but you do have to make sure you enjoy the coffee. You will be tasting this coffee over and over-again to make sure you know what the perfect espresso of it tastes like and trying to chase that in your pre-competition prep time.
When Dale Harris won the World Barista Championship in 2019 he used a Washed SL28 from El Salvador.
It can be refreshing for the judges to taste a great coffee that isn’t funky and boozy.
3. You need a team.
You might be the one going on stage, saying the words and making the coffee, but there is so much more to it than that. A team are there to sense-check things you say and do. Having someone with competition experience around to help guide and coach you is a great way to lighten the load. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the incredible support from not only my team, but the other teams at work that we work alongside – supporting me.
It is easy to get over-caffeinated when dialling in and then go on stage and have an insane caffeine high or crash. Make sure you have someone backstage with you who’s pallet you trust. Make them taste all your shots and when they are happy, taste the last one or two to make sure you are in agreement.
4. Practice until you can't forget it.
Learning a 15 minute speech off-by-heart is an extremely daunting task. I drafted a script that I was happy with and practiced memorizing it. I recorded myself speaking it through and listened to it back every day when I walked to work. Once you know it or you can do a physical run-through making the drinks and reading off the sheet, be prepared for the pacing and structure to change based on what you need to be doing at what time.
Finally, you need to try your first run-through from memory. In my experience it will be terrible, you will forget everything and feel awful. You need to go through this stage, have a little melt down then get back up and go again. And again.
If you can practice in different environments.
5. Ask for help.
Similar to “you need a team” – do not be afraid to ask for help. After I drafted my initial concept and script, I emailed friends and people I vaguely knew through Instagram who I knew had experience in the competition and was surprised at how generous so many people were with their time and feedback. You don’t have to take everything onboard if it doesn’t feel right – but people will feel happy that you respect them enough to ask for their advice. Send people videos of you doing run-throughs. You can get a lot of tech / workflow suggestions and script suggestions based on a video.
6. Be interesting but stick to the scoresheet.
You can compete with a routine that exists only to tick the boxes of the sensory scoresheet – delivering a really dry presentation showing you understand the journey of seed to cup and you can accurately describe coffee flavours, weight, texture and finish etc but it’s going to be boring for you, boring for the judges and you can quickly hit a score ceiling. You need to make sure you deliver all that key information but with a bit of shine on it. Crack a cheesy joke If you have to. The judges have a long day of lots of presentations from people playing elevator jazz or string music. Play some music that gets you going and tell a story that you think will excite someone.
7. Practice making mistakes.
You might do 30 practice runs and never have to re-pull a single shot. What if that 31st run is on stage and your shot runs 6 seconds too fast? Think of everything that could possibly go wrong and make sure you have a solution and that you have practiced implementing that solution.
8. Practice some more.
Starting to get the picture? I was lucky enough that there was a space in work where I could practice, and I could do it during my working hours. I still stayed late after work, I also went in and practiced on the weekend. I made people watch me do run-throughs on Microsoft Teams. Subtle workflow improvements are good for your technical scoresheet and for saving time.
The week before competition, try not to burn out and maybe reduce to just one run-through per day.
9. Learn from the best.
On YouTube there Is a whole wealth of videos of competition routines from the last few years. Print out some scoresheets and watch some competitors that did well and see if you can steal a few ideas. Some personal favourites of mine are Martin Shabaya 2021, Charles Babinski 2015, Joo Yeon 2019 and Wojciech Tysler 2021. If you’re competing here in the UK you can jump back on the old live-streams and re-watch the top 3 from each year.
10. Be organised. Be professional.
Write a packing list of all the equipment you need to take with you to competition. Have spares of stuff that will get scratched or broken. Never be late – with anything. Make sure you have enough coffee, milk and sig drink ingredients. Eat well. Order things well in advance. Iron your shirt. Shake everyone’s hand, say thank you to literally everyone and actually mean it.