Judging Coffee and Beer: Answer to DoubleShot Coffee Company

DoubleShot Coffee Company: More Espresso Arguments.

I’m not in the coffee biz but I do involve myself in some coffee-related things, including barista championships (sensory judge at regional and national) and numerous discussions with coffee artisans. In other words, I’m nobody important.

In a way, I “come from” the worlds of beer and coffee homebrewing. In coffee circles, I like to introduce myself as a homeroaster and blogger.

(I’m mostly an ethnographer, meaning that I do what we call “participant-observation” as both an insider and an outsider.)

There seem to be several disconnects in today’s coffee world, despite a lot of communication across the Globe. Between the huge coffee corporations and the “specialty coffee” crowd. Between coffee growers and coffee lovers. Between professional and home baristas. Even, sometimes, between baristas from different parts of the world.
None of it is very surprising. But it’s sometimes a bit sad to hear people talk past one another.

I realize nothing I say may really help. And it may all be misinterpreted. That’s all part of the way things go and I accept that.

In the world of barista champions and the so-called “Third Wave,” emotions seem particularly high. Part of it might have to do with the fact that so many people interact on a rather regular basis. Makes for a very interesting craft, in some ways. But also for rather tense moments.

About judging…
My experience isn’t that extensive. I’ve judged at the Canadian Eastern Regional BC twice and at the Canadian BC once.
Still, I did notice a few things.

One is that there can be a lot of camaraderie/collegiality among BC participants. This can have a lot of beneficial effects on the quality of coffee served in different places as well as on the quality of the café experience itself, long after the championships. A certain cohesiveness which may come from friendly competition can do a lot for the diversity of coffee scenes.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that it’s really easy to be fair, in judging using WBC regulations. It’s subjective in a very literal way since there’s tasting involved (tastebuds belong to the “subjects” of the sensory and head judges). But it simply has very little if anything to do with personal opinions, relationships, or “liking the person.” It’s remarkably easy to judge the performance, with a focus on what’s in the cup, as opposed to the person her-/himself or her/his values.

Sure, the championship setting is in many ways artificial and arbitrary. A little bit like rules for an organized sport. Or so many other contexts.

A competition like this has fairly little to do with what is likely to happen in “The Real World” (i.e., in a café). I might even say that applying a WBC-compatible in a café is likely to become a problem in many cases. A bit like working the lunch shift at a busy diner using ideas from the Iron Chef or getting into a street fight and using strict judo rules.

A while ago, I was working in French restaurants, as a «garde-manger» (assistant-chef). We often talked about (and I did meet a few) people who were just coming out of culinary institutes. In most cases, they were quite good at producing a good dish in true French cuisine style. But the consensus was that “they didn’t know how to work.”
People fresh out of culinary school didn’t really know how to handle a chaotic kitchen, order only the supplies required, pay attention to people’s tastes, adapt to differences in prices, etc. They could put up a good show and their dishes might have been exquisite. But they could also be overwhelmed with having to serve 60 customers in a regular shift or, indeed, not know what to do during a slow night. Restaurant owners weren’t that fond of hiring them, right away. They had to be “broken out” («rodés»).

Barista championships remind me of culinary institutes, in this way. Both can be useful in terms of skills, but experience is more diverse than that.

So, yes, WBC rules are probably artificial and arbitrary. But it’s easy to be remarkably consistent in applying these rules. And that should count for something. Just not for everythin.

Sure, you may get some differences between one judge and the other. But those differences aren’t that difficult to understand and I didn’t see that they tended to have to do with “preferences,” personal issues, or anything of the sort. From what I noticed while judging, you simply don’t pay attention to the same things as when you savour coffee. And that’s fine. Cupping coffee isn’t the same thing as drinking it, either.

In my (admittedly very limited) judging experience, emphasis was put on providing useful feedback. The points matter a lot, of course, but the main thing is that the points make sense in view of the comments. In a way, it’s to ensure calibration (“you say ‘excellent’ but put a ‘3,’ which one is more accurate?”) but it’s also about the goals of the judging process. The textual comments are a way to help the barista pay attention to certain things. “Constructive criticism” is one way to put it. But it’s more than that. It’s a way to get something started.

Several of the competitors I’ve seen do come to ask judges for clarifications and many of them seemed open to discussion. A few mostly wanted justification and may have felt slighted. But I mostly noticed a rather thoughtful process of debriefing.

Having said that, there are competitors who are surprised by differences between two judges’ scores. “But both shots came from the same portafilter!” “Well, yes, but if you look at the video, you’ll notice that coffee didn’t flow the same way in both cups.” There are also those who simply doubt judges, no matter what. Wonder if they respect people who drink their espresso…

Coming from the beer world, I also notice differences with beer. In the beer world, there isn’t really an equivalent to the WBC in the sense that professional beer brewers don’t typically have competitions. But amateur homebrewers do. And it’s much stricter than the WBC in terms of certification. It requires a lot of rote memorization, difficult exams (I helped proctor two), judging points, etc.

I’ve been a vocal critic of the Beer Judge Certification Program. There seems to be an idea, there, that you can make the process completely neutral and that the knowledge necessary to judge beers is solid and well-established. One problem is that this certification program focuses too much on a series of (over a hundred) “styles” which are more of a context-specific interpretation of beer diversity than a straightforward classification of possible beers.
Also, the one thing they want to avoid the most (basing their evaluation on taste preferences) still creeps in. It’s probably no coincidence that, at certain events, beers which were winning “Best of Show” tended to be big, assertive beers instead of very subtle ones. Beer judges don’t want to be human, but they may still end up acting like ones.

At the same time, while there’s a good deal of debate over beer competition results and such, there doesn’t seem to be exactly the same kind of tension as in barista championships. Homebrewers take their results to heart and they may yell at each other over their scores. But, somehow, I see much less of a fracture, “there” than “here.” Perhaps because the stakes are very low (it’s a hobby, not a livelihood). Perhaps because beer is so different from coffee. Or maybe because there isn’t a sense of “Us vs. Them”: brewers judging a competition often enter beer in that same competition (but in a separate category from the ones they judge).
Actually, the main difference may be that beer judges can literally only judge what’s in the bottle. They don’t observe the brewers practicing their craft (this happens weeks prior), they simply judge the product. In a specific condition. In many ways, it’s very unfair. But it can help brewers understand where something went wrong.

Now, I’m not saying the WBC should become like the BJCP. For one thing, it just wouldn’t work. And there’s already a lot of investment in the current WBC format. And I’m really not saying the BJCP is better than the WBC as an inspiration, since I actually prefer the WBC-style championships. But I sense that there’s something going on in the coffee world which has more to do with interpersonal relationships and “attitudes” than with what’s in the cup.

All this time, those of us who don’t make a living through coffee but still live it with passion may be left out. And we do our own things. We may listen to coffee podcasts, witness personal conflicts between café owners, hear rants about the state of the “industry,” and visit a variety of cafés.
Yet, slowly but surely, we’re making our own way through coffee. Exploring its diversity, experimenting with different brewing methods, interacting with diverse people involved, even taking trips “to origin”…

Coffee is what unites us.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

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