Tag Archives: hobbies

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.


Brewing Philosophy, Techniques

Not to wax too philosophical, but brewing can really help people
achieve what psychologists call "Flow" experience. It's the way you
feel when you're in a situation that's challenging enough without being
discouraging. Some people see brewing as "meditation" and there's part
of that for some people. Also, there's a huge social part.

Perhaps the most obvious social part is that it's quite easy to make
friends when you offer them free beer. If someone's friends like bland
beer from macrobreweries, it's still possible to help them appreciate
beer for the way it tastes. The best way to do that is to brew beer
with that goal in mind. Sure, it's a challenge. It might take a few
trials and any given batch might not be that well-appreciated by
everyone. But little by little, it's possible to make people understand
that binge-drinking on Rolling Rock isn't that enjoyable when you can
get tasty beer on the cheap.

Another social aspect is that brewers tend to do things together.
Adults of any age or "walk of life" may belong to the same brewclub
and, usually, there's a very strong sense of friendship among brewers.
I know brewers and brewing groups in a couple of places and could help
people make contacts. Even if it's just sampling each other's brews or
discussing the amount of diacetyl that's acceptable in an Extra Special
Bitter, it can be quite fun.

Now, to get someone started on brewing. Many people start with cans of extract and it's certainly a solution. A cooler method is to use "ingredient kits" (e.g. from Grape and Granary) which include malt extract, grains, hops, and fresh yeast. You steep the grains and boil that solution with the extract. It's easy enough to do and it givessome amount of control. It's not the cheapest way but it works well. The
equipment one needs for these types of brewing techniques would mainly include a large kettle, a plastic bucket, a glass carboy, and some tubing. Homebrew supply shops usually sell equipment kits like that but it's easy to get many parts through other ways…

Among homebrewers, "all-grain brewing" is often considered the advanced step. It's not that much more complex and it's usually cheaper to do (especially with bulk grain). It does require a bit more equipment and more time on brewday. The equipment needed can be as simple as two plastic buckets. One has small holes drilled in it and serves as a false-bottom while the other one has a spigot. Some very good brewers
use that kind of a system and it works quite well. What I use is the same thing except that the bottom bucket has a heater element in it so I can control temperature. Other people use an Igloo-type cooler with a manifold in it built with some copper tubing in which slits have been cut. Other people go nuts and have a semi-automatic system made of stainless or even copper with all sorts of pumps and heat exchangers.
All of these achieve the same results: quality beer.
The basic principle remains the same. If you want to brew…
You need to mash grain at a certain temperature (150F to 158F, depending on what you want to achieve) for a certain amount of time (20 minutes to an hour or so). You then need to pour hot water in that mash to get all the sugars out. That's the all-grain part and you end up with wort (sweet liquid).

You then boil the wort for an hour or so, adding hops at specific points (for bitterness, flavor, and aroma). You then chill the boiled wort, transfer to a primary fermenter (usually a plastic bucket), pitch yeast, and wait for a while.
After a week or two, you transfer from primary to secondary fermenter (usually a glass carboy). After a few weeks in secondary, the yeast should have finished its main job and you can bottle. After a week or two in bottle, the beer is ready to drink. If you have a kegging system (with those 5-gallon kegs that were used for soft drinks), you can get the beer carbonated within minutes instead of weeks.
Some beers don't need to be transfered into a secondary fermenter and might even be ready to bottle within a few days. But it's safer and usually better to do a secondary fermentation.
Palmer's book (available online) explains most of these techniques well enough. And all the brewing books you could buy will give details on every step of the process.
With all of this, sanitation is quite important, especially after the wort has been boiled. But we all do a few things that aren't completely sanitary and scrapped batches are quite rare.
Among brewers, the motto is "Relax, Don't Worry, Have a Homebrew!"
Again, brewing can be a very nice "Flow" experience. It can be intensely creative and it relies on a scientific basis (enzymatic reactions, use of gravity, etc.). Plus it can be very social.
While it's easy to go overboard with equipment or ingredients, homebrewing can be quite cheap an activity. IMHO, it's quite easy to get started for less than 100USD and then get more equipment as we go on. Brewing with other people, it's often possible to cut costs by sharing equipment or doing bulk orders. Without cutting costs too much, I think I can brew a batch for 1USD/gallon, especially if I repitch
yeast (use it for several batches). On average, I'm guessing I probably spend about 7–10USD for a 5 gallon batch as I use a bunch of specialty grains, expensive yeast packages, and some spices. The larger the amount brewed, the cheaper the gallon will be, for many reasons (including the cost of bulk ingredients, the energy costs (fairly minimal anyway), and "mash efficiency" (the proportion of sugar
extracted from the grain)).
Of course, that's not counting the time spent brewing. Some people say
it should be counted but then one would need to "deduct" the experience
gained and the relaxation coming from brewing…
In my mind, it's a very enjoyable activity which has brought me a lot
of nice things in the last four years.

Cheers!

AleX