We headed off to the Queensland Barista Championships with a quick detour into Ltd Espresso + Brew Bar. One bean hoped there would be espressos in abundance. These hopes were dashed as Luke said, ‘it’s not random, judges have to taste every cup!’ Luke wet our appetite with other judging ‘inside’ information … and a super Mexican prepared with a Syphon brewer. The disappointment was soon well behind us.
As soon as we walked into Bear Bones Espresso for the espresso section of the Championships, we met Rosco and discovered he was a judge. We asked him how judges managed drinking espressos all day whilst maintaining a clear palette. Rosco laughed and said, ‘we eat a lot of bread and drink heaps of water to keep out palette fresh’. We now knew what happened behind the closed door that housed the judging panels.
The Australian Specialty Coffee Association (ASCA) has strict guidelines for judging, so it was like a who’s who of the local specialty coffee industry with a sprinkling of interstate ASCA people who made up the two distinct and rotating judging panels. The competing barista fronts a panel of 4 judges, 1 head judge, and a technical judge, 6 judges in total.
The barista has 15 minutes to set-up for their performance – the only thing that is in place is the Nouvo Simonelli … the rest the barista provides. Their trolley is wheeled out, the stop watches are activated and the intensity starts to build during an allocated preparation time. Each competitor will prepare an espresso, a cappucino and a signature drink for the judges to taste and score … unfortunately none for the salivating onlookers.
Set-up complete … a hush descends as the judges file out from the bread bunker and the performance begins. This was the amazing part … music, the barista explains the beans and the flavours, grinding, tamping and extracting with flourish.
The passion for providing the best experience for the palette is actually palpable. It was a great spectator sport. It made us realise if your barista can’t tell you what you might expect from your cup while preparing your brew, you might like to try another cafe! Coffee is more than a drink … it’s an experience.
The signature drink provides the barista an opportunity to be innovative and daring. It was the cool part for us … it was like an episode of MasterChef. There was a smoking gun, a coffee cloud and jasmine water to name a few. As the crowd oohed, the judges remained poker faced and clutched their clipboards tightly. At the end of the 15 minute performance, Josh from Coffee Supreme Brisbane chatted with the barista to help spectators get an inside perspective.
The cool thing for us was that everyone was willing to take the time to explain things to us … judges, competitors and knowledgeable spectators. We asked Tilly from Lamkin Lane how she felt about the focused judges. She said, ‘it’s very intense but every time I looked up they smiled at me, so that was re-assuring on my first attempt.’ She reinforced the importance of training for the competition. Talking to others we heard competitors practice somewhere between 20 and 30 hours per week … Wow!
Alex, a head judge even stopped on his way out to answer our question about judges stirring the crema before tasting the coffee. ‘It enhances the complexity of the espresso. If the barista doesn’t provide specific instructions, we have to push the crema to the middle three times for an espresso and once for the cappuccino,’ he explained.
We had a great time! Greater insight into, and appreciation of, the craft of the barista. If you couldn’t make it to the Queensland Barista Championships but would like to experience the espresso of one of Queensland’s best, visit the top three:
- Adam (Strauss in Brisbane’s CBD)
- Tilly (Lamkin Lane, Caloundra)
- Danny (Blue Sky, Newstead)