Lessons from a First-Time Competitor at the National Barista Championship

Lessons from a First-Time Competitor at the National Barista Championship
Katie Taylor

(Chris Tellez Photo)

This year I competed in the Canadian Barista Championship, and it was one of the scariest, most wonderful, overwhelming, intense, and exhilarating experiences I have had in a long time! There was so much preparation involved, and so much help by so many incredible people, that I wanted to write a blog post about my experience for a few reasons. First and foremost, I want everyone to know that so much goes into these competitions, way more than just what you see on stage, and I want to recognize all the hard work of those you might not see behind the scenes. Secondly, I want it to be a resource for those who are considering competing in the future to know what to expect going into it! Also, for anyone who might be reading this and is interested in competing in the Barista Competition, I am always here to talk about my experience or help in any way I can, and you can email me at katie@eightouncecoffee.ca or message me on Instagram at @justanothercoffeegram.

Before getting started, I want to do a brief rundown of the Barista Championship for those who haven’t heard of it before!

The Barista Championship is one of the competitions that is put on by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), and here in Canada, it is put on by the Canadian Chapter. It is a 15-minute presentation where you serve three courses to four sensory judges while two technical judges and a head judge also score you. The three courses that you’re serving include an espresso, a milk beverage, and a signature beverage. You’re serving these coffees all while speaking to an overarching theme that ties your three courses together. Here in Canada we host two qualifiers where up to 16 people can compete in each; they are typically hosted in Western and Eastern Canada. The top six competitors from each qualifier competition then go on to compete at Nationals. The winner of Nationals then goes on to represent the country at the World Barista Championship, which is being hosted in Athens, Greece for 2023!

And now, here is my experience competing in the 2023 Canadian Barista Championship! 

Strong Coffee Future Champions - Hosted by: Eight Ounce Coffee, Calgary, Alberta

In February 2023, I applied to a Barista Competition training program called Strong Coffee Future Champions. I had applied for this program back in 2019 when they ran it for the first time, and I was so excited to see that they were running it again since competitions were back up and running!

Strong Coffee Future Champions was founded by Laura McKendrick in 2019. It’s a program designed to provide access and resources to first-time competitors who haven’t had the opportunity to train for the Barista Competition before!

It’s a three-day intensive training program where you learn about all the things that go into preparing for the Barista Competition, from learning the rules inside and out, to learning how to create a signature beverage, to learning how to create a speech and stand up in front of other people in our industry and perform. There were seven coaches, who are all well known and successful coffee professionals in Canada, who took the time to teach us, coach us, and share their personal experiences. It was an experience of a lifetime, and I am so grateful for folks like Laura and all the coaches who made it possible…However, participating in this training program meant, well, that I had to compete this year. I wanted to share about my journey competing this year, as well as break down a few things for you so that if you have an interest in competing, you know what to expect and how to get started!

The Preparation Process

First things first, I needed a coach, someone with experience in the industry and preferably someone with experience with the competition side of things as well. Other than being a sensory judge for qualifiers one year, I didn’t have much experience with competitions. Thankfully, my wonderful partner, Chris Tellez, was up for the challenge! Chris has competed himself about eight times (he thinks…) since 2007, and he taught me everything I know about coffee. We’re very similarly calibrated when it comes to coffee, so I thought it would be a perfect fit! Having a coach who approaches coffee similarly to you, and whose opinion you trust is very, very important.


Having a conversation with Chris about being my coach was the first step for me, and after this we began thinking about what coffee I wanted to use. I wanted to use a coffee from a roaster local to me, and one of my personal favourites is Hatch in Markham, so I reached out to their founder, Alfonso Tupaz, and we started the conversation about me using their coffee! They discussed which coffees would be good options, and then I went and cupped four coffees with some of the team at Hatch–Alfonso, Josh, and Boris (who roasted my incredible coffee!)–and we narrowed it down to two! I brought those two home with me so I could try them again with Chris, as well as my other coffee pals, Shelby Merrithew and Ron Donaldson of KW Coffee Collective (all folks whose opinion I really trust!). What we were looking for was something that really packed a punch, something that was SO obvious in what we were tasting in the cup–this is important because a lot of what you’re being scored on in the competition is the accuracy of your taste descriptors, so you want your coffee to have pretty obvious tasting notes. We finally settled on a beautiful Colombian coffee that was a hybrid washed Gesha from the Cerro Azul farm from Cafe Granja la Esperanza. 


(Chris Tellez Photo)


Now that I had my coffee, it was time to get it dialled in and start trying it with milk and see how it was tasting! But one problem was, because I didn’t work for a cafe, I didn’t have a place to practice…I reached out to Eden Boles, the owner of The Grove in Kitchener, and she was so kind as to let me use her shop to practice! So now I had my coffee, I had a place to practice, and now I needed to decide on some milk!

Something I knew from before I even decided what coffee to use was that I wanted to use milk from Eby Manor, which is a dairy farm local to me. Eby Manor is a guernsey A2 dairy farm, and I might not be an expert on the A2 protein and Guernsey cows, but I can tell you that it is absolutely delicious. I have always loved how their milk tasted with coffee, and I also knew the Eby family personally and I thought it would be really special to use their milk and it is so much easier to use products that you already know and love when it comes to competing! I reached out to Eby Manor about using their milk for qualifiers and they ended up sponsoring me and provided me with enough milk for practice as well as the competition itself! I ended up taste testing a few of their milks with my coffee and settled on a 2:1 ratio of their 4.8% whole milk and their 2%. I’m so grateful that Eby Manor was kind enough to supply me with milk, because I feel like milk is a cost that people don’t always consider when deciding to compete!

 

Next, it was time to get all my smallwares and other gear sorted. I’m about to brag a little bit about Eight Ounce now, which I know might seem a little biased, but they do so much to support every single person in our industry, and hosted FOUR SCA competitions in four weeks this Spring, so people need to know how wonderful they are. If you’re reading this and you don’t already know, I’m the Ontario and Manitoba Wholesale Relationship Manager for Eight Ounce, so they helped me out and supported me in so many ways during this competition season. To start with the obvious, Eight Ounce provided a lot of my smallwares and tools that I used during my set. There were certain items that Eight Ounce provided to all competitors if they needed them, and then I was able to borrow some other tools from our showroom to use. Smallwares and gear such as a distribution tool, tamper, scales, knock box, timer, cloths, ceramics and glassware for all three courses, spoons, tamping mat, counter brushes, and more are all things you need to consider when competing. Some competitors are able to borrow equipment from other people or the shop they work at, some are able to get gear through sponsorships, but it is another cost to keep in mind when looking to compete! I could not have competed this year without the emotional and financial support of the Eight Ounce team.

 

(Chris Tellez Photo)


Once I had my espresso dialled in, and I knew how it tasted with milk, this is when my theme started coming together a bit…Now, people do this part in all sorts of different ways. Some people know exactly what they want to talk about and pick their coffee based on that. Some people pick their coffee and then plan their entire presentation around the coffee itself. For myself, going into it, I didn’t have anything specific I wanted to talk about or convey during my presentation, but when I tried my milk beverage and realized how comforting and dessert-like it was, this idea of Comfort, Discovery, and Integration came to be (I’ll share my competition speech at the end). Thankfully, things were starting to come together. The first round of qualifiers happened in Toronto on April 10th and 11th, so I had less than a month from when I got home from Strong Coffee Future Champions to prepare everything for qualifiers!

Qualifiers - Hosted by: RC Show, Toronto, Ontario

The first round of qualifiers was hosted at the Restaurant Canada Show in Toronto, Ontario. The competition was spread out over two days and I was competing first on the second day. My coworker, Geraldine Deverly, came from Calgary to support me for the competition and was such a huge help! It was the day before I was competing and I actually hadn’t had anyone else try my milk beverage yet. Chris is vegan, so up until then I was just going off of what I tasted, and I had been tasting this coffee so much over the last couple weeks that I didn’t trust my own judgement anymore! The night before the competition, Geraldine and two other coffee friends, Rose Trinh (Brodflour) and Kyle Tallon (Stealth Coffee Systems), went to Stealth to run through my set and get some last-minute practicing done! We were there for about four hours tasting coffee and running through things. (True friends drink coffee with you until 9 p.m., even when they open the next day).

The next morning I had my practice time at 8 a.m. With my team, Chris and Geraldine, we got my coffee dialled in and final tasting notes written down. I walked through my setup in the specific space and then all that was left was to wait until 1 p.m. for my presentation time!

The presentation itself didn’t go exactly as planned, but in general it went pretty smooth. My nerves definitely got the best of me, I forgot some of the things I was hoping to say, I messed up my signature beverage (but thank goodness I had extra ingredients on stage with me) and I went overtime by 29 seconds (which deducted 29 points from my score), but I did it! I ended up placing 4th at qualifiers and moving on to Nationals!

(Kirill Marinkov - Volunteer with SCA)


Nationals - Hosted by: Eight Ounce Coffee, Calgary, Alberta

I had about five weeks from when qualifiers took place to when Nationals was happening! Nationals was hosted this year in Calgary, by none other than Eight Ounce Coffee! This was a really special thing for me because not only was I going to have Geraldine with me again (and truly, I couldn’t have gotten through qualifiers without her), but I was going to have so many of my friends and coworkers there helping and supporting me through this! What I wasn’t anticipating were the challenges that would bring as well.

When I got to Calgary I got started on a few things, like dialling in my coffee! I knew the water would be very different than it was like in Toronto, so I needed to see how my coffee was tasting. Once I had things dialled in, with the help of Chris, Geraldine, and AJ Doell, we were able to start playing around with signature drink ingredients! Now, I knew as soon as qualifiers was over that I wanted to switch up my signature drink for Nationals. I kept things very simple for qualifiers, as well with how my coffee was tasting now, the previous ingredients didn’t really go as well! Another thing that was different was my milk. I tried thinking of ways to bring the Eby Manor milk with me, but so many folks who have had experience with travelling with their milk for competitions and it not going so well advised against it, so I ended up taste testing three different milks once I got to Calgary. I ended up settling on a 3.25% whole milk from D Dutchman, which was very sweet and didn’t taste too dissimilar to the milk I used from Eby Manor!

I felt pretty prepared leading up to Nationals, I took the feedback I got from qualifiers and applied it to my set for Nationals. Unfortunately, the thing that I didn’t prepare for was doing my set in front of all my coffee friends and coworkers and the pressure I would feel. At qualifiers it was a very different environment. It was loud and busy, and since it was at a trade show, it was very easy to block out the hustle and bustle of the show and focus on my set and the judges. At Eight Ounce, it was very quiet, and the only thing going on was the competitors’ sets, and I did not think about how that was going to affect me.

The second I got up on stage I was 1000x more nervous than at qualifiers and I felt so anxious. As soon as I called time to start my set, I immediately forgot the first line of my speech, and everything just snowballed from there. It went so much worse than at qualifiers and I can’t describe to you just how badly I wanted to just walk off the stage and hide. But I didn’t. I kept going, and even though I went overtime by more than 60 seconds, which means I disqualified myself, I still finished. Immediately after, I wasn’t disappointed in myself or upset that I was disqualified, I just felt embarrassed. And that feeling wasn’t something I was prepared for either. 

Before I say this next part, I want you to know that everyone was so incredibly kind and supportive, and nobody made me feel this way except myself, but I think it’s important to hear about this side of competing. I felt embarrassed that that was how my presentation went in front of peers, colleagues, and friends in the industry. I felt embarrassed that I showcased Hatch the way that I did. Boris did such an incredible job roasting my coffee and it deserved to be shared in a much better way than I shared it. I felt embarrassed that I represented Eight Ounce the way that I did; so many people put so much time and money into supporting me through this entire process, and I felt like I let them down. Honestly, more than anything, I was not expecting the emotional toll that the competition season would take on me, and I think that is something that is not often talked about amongst competitors and other folks in our industry. There are so many things that are involved in preparing for competitions as you can see and so many incredible people do so much behind the scenes that you don’t even see.

Below I have my speech written out for those who are curious as to what I spoke about and my menu. I also have some answers to a few questions I was asked about while I was writing this post! If you made it this far, thank you so much for taking the time to read about my experience! Like I mentioned above, if you’re reading this and you’re interested in competing one day, I would love to chat more about it–please don’t hesitate to reach out!

(Chris Tellez Photo)


My Speech for Nationals and my menu:

“Hello judges, thank you so much for being here with me today, my name is Katie and I work for Eight Ounce Coffee. I am so excited to be able to serve you today! 

Today I am going to be serving you the same coffee in all three of my courses and I am going to take you on a journey of how it transforms from course to course, just as my personal experience in coffee has transformed. Just as I learned more about coffee as my time in the industry progressed, you will be learning more about this coffee as time goes on but let’s start with the basics. While I start pulling the shots for the milk course, please feel free to take a look at the menu in front of you.

Milk course: Comfort

This first drink is all about comfort. When I started in coffee, I didn’t know anything about processing methods or varietals or roast curves, all I really knew was that some countries produced coffee that I liked more than others and I seemed to prefer light roast coffees. Today we’re going to be drinking a Colombian coffee from the Cerro Azul farm of the Valle del Cauca region.

We’ll be pairing it with a 3.25% whole milk from D Dutchman, a dairy farm located in British Columbia.

It’s the idea of comfort that brings me back to my roots in coffee. When I was first introduced to specialty coffee, I would meet up with friends at my local coffee shop and I drank a lot of mochas. That time in my coffee journey was all about comfort, but that comfort turned into curiosity… slowly I started ordering flat whites instead of mochas, which eventually turned into cortados… 

In my milk course today, look for notes of cardamom, peach, and barely ripe banana. Basically comfort in a cup. This drink will feel round and silky in your mouth, it has a medium body and has a dulce de leche aftertaste. 

Please enjoy!

Espresso course: Discover

It’s comforting drinks like that, and my curiosity which led me into the next phase of my coffee journey. The next phase for me was discovery. I left my job at Starbucks and started working at an independent cafe because I wanted to learn everything there was to know about coffee, but I needed to learn the foundations of coffee again, I wanted to try the coffee in its most expressive form, this is when I started drinking espresso, which is our next course. I’ll be right back after I prepare the espresso beverages.

I began to learn about what makes a coffee unique. For example, this coffee isn’t just a coffee from Colombia. This coffee was grown at an altitude between 1700m and 2000m above sea level and is a Gesha varietal, and processed using a hybrid washed method. This coffee was roasted in Ontario by Boris Lee from Hatch. All of these variables work together to create the flavours you’re about to taste.

The recipe I’m using to prepare your espresso today is 22g of coffee with an output of 40g. I found that by using this recipe, it brought out the beautiful flavour notes of red grapefruit, green grape, and raisin. You’ll find it’s very bright at first and has a medium acidity, with a smooth, medium body and a light, dry finish, and the raisin note carries into the aftertaste. 

This discovery phase gave me the foundation of my coffee knowledge and primed me to follow my curiosity into the next phase. 

Please enjoy!

Sig bev: Integration

So what was the next phase? I knew what brought me comfort, and I had discovered so much about coffee, but how do I integrate those two things? 

There are so many incredibly tasty drinks you can experience in a cafe but to me a lot of those are about comfort and there is a lot less discovery. I knew that I wanted my signature beverage to bring comfort but I also wanted to discover something new about this coffee through this course.

Today I am making you a roasted banana and almond espresso syrup macchiato. A macchiato is a classic espresso beverage that is often overlooked on most cafe menus, but the ratio allows the use of these comforting flavours while still highlighting the espresso. I am using 7.5g of almond espresso syrup, roasted banana-infused milk, and finishing it with a spritz of banana-infused water. These comforting ingredients integrated with this beautiful coffee create something delicious, while helping discover a new take on this Gesha coffee. 

I am going to ask that before you take a sip, you smell as you swirl your cup, which will help integrate the flavours and showcase the beautiful banana aroma.

When you sip, you will taste chocolate chip banana bread, chai latte, and buttery pecan pie. It will feel creamy and silky but soft in your mouth, and an aftertaste of baking spices.

Thank you for joining me in experiencing the Comfort, Discovery, and Integration of this coffee and my personal experience in the industry. It has been a pleasure to serve you today.

Please enjoy, judges!”

(I filled in my tasting notes day of so that my menus matched how my coffee was tasting that day)

Q&A:

What are some resources for people looking to compete?
The most helpful thing for me when starting to prepare was watching past presentations on YouTube. I ended up watching a lot of qualifiers from 2019, as well as sets from Worlds 2022. Ben Put (our 2023 Canadian Barista Champion) has also put out an amazing series where he breaks down other competitor’s sets, and that was a great tool to learn from!

On a more practical side of things, programs like Strong Coffee Future Champions is an amazing program to apply for if you’re interested in competing. As well as reaching out to past competitors. I promise you, we just want to see others succeed, and we want to uplift others in our industry, and I guarantee you if you reached out to any past competitor they would be happy to answer any questions for you or help in whatever way they can! Also, brands such as Acaia, often have a sponsorship program where folks can apply for products to compete with! 

What motivated you?

Seeing some really incredible women in our industry get up and do this before me was my biggest motivation. Seeing women like Jill Hoff (Barista Championship) and Venice Vallega (Latte Art) represent Canada on the world stage was so amazing, and I am in such awe of hardworking women in our industry. I would love to be someone that other femmes in our industry feel comfortable approaching and asking questions about working and competing in coffee, and I want to be able to support that!


How do you relate your coffee to your speech/thoughts you want to express?

This was something I really struggled with, so for my first time competing I ended up going a more personal route and relating my coffee to personal coffee journey! You see all sorts of presentations during the Barista Championship which is really, really cool. Some people get really scientific and those presentations always blow my mind! And then other presentations are more personal and those make me cry every time. I’d recommend sitting down with a pen and paper and writing down some things that are important to you in this industry. Are you passionate about processing methods? The people? Roasting? You can talk about almost anything during your speech!

Should there be better compensation for winners and runner-ups?

In a perfect world, yes, there would be. It would be nice if some competitors could make back some of the cost they put into it. Honestly, more than that… I have seen the back end and how much time and effort goes into these competitions, the SCA committee is all volunteer run, and the volunteers for the competitions themselves and the judges are all spending their time and money to be involved, and I wish everyone could be compensated for their time and skills that they bring to the table, especially them!

How was your personal time affected? Working + a child + relationships + comp prep is a lot!

Thankfully Eight Ounce was incredibly supportive and I had allotted work hours to work on my set each week, which I am so grateful for. Although there were definitely weeks where I was so busy with my job that I didn’t end up working on my set much. Also, having my partner as my coach helped a lot because we were able to spend so much time together through this process! I also have a 6 year old son, and whenever he was around, comp prep definitely got put on the back burner! It’s hard to get anything done when there’s a 6 year old around! Having to do all my preparations for qualifiers in just a month was definitely a blessing and a curse. Yes, I wish I had more time to prepare, but also it was nice that my free time was being put towards comp prep for only a month! I’d say it took up more of my mental headspace more than anything, that’s probably what affected me the most! I had competition nightmares for weeks leading up to qualifiers, so I was constantly exhausted!

Post comp, would you do it again? Did you learn something that you will carry moving forward?

Honestly, I can’t imagine doing it again, at least not any time soon! I am so grateful for this experience and I am so glad that I stepped out of my comfort zone and did it, but I don’t think it’s for me! I love being around the competitions, but I love supporting others rather than being the centre of attention myself. I can’t wait to judge again, and help support other competitors in the future! It was also a lot harder than I was anticipating to practice without full time access to a cafe, even though I am so grateful to Eden and Kyle who provided me with space to practice! So maybe if I ever own my own cafe, maybe then I’ll give the Barista Championship another go! I’d love a chance to compete in something else, maybe Cup Tasters! I did learn so much though, so much about coffee, about the people in our industry, and I made a lot of really wonderful connections - that was probably my favourite part!

Did it make you love coffee even more?

I mean, I loved coffee a lot before this experience! I will say, it had been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to work with coffee this closely, since before COVID! I’ve been working for Eight Ounce since February 2022, so I have really shifted my time and attention over to the gear side of our industry rather than coffee itself, so this was a really nice chance to remind myself how much I love working with coffee!

How did you begin planning your signature drink? Where do you even start with all those tastings?

My signature drink for qualifiers I wanted to keep really simple, since it was my first time competing. The more of your signature drink you’re able to prepare on stage the better, but I cared more about it tasting good with my coffee and fitting into my theme, and I wanted to make it easy on myself since I was already so stressed out! We started by playing around with flavours that we tasted in my espresso and milk course and we built from there trying to create something new through a lot of trial and error! As for my signature drink for Nationals, it was the same sort of idea. I waited until I got to Calgary and dialled in my coffee (since I knew it would taste different than at the venue in Toronto) and then we went shopping for ingredients and built my drink from there!

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