2018 Australian Barista Champion Craig Simon has a game plan

Craig Simon

Competitions are one of the most rewarding growth experiences available to a barista. They’re scary, fun, tough, and competitive, but highly worth trying to benchmark your skills and putting yourself in a challenging position. 

The hardest part about starting your competition campaign is knowing where to start. Competing can be quite a daunting process: standing up in front of a panel of judges, displaying your skills to professionals and in some cases, presenting a speech with the countdown clock and flashing cameras in your peripheral. The key to starting your competition preparation, however, is to do just that – start. 

How you approach your preparation is going to be different for each competition category. Cup Tasters is all about physical practice. Latte Art is relatively accessible because baristas spend all their time in cafés pouring with milk. Brewers Cup demands more focus on the coffee, as does the barista competition, but all of them requirement one universal criteria: commitment. 

In order to make your entry into the barista competition, I believe there are three core things you need to consider. 

  1. Have a good idea. 

You need something to say. Conversation and a theme is the bulk of the 15-minute presentation. You can talk about having an interesting coffee or displaying a new technique that will benefit the industry, but whatever you choose, the coffee and the idea must be interdependent. The two concepts are not reliant on each other, but they must be linked to make a powerful presentation. 

From 2012 to 2015, the dominant theme in Australian and World Barista Championship (WBC) routines was baristas taking a trip to origin and sharing that experience and farmer connection. More recently, conversations have been focused on the importance of sourcing and processing methods in order to achieve an amazing coffee. I don’t necessarily believe you need to have travelled to origin to present a performance about the significance of your coffee. In my most recent performance at the 2018 WBC I had an idea then went and found a coffee that supported it.

2. Find a good coffee. 

Good coffee is no longer hard to find. There are always amazing coffees out there. The question to consider is how to source coffee for your particular stage or level in competition. Obvious choices that come to mind include countries that produce high quality coffee such as Central America and Africa. 

The WBC is considered the Olympics of Coffee so the coffee has to be a high quality experience for the judges, but remember it’s not a ‘sourcing competition’. It doesn’t mean your coffee has to be expensive. Geishas are great, but so are a lot of other varietals.

Some people get frustrated that baristas with greater resources get better access to coffees. But with the right support team around you, anything is possible. You need to choose a coffee that brings a level of excitement to your routine and leaves you victorious, no matter your score. Your coffee needs to tick the boxes of having flavour, and being tactile and balanced. If your coffee doesn’t offer the judges a great tactile experience, it won’t do well, no matter what your story is.

If you’re looking for a coffee for the ASCA regionals,

my advice is to go as wild as you like. The judges are open-minded and your coffee will be critiqued at a high level, so don’t be afraid to experiment. 

The ASCA regionals are normally held out of the harvest cycle of most producing countries, so if you make the Australian Championships it’s likely you’ll need a new coffee. 

If you make it to the world stage, you need to ensure your coffee does not ostracise the judges’ palates, which presents a challenge in itself. However, if you’re one of those people with extreme drive to say the message you came to say, then do that.

I’ve lost way more competitions than I’ve won, and the only thing you can control is your message. If you get up and deliver the message you came to say, then you can’t fail, no matter what the score sheets say. The value is in the authenticity to say what you want to, whether that’s received or not. 

3. Source the right volume of coffee.  

I’ve always picked amazing coffees to support my theme. For the first four years I competed I had little control over the coffee I used. It was simply given to me. 2010 was the year I decided to learn how to roast so I could control the coffee more, and in 2011 I went to origin and sourced my coffee directly.

Competition can be extremely expensive. Very few of us have free rein and the ability to compete fully self-funded. If I was to be frank, I don’t think I’d want to do it by myself. It’s way more fun as a team and there’s definitely more positives to a team environment, such as the support and encouragement you receive, and the ability to source good coffee.

If you’re an independent trying to get coffee, you need to find a green bean importer partner and discuss what’s coming up seasonally. 

If you’re competing with company backing, talk to your company’s green bean team and leverage what they buy. It would make financial sense to order a bit extra of something your company is already investing in.

You also need to consider the volume you need. Let’s say you use 23 grams on average per dose, that’s roughly two kilograms of coffee to serve to each of the four judges alone. If you make the national championships, you will need about 12 kilograms for the first open round, potentially 12 kilograms for the semis, and 12 kilograms for the final round. So that’s already 36 kilograms, but you’ve also got to think about the coffee you need prior to comp day – coffee to play around with when roasting, cupping, practicing, tasting, adjusting grind settings, dialling-in etc. A total 84 kilograms is a realistic amount to cover all those needs.

For the 2018 Australia Barista Championship I used three kilograms of roasted coffee, which I roasted on a five-kilogram roaster. I would say that’s the bare minimum of coffee someone should source. That was me being very confident and not having to play with the coffee too much. In the past I’ve used 60 kilograms, even 80 kilograms of coffee.

If you can’t get enough of your coffee to practice with, choose something that’s as close to your chosen coffee as possible and save the real thing for competition day. 

Competition is not cheap. It’s an investment, especially when you get to WBC level. Most coffees are not sold in lots of three kilograms, but you can get bags of 30 kilograms, 60 kilograms, and even 69 kilograms. 

If you are going to buy 30 kilos of a $100-a-kilo Colombian coffee, you would need about $20,000 on top of logistics costs. Then imagine the price increase if you bought a Geisha, which could start anywhere from $260 per kilo, plus shipping fees…

Contrary to what some might say, I believe you can still tell a story with a $6-per-kilo coffee or a $15 to $20 entry-level coffee. This would equate to about $600 to $900 per 60-kilogram bag.

Think smart. Competition is an investment in you, your professional brand, and your brand on stage.

This article features in the MICE 2019 showguide: A coffee lover’s guidebook.  To see the FULL article, pick up your copy of the showguide at MICE.

Craig Simon is the 2018 ASCA Australian Barista Champion and Founder of Criteria Coffee.

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