Off the shelf

This is the first part of a 4 part series written by Ian Kissick about his recent experience in the UK Barista Championship (UKBC).

Part 2 is available here.

The video of Ian's routine in the heats, taken from the SCA UK livestream, is available at the bottom of this article.

I want to take the time to detail my unusual experience at the heats, semi final and final of the UKBC this year, and break down some lessons which may prove valuable to others taking the same path.

My decision to compete
This year, I decided to enter the UK Barista Championship (UKBC), rather late in the day. Specifically I bought my ticket during my lunch break the day before I competed.
I was almost completely unprepared:

  • I didn’t do any run throughs, other than doing one practice speech to the other team members on bar.
  • I tasted my coffee for the first time during my comp practice time.
  • I hadn't even read the rules in the past year.
  • While I was helping one of the team to dial in during the comp practice time, I hadn't spent any real time helping them practice.


After 3 previous attempts in UKBC, where I'd not seen much success, (mostly due to stupid errors), I was a bit disheartened by competition, but watching the competitors on the livestream that Thursday made me feel like I wanted to have another go - and with nothing to lose!

Some small preparations
In the afternoon before competition day, I made a rough mental checklist of the things I’d need, and checked what coffee we had on the shelf. We had some coffees from Kawa- the first we’d stocked in fact- including a couple of lots from Cafe Granja La Esperanza. One of these was a Gesha, but the Mandela was what caught my eye, so I took it off the shelf.

While I hadn't seen my colleague practice for the heats, I was aided by the fact that they were bringing along a lot of gear from the shop already, and they were going to let me borrow it, so that cut down on the logistics and planning side of things.

Next, I needed something to say, and the lack of a concept, indeed the complete lack of preparation seemed like an easy idea to follow. I decided that my routine would be improvised around the following points:

  • I have no concept.
  • As baristas we take coffee off the shelf each day, make it taste as good as possible and chat to our customers about this. We don’t rehearse our interactions with our guests.


I had some coffee info via the coffee’s packaging, while this was fairly surface level, I decided it'd have to do. I even thought about holding up the coffee bag and reading from it, but decided this would come across as slightly unprofessional.

Also, I decided to sacrifice some points by not mentioning roast at all, but on the sensory sheets I knew that the most important things were that the coffee tasted good, and that I described it accurately. That, coupled with a good technical performance should take me through.

Otherwise, it’s worth noting that my main problem in the past with comp has been going over time- which has cost me progression past the heats on two out of three occasions. So I knew I had to keep it in time.

Competition day
When the day arrived, I went to the shop early and packed everything up that we’d be taking to the comp, jumped in a taxi, and travelled to the event. We attended the briefing and soon, after I'd helped my colleague dial in and compete, the waiting began. I was competing last, and I had most of the day to mull over what I'd say on stage.

As the time sped away, I took a walk, and began to cement the key points I wanted to make into my mind.

It wasn’t long before my practice time came round. The strategy here was pretty straightforward- make the coffee taste sweet and preferably balanced as espresso and with milk. I landed on some tasting notes that made some sort of sense, but forgot to actually consider the tactile during the practice time, and so had to make a best guess at this during my competition time.

Then, I was rolling the cart onto the stage, setting up, and running through what I'd say in my mind.

When my comp time began, I had three things in mind:

  • Get started quickly - don't run over time.
  • Keep the technical side as flawless as possible.
  • Make sure to say all the flavour notes and, for espresso, tactile notes.


The time on stage flew in, and seemed to go fairly flawlessly from my point of view. Then, after chatting to Dan on camera, it was time for a clean up and about a 1 hour wait for results.

When they came in, I was 7th overall (with 14 to progress to the semi finals), after 2 of 4 heats. A little disbelieving, I began to realise that, assuming I made it through, I'd have a whole lot of work ahead of me...

On reflection...
it’s completely possible to compete in the short format UKBC heats with little to no preparation, with the following caveats:

  • You feel confident dialling in your coffee with little to no preparation.
  • You have access to tasty coffee at the last minute.
  • You have a good knowledge of the rules.
  • You feel able to stand up and present professionally when you have not prepared.


There are pros and cons to running short format heats, but they certainly make it easier to get started.

If you'd like to chat about getting started in competition - please get in touch - I'd be happy to help.

Costs

  • 1 x ticket - £100 (£50 for SCA member)
  • 2 x 200g Coffee (~£30)


Equipment

  • EK43 x 1 (from shop - sponsor grinders are available)
  • 2 x acaia pearl (from shop)
  • 1 x ona stem stand (borrowed)
  • 6 x bean cellers (from shop)
  • 1 x push tamper (from shop)
  • 1 x OCD (from shop)
  • 1 x tamp mat (from shop)
  • 6 x cloths + 2 spares (from shop)
  • 2 x milk cups + 2 spares (borrowed)
  • 4 x espresso cups + 2 spares (from shop)
  • 2 x water glasses + 2 spares (borrowed)
  • 1 x water caraf (borrowed)
  • 4 x tea spoons + 4 spares (from shop)
  • 2 x milk jugs (from shop)
  • 1 x milk flask (from shop)
  • 1 x apron (from shop)
  • 2 x napkins + 2 spares (from home)
  • 2 x shot glass for used spoons + 2 spares (from home)
  • 1 x timer (from shop)
  • Lots of cleaning gear inc. blue roll, canned air, glass/stainless steel spray, etc.


Part 2 is available here.

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