A Judging Perspective

At the beginning of February, several of us from Blacksmith traveled to Kansas City to participate in a barista competition. The Qualifying Event, as it was being dubbed, featured one hundred baristas vying for just thirty-six spots at the U.S. Barista Championship in Atlanta in April, and fifty baristas doing so for another thirty-six U. S. Brewers Cup Championship spots, held at the same time and place. If the idea of several hundred baristas, roasters, green coffee buyers and other coffee professionals in one room in Kansas City sounds a little bit like an oddball religious sect with a not-so-hidden agenda of coffee enlightenment, you're not that far off from the truth -- not in practice, at least. Competitors could be seen walking around, staring off into the distance while mumbling to themselves, alternating between smiling at pretend judges and frustratingly restarting botched statements for the two hundred and eighty-seventh time that morning. Supporters or "team members" rushed around, hurriedly seeking out that one crucial tool that failed to make it into the competition bag, hoping some friends would generously come to the rescue. The whole competition scene is exciting, nerve-wracking, hopeful, crushing, encouraging, defeating, familial, alien... it's a lot of things, all at once.

As a Technical Judge for the U.S. Barista Championship, my view on competition is a little different from that of the competitors'. Theoretically, a judge is there as an impartial recorder, detailing what happens in a barista routine and assigning scores based on that. Realistically, a judge is often a friend or recent acquaintance, industry veteran or nervous newbie, a well-known barista or a behind-the-scenes roaster. I've been just about all of those as a judge, and in Kansas City, I participated in somewhere around fifteen different routines, which included, among other judgmental tasks, the recording and scoring and debating the merits of a barista's movements or how well the espresso puck was dosed and groomed and tamped.

I've seen seasoned baristas crumble, while under the same bright lights, newbie baristas surprise and rise to the occasion to score very well. Judging is a privilege at all times, but in rarer moments, we become colleagues watching and recording as our friends fulfill their dreams as they execute the very best routine of their lives, judges who must remain bent keeping a straight face while wanting to cheer and jump up and down with everyone else in the crowd and at home. Those baristas who perform at a lesser level than they'd hope are often dejected, feeling morose and questioning whether or not they're even cut out for "this competition thing." It's knowing that those times have happened, and seeing our friends overcome and, sometimes years and years later, succeed and win, that makes judging not just a privilege, but a pleasure, too. The fact that we get the very best views of these successes is nothing short of astounding.

The reason I started judging back in 2013 was because David Buehrer, Blacksmith's owner and my boss twice over, needed someone to provide insight into the rules and regulations of the barista competition, insight that would help baristas in Houston to improve and grow, should they desire to throw their respective hats into the competition ring. Over the years and many competitors later, judging has become a fun way to continue to challenge myself and others in the profession and craft of coffee. I've served as coach not only to David, but Blacksmith's Ryan Kim and Quills Coffee's Michael Butterworth, and have had the pleasure of training Margaret, Blacksmith's general manager, in becoming a Sensory Judge at this year's Qualifying Event in Kansas City. She did well enough to qualify to judge in Atlanta, which is an invitation-only judging event. Influencing these coffee professionals to challenge themselves and grow professionally and personally is how I enjoy impacting the coffee industry, even though I've often questioned the sanity of those wearying efforts. It's times like those when I remember a gathering like Kansas City, where the view was beautiful.


John Letoto

Honolulu native John Letoto came to Houston by way of Louisville to open Blacksmith in 2012. He contributes to all aspects of the business—roasting, making drinks and training—ensuring Blacksmith maintains its reputation for top-notch service. A regu … Read more
Honolulu native John Letoto came to Houston by way of Louisville to open Blacksmith in 2012. He contributes to all aspects of the business—roasting, making drinks and training—ensuring Blacksmith maintains its reputation for top-notch service. A regular on the national latte art competition circuit, Letoto was one of only three Americans to compete in the Coffee Fest Latte Art World Championship Open in Tokyo in 2015.

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