Belated SCAA Brewer’s Cup Competition Recap

Several weeks have passed since the big SCAA dance, the trade show/national competitions -enough time so as to temper any cries of ‘not fair’ that I might have been reflexively inclined to throw around having not advanced out of the semi-finals round of the Brewer’s Cup. As such, I thought a recap in order -not so much for those in attendance, but for those who may never have gone or will in all likelihood, never attend such a hyper specific, niche chimera of an event. 

The big dance is made up of the top seats from the six regional competitions leading up to the main event. I won’t pretend to know all the particulars, but each of the six regional events produce six seats for each of the Brewer’s Cup competition and the Barista competition. Of the top six from each regional group, those in the top three from each of the six regional Brewer’s Cup and Barista competition (3 from each class) are guaranteed a spot in the national competition -which then determines who wins the crown of US Brewer’s Cup and US Barista champions, who then are entitled to go on and compete for World (Brewer’s Cup and Barista) Champion Title. There are of course some twists and turns and nuances -my above description is fairly blunt. Those placing 4th through 6th in the Brewer’s Cup from each region become wait listed and can secure a spot for themselves (as pulled off the list on a FIFO basis) only if someone in the top 3 from any of the six regions drops out. If no one drops out then places 4th through 6th might have well as placed last in their regions because they will see no play on the national stage. It is a little different on the Barista side. The top six from each region advance to the national stage. However, those placing 4th through 6th in their regions essentially have a ‘wild card’ seat and have to fight their way to the semi-finals through an extra round of competition at nationals, whereas those placing 1st through 3rd have a bye into the semi-finals. So a barista advancing to the finals out of that wild card group is the equivalent of a cinderella story -overcoming longer odds. So that’s my overview for how the national stage is set. There are other competitions, such as Taster’s Cup, Latte Art, Roaster’s Cup (or some such name) -but the main ones are the Brewer’s Cup and the Barista. Shit, who am I kidding -the whole damn thing is really about the Barista competition -everyone else is lucky if 10 people are in the audience watching them perform. The MC’s of the event even say as much -it’s like watching the Oscars for Best Picture, “Now the announcement everyone has been waiting for, the US Barista Champion is …”.

Before I spill the beans on the event we were in -the Brewer’s cup, a little more background. Sump put up two baristas and no brewers in our regional competition. Both our competitors lost -meaning they did not place in the top 6. I could make excuses like it was our first time competing, and we competed with non-favored SCAA coffees, including a natural processed coffee and a Pacamara. I won’t, or at least not too much. More than likely we didn’t put in enough time preparing for the event and didn’t have enough experience to know we were underprepared. For a slightly more detailed recap on our regional competition experience please see our prior blog post back in the 4th quarter of last year. So you ask, how did you end up at the big dance in the Brewer’s Cup. Well, after our defeat at regionals we went to the free agency market and picked up a third place finisher from another region, who now happens to be a highly valued and integral member of our team. 

In preparing for the US Brewer’s Cup we were determined to not play against expectations. The wisdom for national competition is that you can compete with any coffee you want as long as it’s a Colombian coffee. This has to do with when the SCAA event is -time of year and what coffees are in season. We picked a nice microlot from the Narina region of Colombia (boarding the Pacific ocean and Ecuador -sounds beautiful doesn’t it). It was from the La Union municipality. Beautiful coffee. Notes of orange blossom, grapefruit, caramel and toffee -roasted in a nice Scandinavian (light) style. (Foreshadowing of the plane hitting the mountain.) 

So up to this point in the story we have 3 people from 6 regions for a total of 18 people competing in the semi-final round of the Brewer’s Cup. Each brewer has 5 or 7 minutes to set up (I know bad sign, right?) and 10 minutes in which to brew 3 cups of coffee for 3 sensory judges. The brewers are judged on their table side manner, their knowledge of their coffees (varietal(s), farmer, elevation, region, number of dogs owned by the farmer, processing method, etc.), how accurately their descriptions of the tasting notes of the cup reflect what the judges actually experience and the most important part (the part with all the scoring weight) the actual cup itself. The cup is judged on a multi-axis set of criteria -which are mostly subjective (although TDS values are also considered), but for which each judge is suppose to have been trained in such a way so that their palates are all calibrated and equal -it is not a personal favorite kind of thing -it is supposed to be based on an agreed upon subjective criteria -thereby making it objective. The Brewer’s Cup is less about show-person-ship and more about the merits of the cup as determined by the subjective objective. As an aside, this is maybe why there is usually no more than 5 to 10 people watching the semi-finals of the Brewer’s Cup. 

Fast forward to the results of the semi-finals. The brewers and their cups are ranked from highest to lowest score, 1 through 18.  Each score is an averaged number taken from the 3 judges’ individual marks. The top 6 go on to the finals to compete for the title of US Brewer’s Cup champion. Sump placed 10th in this grouping and as such did not advance out of the semi-finals. We received 1 high score (competitive enough by itself to have advanced to the finals) and 2 less than high scores -resulting in about an 8 point spread from highest to lowest.  (Note all the Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) readings from all 3 cups were identical.) One judge (a low scoring judge) took her cup off stage and continued to score the cup after the other judges had concluded their analysis. This is highly unusually, perhaps never happening before -or from the unscientific poll we took at the event this was the consensus). As most people know, as a cup cools it changes -sometimes becoming better, sometimes becoming not so. There is suppose to be transparency in judging and each ‘loser’, I mean competitor, is suppose to be given an opportunity to review their scores with their judges. This eventually happened for us, but shifted by a day and after a great deal of effort on our part to track down the judges -actually we only found one of the lower scoring judges. When asked about her scoring relative to the other higher scoring judge’s score -she did not fall back on the calibrated criteria and score sheets, but simply said that perhaps that the other judge just liked our coffee better. Given nothing more, that is a fine answer. However, remember the subjective-objective. As Walter from the Big Lebowski would say -‘There are rules here, this is not ‘Nam.” But que sera, live by the sword, die by the sword. (The US Brewer’s Cup winner was from Klatch Coffee -of southern California, a family run, award winning, endurance player in coffee. The 2nd place finisher was Todd Carmichael of La Colombe. Honestly, outside of meeting Jamie from Abraco, meeting Todd was a highlight of the event. He’s a polarizing guy in coffee (things he’s said in print throws shade on our style of shop). I’ve been to his shops in NYC and Chicago. I like their milk drinks, not so much a fan of the coffee style -i.e., darker than our coffee fetishes, but that dude is frackin’ entertaining, a good raconteur (emphasis added here), friendly and approachable -more so than other people whose coffee stylings overlap with our own. Never seen his TV show, but he was pretty interesting -and I have to say, probably one of the best brewed coffees I had at the show (except our own of course) was from his bong like brewing device -the Dragon, brewing a coffee from Ninety Plus. Top shelf.)

Some Harper’s Index-like follow on facts. The Brewer’s Cup judges consisted of two panels -each panel had 3 sensory judges and 1 technical-like judge -someone to watch the clock and the like -you know, ensuring that all punching was above the belt. Again there are rules here. Of the 6 finalists, 4 came from 1 panel and 2 from another. We were judged from the panel that produced only 2 finalists. This is the part where I imply that some statistical tools might have been brought to task to determine if one panel had a basis for judging harder or downward versus the other panel’s upward valuation. However a 4 to 2 split is not a priori determinative that such is the case, but it would be nice to see such an analysis. Again, as a losing competitor this is exactly what I would guess someone in the non-advancing pool would say. As a winner, not so much. St. Louis had 7 (8) competitors at nationals, more than any other city in the US. The run down looked like this: 4 from Kaldi’s (1 Taster’s Cup, 1 Brewer’s Cup, 1 Barista, 1 Roaster’s Cup (but there is a double count here because the Brewer and Roaster were one and the same), 3 from Blueprint (2 Barista, 1 Brewers), and 1 from Sump (1 Brewer’s).  Every single St. Louis competitor has or had at one time worked for or had a Kaldi’s nexus. Most cut their coffee teeth at Kaldi’s, our guy was just a few weeks pass through kind of guy with most of his coffee time spent under the wheel at the Roasterie in KC; but still, Kaldi’s instills a competitive spirit and/or equips it’s people with the tools to excel onto and on the national stage, under (water boiler) fire. Nora of Blueprint was a cinderella story -coming out of a 6th place regional finish to finish in the top 6 nationally -steely confidence, grace under pressure. The US Barista Champion was a crowd favorite -standing ovation when it was clear where she would place. Very loud, very electric, enthusiastic response to her win and taking the stage. Since my history in coffee is fairly short, it’s difficult to contextualize for you her place in coffee culture, but it’s not her first rodeo and it was apparent from the crowd’s response that she’s given a lot to the professional coffee community over the years. Also, the top 6 barista finalists were split evenly gender-wise, 3 women and 3 men. This is in stark contrast to the competitive field for the Brewer’s Cup -all men, all 18 of them. 

I’ll post a recap of the trade show side of things in a subsequent writing. As a teaser, I will say this, we decided on which new roaster to purchase and signed the necessary paperwork. It was very much an exercise in compromising, but I believe we found the best possible compromise in light of the direction we want to grow in the coming months and in 2015. Also, when the owner of the company calls you while running a couple of roasting profiles you emailed into the sales person to provide you his results/thoughts -that is something that goes far beyond the pale. We were lucky if we got reply emails from other manufacturers. 

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