Judging Eastern Canadian Espresso

For an ethnographer, it’s always a treat to gain entry in a new group. These past few days, I was given a glimpse, and possibly even some new contacts, into an espresso scene which includes dedicated coffee professionals from diverse regions.

I was acting as a sensory judge for the Eastern Regional competition of the Canadian Barista Championship, right here in Montreal.

Part of this event was blogged:

» Blog Archive » Bravo Montreal!

Though the event was held on Sunday (June 15) and Monday (June 16), I haven’t been able to report back on the experience until today. And I still haven’t completely debriefed with myself about this.

A general comment I can make is that there does seem to be a move toward an enhanced espresso scene in Eastern Canada. And although this recent competition’s first place was given to a barista from Ottawa (sincere congratulations, Laura!), I maintain that Montreal can be at the centre of a coffee renaissance.

Of course, I’m completely biased. And I’ve been talking about this same issue for a while. What is new, for me, is direct experience in Montreal’s espresso scene. Participant-observation in a very literal sense.

As a personal aside: though it’s the furthest thing from what I try to be, some people tend to find me intimidating, in daily life. As a judge, I was apparently quite intimidating, even to people who already knew me. I usually feel weird when people find me intimidating but, given the context, the reaction seems quite appropriate. I had to maintain a straight face and to refrain from interacting with competitors throughout the competition. Though it was a bit hard to do at first, it seems to have worked. And I felt very consistent, fair, and impartial throughout the competition.

Also somewhat personal, but more directly related to the task at hand, being a judge required me to temporarily change my perspective on espresso. Specifically, I had to separate my personal taste from the competition calibration. This barista championship has some strict guidelines, taken from the World Barista Championship. We weren’t judging whether or not the espresso was flavourful or complex. We were assessing the degree to which baristas were able to produce espresso which responded to some very specific criteria. To this ethical hedonist, it was a challenge. But it wasn’t as difficult a challenge as I expected.

Since my approach to food and beverages is based on reflective olfaction, the fact that aromas weren’t part of the judging calibration seemed especially surprising to me.

Obviously, I observed a lot more. And I could blog about my perception of the competitors. Yet because I was acting as a judge, talking about specific competitors would seem unethical. On the other hand, I will have occasions to talk with some former competitors and give them my impression of their work. This should be quite fun.

So, overall, I’m quite grateful to everyone involved for an occasion to get a glimpse into a part of Eastern Canada’s espresso scene.

Should be fun during the national competition of the Canadian Barista Championship, which will be held on October 21 and 21, during the Canadian Coffee & Tea Show. Not sure I’ll be a judge then, but I’m convinced it’ll be a fine event.

8 thoughts on “Judging Eastern Canadian Espresso”

  1. I think judges are generally intimidating, especially if they seem to actually be sticking to ‘impersonal’ criteria. There’s a distancing from ordinary human interaction involved in this performance, so people who are used to being relationally empowered by some ‘exogenous’ factor – friendship, style, voice, chivalry, muscles, boobs – find themselves in unfamiliar territory. I’ll bet you’re especially good at this since you’re trained and observant about all of the face-generating strategies people use.

  2. @carl Although, I typically don’t have a good “poker face”…
    “Performance” is a key term, here. These baristas were competing, not playing. Stakes weren’t extremely high but it was a highly formalized context. Heightened behaviour=performance.
    I’m at Bridgehead right now. One of the baristas was at the comp to film it. He made me a ristretto and though I’m not on jury duty, there was an assumption that I would evaluate the shot. In this case, I was also evaluated in terms of my credentials.
    Still, this led to an informal and pretty interesting conversation about coffee and about Ottawa’s coffee scene. Rapport came after the performance.

  3. I’ve also been told my poker face is intimidating and I think it’s because I have to clamp down so hard on my inclination to be more ‘personal’. It’s also then because I’m aware of all the indicators of affect that create ‘personality’ and I systematically shut them down. Apparently this complete inscrutability is chilling. I guess it looks a little bit like the guy in “No Country for Old Men.”

    I like your story about running the gauntlet of evaluation as a judge. It’s interesting to me how people want very much to be considered as a whole person in all their subjectivity, but in an evaluative setting will flip completely the other way and look for credentials and ‘objectivity’. It’s nice that rapport followed; the reciprocity of judgment worked out in this case, maybe in part because you were ‘off duty’. In teacher/student relations it does so less often, maybe in part because it’s harder for teachers to be off duty.

    Of course in a really, really rigorous pseudo-objectifying judgment regime you would now be disqualified from having anything to do with the evaluation of this barista’s work.

  4. @Carl The comparison with teaching is difficult for a number of reasons, including the fact that though we do evaluate students (and some students perceive this as the major dimension of our work), we are also supposed to be helping them in a learning process. Some judges are in fact barista trainers and there’s an educational component to barista competitions. But the difference in terms of status and role is quite striking, between barista judges and teachers.
    There are rules which do prevent someone who has trained a barista or who has been involved too closely with a barista to be evaluating this specific barista’s work. A judge can (and should) recuse her-/himself from judging a barista’s work in those cases and there’s some discussion as to how far it can go.
    In this case, the brief encounter with this specific barista certainly wouldn’t prevent me from judging his work. Contrary to, say, competitions among beer homebrewers, it’s not a blindfold evaluation of a product but a conscientious evaluation of a specific performance, under specific conditions.
    Had to look up “running the gauntlet” as it didn’t seem appropriate a description. Unless you’re using another meaning for the expression, it doesn’t fit so much with what happened at Bridgehead. I was simply asked about my coffee credentials, as if it were a matter of curiousity, and there did seem to be a notion that I should prove myself as a worthy taster. Still, this is someone who had read this very post and seemed to agree with my perspective on coffee.
    One thing which is kind of funny, in my current life, is that other people tend to trust my palate (or “palette,” as some spell it) more than I do. While some things I perceive aren’t noticeable by others and while I may have a hard time with some aromas and flavours, I typically get some “taster cred” in most occasions. If I do have a “superior” palate (which I’m still not convinced about), it’s probably a lot to do with the fact that I’ve never been a smoker. Also, I did have the opportunity to taste and smell a nice variety of things, which often helps me in pinpointing specific things. Also, my analogical thinking works well enough that I can explain flavours and aromas to others. And I don’t tend to focus on the most obvious things (such as fiting preconceived notions of what something “should” taste like).
    What I like the most about my palate, though, is that it’s not really discriminating. I can often enjoy things that I would rate quite low. I appreciate diversity over a sense of perfection. And my tongue is “open-minded.” These are more important to me than proving myself as a worthy taster. Again, I’m hedonistic enough to care about experience.

    Which brings us back to the specificity of barista judging. What participants seem to understand quite well is that this kind of evaluation needs to be intersubjective. The importance of calibration, the role of the head judge, the training sessions, and the written guidelines all contribute to this idea that while competitions should be impartial, unbiased, and fair, they need not be “objective.” Some criteria are as close to being objective as possible (did the barista wipe the steam wand?), but the most important scores are for things like “taste balance,” which is easy to understand and fairly consistent across judges, but does rely on the perceiving subject.
    In the coffee world, contrary to the beer world, the art/science combination is fairly fluid. Beer people tend to relegate “art” to a secondary role, similar to measurable “innovation” or “creativity,” in marketing circles. Coffee people see baristas as artists, who integrate the measurable and scientific aspects but who also work “intuitively.” One reason for the difference is simply timing. Beer brewing can be carefully planned and executed almost mechanically. Pouring a shot of espresso is a much shorter performance and it relies more on habit than on planning. Plus, consumers typically attend the espresso-making performance and rarely have any idea as to what happens in a brewery.
    As for poker faces, I accept your explanation as probably valid. It’s still funny that “intimidating” is the term which comes back to bite me in barista competitions since it’s the one which has puzzled me the most over the past several years.

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