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Judging at Singapore National Barista Championship 2010 and 2011 – My Personal Experience – Part 2 – Sensing the Espressos

March 28th, 2011 · No Comments

Let me start off by reiterating that this is my own experience. 

Sensory judging at 2010 and 2011 SNBC was not entirely new, as I had judged before in my previous occupation. However, the new experience was to be able to attend the calibration process and training with Justin Metcalf and David Makin. The calibration was essential to ensure that all sensory judges are “calibrated” to the same standard as much as possible in terms of assessing the visual presentation of the drinks, as well as taste of the drink and finally the overall impression of the Barista’s performance.

Click here for the copy of the scoresheet.

VISUAL – Visual assessment had to be carried out on three categories of drinks – First, the espressos, followed by the cappuccinos and last, the signature beverages preparations.

The espresso is assessed based on the colour of the crema. So what is the correct colour? The score sheet labelled it as hazelnut, dark brown, reddish reflection. Who’s has seen a real hazelnut? And is it dark brown? What about reddish reflection? Does the reflection appears red? Such were the questions that raced through my mind as I get ready to get “calibrated” along with the rest on espressos made during the training. So, in actual fact, the process of calibration involves everyone peering over a few espressos (one made to the best ability of a fellow barista, and one under extracted and one made over-extracted). So the head judge would describe the colour and gives an appropriate score to the respective espressos so that every one there has an idea of the proper scores for the colours observed. That’s it. I asked what a score of 6 (the highest) would look like? It was not easy to achieve as its dependent on the blend and roast of the coffee and of course, the extraction standards of the shot. I have not seen a 6 yet. But its easy to spot a score of zero or 1. Particularly if the shot had no crema, or displayed a dark patch in the centre or displayed a very blond crema or extremely dark almost dark chocolate tone coloured crema.

The next assessment is the consistency and persistence of the crema. To assess this, as sensory judges, we were told to tip the cup slightly almost 30- 45 degrees gently to the front. If the cup exhibits no breakage of the crema at the edge or display a thick crema on the surface, the score would be in the range of 4-6s.Again, we had to be calibrated to what’s an poor-average (1 or 2) versus a good (3), and what’s a excellent (5). I have also not seen what a crema that warrants a score of 6 at this category.  Perhaps I can surmise that if the cup is tilted to an angle where the coffee is almost going to spill as it touches the leading edge of the espresso cup, and still there is no break in the crema, it should warrant a 6. 

One of the key and very important action that the sensory judge must do is to get ready for the espresso to arrive in front of him or her, and immediately make the assessment of the colour and in less than a second, pick the cup up and tilt to assess the crema. It has been reiterated on both calibration by Justin and David, that this assessment has to be done with urgency to be absolutely fair to the competitor as we all are aware, that espressos are very fragile and the crema in espresso oxidises and thins out quickly. So, the barista will be trying to rush their espresso’s to the judges table to ensure that judges get to assess the espresso’s visual at its very best. Otherwise, they run the risk ruining the colour and thinning out the crema. Such an action is also extremely practical in real life cafes who has barista who understands coffee, will also rush their espressos to the customer’s table immediately once its made. Is it no wonder that Italians love to stand at the bar to grab and sip the espresso the moment it is extracted and served. That way, they can be assured that they are enjoying and getting the freshest espresso made possible. 

Some might think that the competitor can let the espresso rest a little longer to let the colour oxidise to a darker colour, but the crema cannot wait. What’s worse is the changes in the taste of the espresso if it is sitting too long. And this brings us to the next assessment, taste. If the espresso is left to sit too long, the tastes will change, in this category, you cannot afford to mess it up, because it is the one that provides one of the highest scores in the whole score sheet.

TASTE – Before tasting the espresso, the sensory judges have to stir their espresso from front, down and back up 3 times to ensure the espresso is thoroughly mixed before drinking. The question is why the elaborate stirring three times. This is so that the crema which is generally more bitter as it contains most of the last 10-15 seconds extraction where the secondary extraction happens, gets stirred up and mixed properly with the bottom where the primary extraction (first 10  seconds) resides. As also hotter elements tends to stay on the top and cooler elements tend to sink, thus the stirring definitely helps to ensure an even distribution of the primary and secondary extractions as well as even out the temperature.

At this point, it is my opinion that taste calibration is one of the most difficult to achieve. Unless one drinks espressos often (and I don’t mean cupping which Roasters do), its difficult for one to understand the complexity, structure, as well as pick up the minute nuances of the changing espresso’s  taste on your palate between the first and second sip. It is also difficult to pick up sweetness in an espresso. And one of the key challenges for the Barista is to pull an espresso that can exhibit clear sweetness in a cup. Very seldom do I get very slight hints of sweetness (to be experienced in the front tip of the tongue). And by very,  I really mean very very slight.

Bitterness is always present, and its easy to experience overly bitterness which is a sign of under or over extraction due under-dosing or over dosing respectively. Acidity is also an easy trait to pick up on the side of the palate, and over acidity is sometimes rather subjective. Some sensory judges have high tolerance of acidity on their palate and would rate it as good or very good. But for those who are sensitive and not used to acidity would rate it as over acidic.

The calibration of the taste for the sensory judges would therefore depend on the individual experiences of the judges.And the taste buds of the Head Judge would be the marker where all scores will be taken reference to. During the actual competition, the head judge would selectively pick up the left over coffees from the 4 main sensory judges and drink them and note his own score of the drinks. That way, if one of the sensory judges score for this part conflicts with the Head Judge’s assessment, and with the fellow sensory judge who had the same set of espresso made from the same portafilter, the correlation and calibration is made again among the head judge and the sensory judges. Scores can be amended in the witness of all the sensory judges and the head judge and signed off there and then.

The calibration for taste balance of full bodied, round and smooth category is another challenge albeit less difficult than the earlier category of finding balance of sweetness, acidic and bitterness. The body is obvious unless the coffee really taste light on the palate which in this case, would be scored lower. The roundness is assessed by the overall sensation of the coffee on the palate in terms how taste of the coffee gets transmitted or travels from the front of the palate to the back (roundness). The smoothness is describing the after-effect experienced by the back of the throat after swallowing the espresso.  One would ask whether the espresso slide down the throat easily without leaving any discomfort or does it want to make you clear your throat ever so slightly. 

In my own way, I have found out that generally an espresso is good or very good by watching how much water judges drink immediately after sampling the espressos. A clear sign of lack of smoothness or overly bitter coffee or acidic coffee is if the judge drinks lots of the water immediately after finishing 2 sips of the espressos. 

In extracting espressos, sensory judges do not care what the timings of the extractions are. In fact, there are no timings to be assessed in the sensory score sheet. So, the baristas are free to pull a very long shot or a very short shot. The only care they need to take is the difference in timing between the two portafilter shots they pull which must not exceed + or – 3 seconds for the same set of drinks (i.e.  the first 2 espresso’s extraction timing compared with the second set of espresso timing cannot be more or less than 3 seconds). This is assessed by the tech judges, but there is no assessment that the espresso must be extracted in any timing.

Hence some baristas can pull a 40-50 second shot or a 18-20 seconds shot if they so choose on the basis that they know best how to bring out the flavours of the coffee that they are after. Its up to the Barista competitor since he or she is expected to know their own coffee (blend or single origin, roast profile, growing conditions, harvesting process, ageing process, resting period, country of origin etc) to extract the desired characteristics of the coffee they have chosen to present to the judges. As a sensory judge, we don’t judge the timing, we judge the look and taste of the espressos presented to us and we also make special notes of what the baristas tells us to look for in our palate. It could be blueberry, blackcurrants, walnut, hazelnut, dark chocolate, raspberry, lemony, orange, cinnamon, cardamon flavours etc. The more barista states his expectations, the better they will score IF the sensory judges picks up those flavours as well. The risk is always that the judges do not get it at all and left disappointed. However, it also does not pay to play safe and give general comments about the espresso or not say anything at all of what to expect, since the score will also most likely be mediocre. The sensory judges will not award for nice flavours that are picked up when they are not mentioned essentially. And by playing safe, the score will be really be reflected in the last 2 category i.e. Barista Evaluation and Overall Impression. More of that later. I will write more about the cappuccino assessment in my next segment.

Hence, the barista’s extraction of the espresso, no matter how technically proficient, really lies at that moment of extraction, of whether they know their coffee well and able to explain and present the expected flavours, and deliver them with the given espresso machine and grinder on stage ( which they are given 15 minutes to set up and prepare before hand). 




Tags: Expressing Espresso

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