Challenging Ourselves

Indulge me while I get the bragging out of the way: I'm very proud that for the second year in a row one of the staff from Volta has taken up the challenge of representing Volta in the US Southeast Regional Barista Competition. Back in December Ambria decided that she'd like to give the competition a try. At the time, we didn't know when (or where) the SE regional would be held. Ambria wasn't even sure if she'd want to compete at the national level. To see if competition was for her, she decided to test her skills at an internal wholesale account competition staged by Intelligentsia (our primary roaster); instead of having its own staff compete this year, Intelligentsia had decided to throw its resources behind staging a practice competition for the benefit of its wholesale clients. The top three accounts would have an incredible amount of support from Intelligentsia: practice and competition coffee, direct access to the company's top trainers and roasters, and personal training with two former World Barista champions.

Back in January, Ambria and Anthony both flew up to Chicago to take part in the competition. Ambria would be using Ecco Caffe's El Ausol espresso, from El Salvador, while Anthony based his competition routine on Ecco's roast of a Colombian coffee from Finca Santuario (a bourbon from the Micay lot). In all honesty, we didn't know what to expect from the iWBC (Intelligentsia Wholesale Barista Competition). Team Volta was competing on a shoestring-- to keep the cost down, we were taking Intelligentsia up on the offer of being able to borrow much of the glass and prep wares necessary to compete. While we might have gone into the competition with a bare-bones set-up, Intelligentsia surprised everybody by staging an event that, in many ways, upstaged the national regional barista competitions. The day before the event, each competitor received practice time with one of Intelligentsia's educators, managers, or former barista champions. The event itself was indistinguishable from a national barista competition. The quality of judging was sterling. The SCAA's Marcus Boni was a tech judge. WBC/USBC sensory judge Loni Peterson was a head judge. Sensory judges included world champion Stephen Morrissey and US champion Kyle Glanville.

Given that Ambria had never even seen a barista competition before (and had only been working as a barista at Volta for ten months), she was a true unknown going up against the best baristas from Intelligentsia wholesale accounts coast-to-coast, including people who had been competing at the USBC level for several years. We shouldn't have wondered if her inexperience at competition would hold her back. If you've seen Ambria at work, you know how efficient she is in knocking down a line, and how effortlessly she can charm anyone across the bar. These qualities put her into the top of the competition through much of the day. Going into the last few competitors, it looked like Ambria was going to take second place-- only to be pipped by two very worthy competitors from Atlanta's Element Coffee with the last two turns of the day. Although Anthony's Micay espresso was spot-on, earning some of the top taste and tactile scores of the event, he was somewhat plagued with mechanical issues with both his grinder and signature drink hot-plate-- enough to push him 23 seconds over time. The resulting 23 point penalty put him in 5th place, one slot behind Ambria and just a few points out of third place.

While we might not have finished in the top three, our participation in the iWBC was tremendously rewarding. Not only was Team Volta able to gauge our skills against some of the best in the country, the ability to work one-on-one with so many amazingly talented people afforded us one of the most intensive educational opportunities that you could find within our craft.

While we were in Chicago, we learned that the US Southeast Regional would be held just 14 days later in Atlanta. Fresh off of the event in Chicago, both Ambria and Anthony signed up to represent Volta. Competition can be prohibitively expensive for a barista, but Ambria's showing in Chicago was impressive enough that she was able to receive a sponsorship from German grinder manufacturer Mahlkönig. For the SERBC, Ambria decided to use Ecco's roast of a coffee from Yirgacheffe's Dama cooperative. Anthony once again used the Colombia Finca Santuario Micay.

Drawing from the weekly cuppings that Volta holds with staff and customers, Anthony organized his presentation around the Micay's fragrance and aroma. The signature drink used shop-candied kumquats (from nearby Citra) and a cracked black pepper custard to try to capture the ephemeral aromas of the Micay's break. Ambria focused on the wild spice notes in the Dama Coop espresso, building her presentation around an espresso soda made with caramel and Barbados molasses. While the program in Chicago gave both their first taste of competition, the stage in Atlanta was the first "real" experience of going before a large audience in the Georgia World Congress Center and a larger, international audience via streaming web video. Anthony finished the weekend in thirteenth place, just 46 points out of the semi-finals. Ambria struggled a bit with the profile she was getting from her espresso on the day before competition; although she was happy with her coffee on the morning of the event, she finished a few places behind Anthony.

Although Team Volta might not have finished among the top finalists, challenging ourselves with events like the SERBC has a galvanizing effect on the entire staff. Ambria came back from competition with a personal challenge to make every drink to the standard of the competition. Every customer is a judge who is going to get the best quality drink possible. Every member of the staff helped to get Ambria and Anthony to competition: each member of the team patiently offered coaching guidance, training time, and invaluable advice on fine-tuning espresso profiles and crafting signature drinks. And once again, Volta was the only shop in the state of Florida to send baristas to the regional championship.

Everyone at Volta would like to thank Ecco Caffe and Intelligentsia for the support over the last few months. Everyone in the Intelligentsia organization-- from roasters and quality control to wholesale and retail trainers found the time to answer questions, gave us guidance, and helped us find our way with some of the most beautiful coffees that anyone could hope to use. It was an honor to be able to represent the coffees in competition.

Postscript

Once was enough for Anthony. After his experience at the SERBC, he decided to return to the other side of the table as a competition sensory judge. Having missed the bulk of the US regionals this year, he turned his sights to one of the most challenging trials one can face in the industry: to certify as a World Barista Competition sensory judge. The WBC is held once a year as the event to test all of the national barista champions in once place. WBC certification workshops are held in four or five locations each year, each time in a different region of the world. The tests are notoriously difficult; typically, only half of the people trying for certification pass. Anthony flew out to Long Beach, CA, to the Specialty Coffee Association of America's headquarters to take the test. Certification actually requires five different tests administrated over two days. Candidates take a battery of sensory and technical tests, along with written tests on the rules and two judging sessions with previous national barista champions.

We're pleased to announce that Anthony passed the exams and is one of fewer than a dozen sensory judges from the United States certified to serve at both the WBC 2011 in Bogota, Colombia, and WBC 2012 in Wein, Austria.