What's that buzz? It's the sound of baristas and coffee aficionados descending on the Chase Park Plaza today, April 1, through Sunday for the South Central Regional Barista Competition (SCRBC). Sponsored by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), this leg of the United States Barista Competition (USBC) is hosted by St. Louis' own Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company.
Of seventeen heavily caffeinated competitors from the region (Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi), four represent the St. Louis area: Nicole Call, Joseph Marrocco and Stephen Schuh are Kaldi's employees, and Sara Stagg serves Kaldi's coffee at Schnucks Culinaria downtown.
The events range over three days, and all are free and open to the public. Attendees can enjoy free coffee samples from all over the world and have a cup brewed and served by real roast-masters.
Of course, you can also watch the competition itself.
Baristas are each given fifteen minutes to impress the judges with preparation and service of four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature espresso-based beverages. The winner receives a cash prize and a trip to Central America, and the six top performers in this region will move on to compete in the USBC national finals in Houston, April 27-May 1.
Earlier this week Gut Check ambushed Josh Ferguson, the Head Problem Solver of Kaldi's Coffee (seriously, that's what his business card says; he's also an owner), while he led the SCRBC judges certification workshop at Kayak's Coffee. Though Ferguson has no part in judging this competition, he has served as head judge at USBC competitions for the past three years.
Gut Check: How does one become qualified to judge a coffee competition? Does it take seven years like for a sommelier?
Josh Ferguson: Baristas, customers, foodies, coffee lovers -- anyone has the opportunity [to become a judge], but they have to study and do the work before they get here. People from all over the region register, but to become a judge they have to pass a written test and a tasting test and score 80 percent or higher. We're evaluating the judges today, running through mock judging, making sure they know all the rules and regulations. The competing baristas have been preparing for months -- we owe them the responsibility of having skilled, educated judges there.
On what criteria are competitors judged?
There are four sensory judges, two technical judges and one head judge. Though we separate sensory and technical, the baristas' technique should influence the taste of the coffee. And everything ultimately comes down to taste.
[The criteria are quite specific: You can check out the judges' guidelines here.]
What will set the ultimate winner apart from the also-rans?
The winner is typically somebody who's skilled, trained, with a lot of knowledge, but also somebody on the cutting edge of what's going on in the industry.
What is the cutting edge these days?
Variations on new manual brewing methods, exploration of extracting flavors out of coffee.
The "signature beverage" portion is a kind of freestyle. Have you seen any crazy concoctions?
There are competition restrictions that keep them from going too far out on a limb, such as: No alcohol can be used. The beverage needs functionality, has to work with the coffee, not overpower it. Ultimately it's about the coffee and how you can enhance its flavors.
How does St. Louis' coffee scene fit in nationally?
This is Missouri's first year as part of the South Central Region. We've always been part of the Midwestern region, and we've performed well at the national level.
How about internationally?
Last year the U.S. won the World Barista Competition for the first time. This year it's held in Bogotá, Colombia, and 50 countries will compete.
What's your favorite coffee?
Right now, it's Kinyovu from Burundi. But my favorite is whatever coffee's in season.