Why we play the way we play

I have often said that the competition part of The Barista League is just an excuse to get a bunch of cool coffee people in a room together.  While i still think this is true, anyone who knows me knows that deep down i am a competition nerd and i spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the competitions more fun, fair and relatable to what baristas actually do.

So i thought before we start 2018, i would clarify exactly how we will run the competition in Oslo and why we do each part of the competition.  As we have more competitors flying in from further afield, i think it is good to have more accountability in the competition and make sure that their efforts are rewarded with a fair and accurate system of competition.

3 Rounds

The Barista League has always been a multidisciplinary competition.  This is because being a barista is a multidisciplinary occupation - taking orders, dealing with cash, steaming milk and taking dirty dishes at the same time is pretty standard for most baristas.  So we have three challenges meant to test the different but equally important aspects of being a barista.

1 - Barista Skills

In Oslo teams will have 15 minutes on stage to make 2 single espressos and 2 oat-milk beverages.  The coffee is the same for all competitors, mandatory and roasted by amazing roasters Kaffa in Oslo.  During the day every team gets an hour on the machines to dial in the coffee and create a oat-milk beverage.

The idea is that baristas don't often get to source their own coffee - they come to a bar and have to make the best damn espresso possible, often early in the morning before breakfast.  Can you make this coffee taste amazing?  The answer should be yes, and that is what we are trying to test.

We have two sensory judges scoring Balance, Texture and Flavour on the Espresso, and Balance, Texture and Appearance on the oat-milk beverage.  The third judge is there to adjudicate and score for the baristas service and cleanliness.  Baristas are expected to deliver to the judges the coffee with ONE flavour and ONE tactile descriptor of the espresso.

The concept again is - can you make this coffee taste amazing, and do you know why and what it tastes like.

Check out the full sensory sheet and rules here.

2 - Sensory Skills

Being able to make espresso is all well and good, but a great baristas needs the sensory chops to taste the coffee and make decisions based on those observations.  So in Oslo we have 5 flavoured infusions of common coffee flavours.  Teams will have 5 minutes to cup through them and try to identify the flavours of each.  

The idea is to test if baristas really know what they are talking about when they say they find mango or apple in a coffee.

3 - Mystery Round

This is our chance to mix things up a bit and throw the baristas a curve ball.  It also feeds into a key belief here at The Barista League - that baristas need to be able to work with all different pieces of equipment, under all different circumstances and still produce great coffee and great service.

In Oslo teams will again have an hour prep time during the day to work with a mystery coffee, a 3temp brewer and a Baratza grinder to dial in a great batch brew.  All teams will have the same equipment and coffee and told to go wild with all the other variables to make a great tasting filter coffee.

Then during the competition all the teams will brew to their recipe and then cup all the cups together with the judges and the guests (completely blind of course).  This gives the competitors a chance to take part in the judging of the coffee and learn from each other - not just focus on their own recipes.  

As a competitor myself, i have felt that getting to taste other competitors coffees and brews was one of the most instructive and fun parts of a competition, a part that is often so overlooked.  We want people to learn from each other, and we have a room full of some Europe's best baristas to try and make that happen.


Each round is equally weighted and the direct points from each round carry through to the final score and each round is worth a maximum of 100 points. 

For example if a team nails the espresso and gets 98/100 on the first round, 3 out of 5 on the 2nd round and get a cumulative 7 points on the final round they would get the following points:

Round 1  - 98 points
Round 2 - 60 points (3 correct 20pts)
Round 3 - 70 points (7 points x 10)

We think this is the most fair way to reward excellence in each round.  In the case that we have 3 teams all perform really highly in round one, we want the scores to reflect that.

But then again, its just a silly coffee competition

In the end though, despite all of these rules and judges and points,  i strive for each and every team to have as much fun as the winner.  If only two people in the whole event go home happy, then we have failed.  So this is our version of a credible and world class competition,  without the pressure, with more fun, and with challenges that are relevant to real baristas.

Founder of The Barista League