A few weeks ago I competed in the UK Roasting Championships, alongside some of the countries best speciality coffee roasters. There were only 14 spaces available and it was a matter of getting your entry in quick since like most other coffee competitions these days it sold out fast. Of course this means that that you're not competing against many other fantastic roasters and coffee professionals that might be way more knowledgeable and skilled at the challenges of the competition, but like the saying goes.. you've got to be in it to win it !
The same applies to any of the coffee competitions of course, and the most well known one that comes to mind is the Barista Championships. There must be so many well trained and passionate coffee people serving in busy coffee shops every day that would never even consider entering a competition. Are the people that enter competitions actually 'better' ? I'd argue that yes they probably are. Competing puts you under pressure that you're simply not put under on your day to day. You're asked to examine why you'd approach something in a certain way and demonstrate your technical knowledge and skills in front of a trained panel of judges. If you want to do well then of course that forces you to focus on these and improve both your knowledge and skills so that when you're time comes and the stopwatch starts, you're well practiced, have the backup knowledge and confidence in your abilities.
In the five years I've been running Crankhouse and roasting coffee I think I've learned some stuff, have improved my general coffee knowledge, and have roasted thousands of batches of different coffees. My coffees have received some great feedback from other coffee professionals as well as discerning customers. BUT.. just how good a coffee roaster am I ? I wanted to know where my knowledge and skills sat right now and what were my weaknesses and strengths. Of course with the aim to be better tomorrow than I am today. So I entered.
I asked a number of roasting friends I've met over the last few years if they had any magic words of wisdom and advice they could give me to help me in preparing, including a couple of ex-world Champions and a senior Cup of Excellence judge. The main theme of their advice was to read and understand the rules, all 20 pages of them. I studied them thoroughly highlighting areas that were unclear to me that I needed clarification on, as well as the most important thing.. where the points were won and lost ! After all, in the competition the winner was going to be the person with the maximum point score. FULL STOP. Nothing else mattered. Not personality, not your tattoes (or lack thereof), not what music you liked to listen to. No, just how many points you scored over the 3 days of competition.
There were a total of 672 points available, split between three challenges:
Green Grading, worth 24 points:
From a 'doctored' 350g sample of the DR Congo coffee and analysing moisture, density, freshness, colour, screen size, and most importantly defects which needed to be separated and handed in at the end of the 30 mins.
Roast planning, worth 24 points each for a single origin and a blend:
Based on your analysis of the coffees (there was time in the 30 mins green grading to assess all four competition coffees for moisture and density), write a plan about how you intended to roast the coffees. Then detail the attributes of acidity, body, balance and sweetness that your coffees would have and describe their flavour characters.
Production roasting, worth 300 points each for the single origin and the blend:
30 mins to roast the DR Congo and 1 hour to roast the blend. Before the end of each period you had to submit a minimum of 1.5Kg of each of the coffees for assessment. This was scored by the judges according to standardised SCA protocol for 'quality' of the coffee according to the standard attributes (acidity, body, balance, sweetness) as well as 30 points each for how close the coffee matched your pre-defined attributes in the roast plan.
Clearly the Green grading and roast planning were relatively insignificant and didn't warrant too much attention ! That's what I thought although having only ever performed a green grading as part of my SCA Intermediate Green course I knew it was an area I needed to practice. Generally of course we buy speciality grade coffee through our import partners which we'd hope and expect was already graded by them. Therefore it's not something that feels necessary. Spending most nights over the two weeks before the comp practising grading on coffees we had at the roastery made me think otherwise. Plenty of defects which in some cases were enough to discount the coffees from being graded as 'speciality' entirely.
How the competition panned out was like this:
Friday 8am competitor briefing during which we were told about the facilities available at the site, our expected level of conduct and professionalism, and some basic details of the 4 competition coffees. This happened to be a washed DR Congo for the single origin, a natural Ethiopian, washed Colombian and washed Guatemalan for the blend. This was also a chance to ask for clarification on any specifics of the rules. There were lots and I'm glad it wasn't just me who seemed a little bemused by some of them.
One of the very confusing forms we were required to compete was the 'roast plan', a table with columns listing 'set point', 'enviro temp', 'bean temp' and about 20 rows for data. I asked if it was necessary to complete this table on the form (one form each for the single origin and blend). There were four additional single digit size boxes that simply said Charge Temp, Drop Temp, colour and weight. Alongside of each of these was a box for the judges to mark the number of points from 0 to 6. If I were asked to fill out this extensive table for a coffee I know on my own roaster that I've spent many hours in front of roasting coffee I couldn't do it. To even contemplate doing it with a coffee I've never seen before on a roaster I've never touched would be impossible. A rhetorical answer to my question came back from one of the judges "Do you see a box with a point score against the table ?". There wasn't, which of course meant there were no points to be gained or lost by filling the tricky table. I'm glad I asked.
The remainder of Friday was taken up with the scheduled green grading and sample roasting (40 mins slot using an IKAWA, not scored), and a 30 min slot (timed but not scored) to use the Diedrich IR5 competition roaster with a practice coffee (a faded smelling green from India). This is an aspect of the competition which definitely favours those people who use or have used a machine from the same manufacturer. All roasting machines behave differently and controlling gas and airflow to achieve target profile is not something easily learnt. 30 mins was enough time to roast two batches and get a very rudimentary 'feel' for the machine and how much power it had, how it responded to changes to gas and air (which was very limited on the IR5). Some of the competitors were very familiar with Diedrich machines, others were not. I did make the effort to ask around and research how people roasted on their IR5's and had some basic understanding but this was definitely one of the more challenging aspects of the competition.
Then Friday late afternoon, an open cupping timeslot was available. All 14 competitors cupping their (and everyone else's) sample roasts of the 4 coffees to gain an understanding of the basics of the coffees and make a judgement of their attributes and flavour characters. The washed DR Congo single origin was an OK coffee. Nothing exciting, definitely no delicate fruit or florals which you wouldn't expect from a coffee from this origin. I've only ever roasted one washed DRC coffee before and it required a decent amount of development to bring out some spice, dried fruit and chocolate notes. For the blend it was necessary to use all 3 coffees with a minimum of 10% of any of them. Immediately it was easy to tell these were not great coffees. The natural Ethiopian stood out as a 'good' example. Good fruit characters, not too funky and not overpowered with quakers or under-ripes that can be quite typical in low grades. The Guatemalan was flat and tasted papery. It did have a creamy body and that was something I thought I could use. The Colombian was also flat when it was hot, but as it cooled it started to show some sweetness and acidity. One of the other competitors had stuffed up his 40 mins sample roasting and didn't manage to roast up the Guatemalan. He asked if we could setup our cupping together so he could use mine which of course I was happy to do. He was incredibly knowledgeable, confident and experienced and had a different approach to blend creation to my normal approach which was both interesting and a little distracting. I ended up with a 'loose' plan to base the blend around the natural Ethiopian (50%) with some body from the Gaut (30%) and hiding the Colombian (20%).
The cupping finished at 7.30pm and then we all went our separate ways to work on our roast plans which needed submitting at 9am Saturday morning (for most of us). The production roast schedule for 14 roasters split between two machines having 90 mins (30 for the SO and 60 for the blend), as well as warm-up, clean down and in between competitor preparation time meant that the first two competitors started roasting at 7am Saturday morning and the last two finished at 6pm. To be honest I could have started at 2am, 3am, 4am.. anytime during the night really. Cupping coffees that late at night as well as the stress of the competition meant that sleep didn't come easily. So at 9am most of the competitors handed their roast plans in. I did notice one person frantically filling out the whole 5 column, 20 row roast plan table at 8.40am. Perhaps they didn't listen during the briefing or perhaps they knew way much more than me about how exactly they were going to roast the coffee and the temperatures of the BT and ET probes at specific time intervals.
With the roast plan submitted then it was a matter of waiting until my scheduled production roast time at 2.40pm. Some people went out for a few hours to get their heads clear, most of us stayed and waited. We were allowed to watch other competitors roasting their coffees which was interesting. Some incredibly experienced coffee professionals with years of roasting behind them still making small fumbles under the stress of the competition. The ceiling at the London School of Coffee is pretty low and the space between the top of the hopper and the ceiling was quite small. The greens were pre-weighed for us into tall metal bins and I saw more than one competitor struggling trying to load the greens into the hopper. There were other smaller plastic bins lying around and I made a mental note to swap the greens into the smaller bin when it was my turn. I forgot to do that for my first batch and struggled like those before me to get the first batch of green coffee loaded without spilling it. That's what competition does.. puts you under pressure. I roasted two batches of the DR Congo in the allotted 30 mins and submitted the one that I had better control of and I thought would taste better. BUT what I forgot to focus on were those easy points to lose on the roast plan. You had to state your charge and drop temps and I stated 210.0C and 208.0C respectively. 6 points were available and 6 were given if you were within 0.1C of your stated temps. Then you started to lose points the further you were away. With an unfamiliar roaster, using unfamiliar software on a laptop with a hyper sensitive track pad I missed my charge temp. Easy points to lose out of the 24 available for the roast plan element.
I'd planned to pre-blend all 3 components for the blend coffee. Others had chosen to roast each individually and post-blend, a few had chosen to pre-blend the Colombian and Guatemalan and then post blend with the Ethiopian. I knew I was playing it safe in my approach, giving myself 60 minutes to nail the pre-blend roast without putting myself under too much time pressure. I thought that if I'd attempted to roast each component separately and post blend I'd leave myself very time poor and potentially stressed and liable to make errors. That was probably the biggest mistake I made in the competition. As soon as I'd roasted the first batch of the blend I could see how uneven the coffee appeared. The larger Guats and Colombians looked OK, perhaps a little under developed, but the smaller Ethiopian naturals looked over. A little heavy and some were showing signs of tipping indicating too much heat too quickly. At that point there was no way I was going to alter my plan on the fly and try and post blend. I thought I simply didn't have the time nor the confidence to take the risk. In retrospect I could have tried it. There and then I could have asked the volunteer who was weighing out our greens to prepare a batch with the correct ratio of Guatemalan and Colombian and roast those together, followed by a batch of the Ethiopian. Then I could have blended those in the correct ratio. BUT that's not what I said I was going to do on the roast plan and therefore I would have lost points if I had done so. So I went ahead and roasted another two batches of the pre-blend and tried once again to control the roast and submitted the one I thought would yield the best cup. Again I neglected to focus on the precision of the charge and drop temperatures, so more easy points lost.
Sunday was an odd day. Nothing really to do except wait around for the announcement of the results. We were told that we could taste the production roasts of all 14 entered coffees from midday onward until the 3.00pm announcement. As it turned out the results were announced at 5.30pm by which time some people had already left to get home. I decided to stay and miss my booked train from Paddington and catch a later train. Cupping the DRC coffee first and then eventually the blends was very interesting. The same coffees, roasted on the same machines by different people with different approaches as well as a different makeup of the components for the blend. There were a couple of the DRC coffees that stood out as a little better, and a couple that stood out as a little worse. Not a great coffee to start with so you're not expecting to be blown away but definitely differences. The differences in the blend were more obvious. You could tell those fruit heavy that were clearly based around the natural Ethiopian. One stood out above the rest. Clean and sweet and actually surprisingly tasty given the quality of the individual elements were given to work with. I of course hoped it was mine (as did everyone else that had chosen the Ethiopian as the base to their blend I'm sure). It wasn't.
When the results finally came the top 3 were announced and the clear winner was the well deserving Diana Johnson from DR Wakefield. She runs their QC program and analyses green coffee on a daily basis, roasts them on the IKAWA and then does a full QC grading of their attributes for quality assessment as well as identifying flavour characters to send to prospective customers (like me). Formerly she's been head roaster for one of the UK's best and has been competing in various coffee competitions for a number of years. ie. she's got the skills, knowledge, experience. She's now off to the World Championships in Taipei and I wish her all the luck and good fortune - GO DIANA.
I was happy with my 5th place but of course as soon as you start looking at where you lost points you realise how much better you might have done. That obviously applies to all the competitors and if I'm completely honest 5th place is much better than I was expecting. The top 3 were all deserving of their places and are fabulous coffee professionals. It was a stressful but fun three days and I'm glad I put myself up for it. I hope I've learned some things that will make me a better roaster, and some things that will make be a better competitor.
One of the major benefits of doing the competition was connecting with some friends within the coffee community and establishing new friendships. An incredibly open and supportive bunch of coffee professionals who I'll hopefully meet again at other events and competitions.
Would I do it again ? Of course. I'll be aiming to get my entry in on the date that it opens next year and hope I can improve on this years result.
If you've made it all the way to the end of this rather lengthy blog post then you deserve a reward (I imagine there won't be many). Here's a discount code for the site that will give you 15% off across the store for all our current coffees and brewing equipment including grinders, aeropress, chemex. Just enter it at the checkout:
CODE: UKRC2019 (valid to end September)
Here's a few pics from the weekend: