Recently I competed in the SCA roasting championships. It's the first time since 2019 that the SCA have run the event and not unexpectedly there were a number of eager bean browners wanting to compete.
I'd heard a rumour from a friend 'in the know' that there was going to be an event this year. I couldn't find any information so sent the SCA an email asking for details on 26th April. No immediate reply was forthcoming.
Then by chance the SCA posted on their instagram channel the following day stating that there was to be a 2023 competition and entries would go on sale on Monday 1st May on their website. The internet became alive with coffee roasters telling their friends, colleagues, neighbours and frankly anyone else that would listen that it was a GO and they'd better get their browsers ready (joking of course.. it's obviously a very niche thing).
I personally had the site loaded at 6.30pm (which just happened to say 'SOLD OUT' below the un-highlighted apply button), and started the increasing tempo of refreshing until it became super rapid at 6.58.. 6.59.. 7.00. Nada. All the time saying SOLD OUT. At 7.07 with no change to the site I sent a message to the SCA's insta account and had this response 'sorry, technical Issues..it will go live soon'. At 7.12 my order was accepted and I was in. I shouted to all my roasting friends that I knew were also trying to enter that it was live and the other 11 spots went in a flash.
Stage 1 done. Entered. Now the fun would begin. Competition date 7th, 8th and 9th of June. Six weeks preparation.
The sponsors were then announced including the roasting machine manufacturer Giesen. I'd used a Giesen W6 twice before for a few batches but I was a way away from being comfortable and proficient on one. One of the skills of a roaster is understanding and manipulating the energy levels of the machine. How much thermal inertia does it have ? How fast can it respond to changes in gas settings ? What are typical charge and initial burner settings for a particular batch size ?What about air flow (pressure in the case of the Giesen), or drum speed ? So, I reached out for a favour from the lovely folk at Rising Grounds Coffee in Wadebridge. The owner Sean was very accommodating and allowed me and another competitor, Jack (ex-Roastworks) to use the machine to two consecutive Wednesday mornings in the lead up to the comp. Probably 5 batches each spread over two sessions. Some basic familiarity with the controls but far from being proficient.
The sample roaster was another story. A Giesen W1A machine which is to all intense and purposes a scaled down version of a W6. Same control panel but very different power. With no chance to practice on one except driving up to Whitney in Oxfordshire or heading to Assembly Coffee in London there weren't many options. I opted for the whole - 'it's only sample roasting' and 'how hard can it be' approach. One other complication was the fact that all the machines were linked into Cropster touch-screen tablets for data recording. I'd not had great experiences with Cropster in the previous champs and the two sessions at Rising Grounds didn't make me feel any more comfortable. I've always used another piece of software for data and roast recording called Artisan. For me an intuitive user friendly interface, but of course I've used that daily since starting Crankhouse back in 2014. Cropster did not seem intuitive at all.
The next challenge was understanding the rules of the competition. We were given a link to download the rules and scoresheets to the WorldCoffeeRoasting Championship site. At that point there were only 2022 rules and preceding years, so a thorough look through those with a focus on the important point scoring (and losing) sections. Obviously, a competition is all about points so anything else is just window dressing and a distraction (the table on the Roast Plan sheet being a prime example).
The six weeks came and went in a flash and then it was game time. The event was hosted at Pharmacie Coffee roasters on a small industrial park on the outskirts of Lewes in East Sussex. Not since leaving Australia had I seen a coffee roasting business housed inside a tin shed on an industrial park that I'd liked. Until now. The setup at Pharmacie was epic, helped by the sunshine and the fact that there next door neighbour is Beak craft brewery. A comfortable and very stylish setup with a cafe, seating, mezzanine for training and QC, a brand spanking new Giesen W30 for their production two brand new W6 Giesens and another two W1A sample roasters just for us. Oh, and that cladding.
An 8am briefing on day 1 meant a drive down to Lewes the previous night to find our accommodation which hadn't seen any TLC since the 1970's. Never mind, it's just a bed for 3 nights (note to self.. never stay here again). Rob Ward is the SCA UK National Coordinator and took us through the format of the next 3 days, taking us through the elements of the competition and answering any questions we might have.
First task for all was the green grading, correctly identifying the spiked defects in a 350g sample, measuring moisture, density and screen size, assessing colour and aroma. Worth a combined 24 points. One objective measure, moisture which would be difficult to get wrong unless you misunderstood the instructions, but the remainder somewhat subjective ie. Aroma.. is it fresh, neutral or sour ? When I open a bag of fresh greens in the roastery there's a distinct 'green' fresh grassy smell. This bag of 350g green had been emptied from it's bag numerous times before I got to it.. left in the open air whilst it was being sorted, handled by numerous people then scooped bag into it's plastic bag. To me it had no aroma at all - I put neutral (I was wrong, and the judges marked this as fresh. Nil points ! Ditto for colour.. blue-green, blueish-green, green, greenish, yellow green, pale yellow, yellowish, brownish. It was in the middle somewhere.. not blue-green but maybe with a slight tinge of yellow. I went 'green'. Nil points. It was yellow-green apparantely.
Then we were given 200 grams of our 4 competition coffees, one single origin and three blend components for our 40 minute sample roasting slot.
Nicaragua Finca Argentina, El Carbon plot, Pulped Natural
5 mins prep time to get yourself sorted, everything in order and load the roast info on the Cropster tablet. First batch in and it seemed to take forever to get to colour change .. then I spotted I'd forgotten to adjust the machines SET TEMP thermostat from 180C back up to 220C as I'd intended and the burner had cut out. 11mins to roast the first sample, leaving 29 mins for the remaining 3. It was going to be tight. The Cropster tablet showed a small graph of the profile and I found it difficult to see much detail. I tried zooming in with the old two-finger technique and the graph flipped, disappeared and then I had nothing. No way to see what was going on, what was happening to the roast. I called for technical assistance and after a few minutes I was back to having some usable data. I'm sure you're starting to sense the pressure and anxiety building. With one batch to go I had 6 mins remaining. In it went and out just before my time was up. Phew. A stressful 40 mins and I had absolutely no confidence in any of the 4 roasts being 'good' and a fair representation of what the coffees could and would taste like.
Then the really difficult part. Cupping the 4 sample roasts and trying to taste through my bad roasts, trying to find some sensorial characteristics that I could be confident in writing down on my roast plans. The single origin tasted OK, medium acidity, medium sweetness, medium body.. just medium really. But what flavours would be exhibited when I roast the 'production' batch ? I honestly had no idea and think I realised at that point that my faint hopes of doing well in the competition were rapidly dwindling. I wrote down some arbitrary notes, pear like malic acidity, honey like sweetness, soft finish. All a little wooly and being absolutely honest, made up.
The blend was even worse. Three coffees badly roasted.. one baked, one overdeveloped and one under. Good luck with that. The Indian was an obvious standout, but not in a good way - very fermenty, dirty and full of booze. The DRC was spicy, peppery and very heavy.. molasses (and a little ashy tbh). The Colombian made me smile.. clean and sweet. By this point I'd lost all confidence in being able to blend these coffees, come up with one (if pre-blending), or three (if post blending) roast plans, defining clearly what I was aiming to achieve. Finger in the air time and my first brewed mixture was a 40/40/20 mix of the DRC, Colombia and India in that order. A little fruit punch from the Indian but not overwhelming, some body and heavy notes from the DRC and some sweetness and balance from the Colombian. Sounds good.. on paper.
Points are won and lost for how close you achieve certain quantifiable elements, including charge and drop temps, weight out, colour and then subjectively how close your description of the taste and flavour match what the judges find. As an example .. if you state that you're going to charge at 180.0C and you do that within +/- 0.1C then you'll score a maximum 6 points for that single element. Ditto with the drop temp. Over that you start to lose point rapidly. Likewise with the colour of the ground coffee. If you say it's going to measure 78 points on the myTonino scale and you're within 2 then you'll score the 6 point max. If you're out by more than 7 on the scale you'll get nil points.
Then the big one. The majority of the points are scored based on the SCA Cupping Form scoring system. ie. quality and intensity of acidity, body, balance, sweetness, flavour etc. The panel of judges went through a calibration exercise and they were all qualified Q-graders which means they'd been through a training course on assessing these characteristics in coffee. What it really means is that if you've roasted the coffee well, you should score good points. They're looking for a well balanced, sweet cup.
I decided to post-blend the 3 elements and thought there was ample time to manage this in the hour assigned to roasting the blend. That meant 3 separate roast plans detailing temps, weight loss and colour and one plan stating the taste and flavour attributes of the blend. For the single origin, just the one plan but I decided that 30 mins would be tine enough to do two batches and pick the best one... yeh. right.
The roast plans were submitted at 9am on day 2 which meant the previous night was spent dreaming about roast plans and questioning myself (some, of course, might have slept like babies). Day 2 was all about the production roasting. 30 mins to do the SO, 60 mins the blend. A timekeeper was assigned to each station and were also responsible for marking charge and drop temps in case of a Cropster issue. My own timekeeper went awol a couple of times and missed at least one charge and one drop but heh I had my mind on other things.
I started with the single origin and put myself into a difficult position immediately. In the 5 mins prep, I'd reduced the SET TEMP on the Giesen from 250C to 220C, thinking I didn't want to make the same mistake I'd made with the sample roaster the day before. 220C was still a way away from my planned charge of 180C for my first 3Kg batch. When time started I turned the burner off, loaded the green in the hopper, got Cropster ready to record and waited... and waited. My fellow competitor Stephen (2nd place winner in the end) had opened his charge gate and was off and roasting.. whilst I waited. After 5 mins, BT dropped under my 180C target, I turned the burner back on to 5% and waited for the temp to come back up to 180C. It rose rapidly, I opened the charge gate and hit START on Cropster.. I was pretty confident I'd hit close to 180.0C but how close ? My mistake was not making sure that the timekeeper recorded the charge temp (Stephen did). My 10' intended first batch ran a little slow but the time of roast is not scored, just the temperature. The roast lost momentum and I had to apply more energy towards to end to get to the 205C intended drop temp. Not ideal but heh, I had another chance. The next 3 Kg's in the hopper whilst the first batch was cooling and SET TEMP to 220C, with the burner off. Time to wait for the BT to come back down to my 180C charge. At this point I looked down at my timer and realised 18mins had gone and there was absolutely no way I had time to roast the second batch, get it cooled, measure it's weight, take out 100g for the judges to colour read and bag up 1.5Kg. Yes, I was sweating.. and I'd only done one batch of the 5 I had planned. At this point the only way I was not going to get DQ'd for going overtime was to concentrate on the first batch and forget the 2nd. As long as I had 1.5Kg plus the 100g in bags before the end of the 30 mins I was still in the comp. I dumped the 2nd batch into the cooling tray with a few minutes spare (you just have to have stopped roasting when time is up, and it was OK for the coffee to be in the cooling tray). SO done. Not happy, but still in it, and now it was time for the hard bit, the blend.
I made the same mistakes in terms of the machines SET TEMP reading and not checking that the timekeeper was present and marking charge and drop temps but by this point I didn't care. I just needed to get the 3 batches done, weigh them out, take 100g of each for colour reading and then mix them according to the ratio I'd specified presenting a 1.5Kg brown bag and calling TIME. I got through it, not proud or confident in any of the 3 roasts, and with absolutely no idea of how the coffee would taste.
It took all day to get through the 6 sets of pairs of roasters and then it was time for a well earned beer or two. All 12 of us had been through the same stresses, some able to hand the pressures better than others, and some clearly very much in control and making sure that the timekeeper marked every temperature. Aaron who was the third place winner made a comment that even for him it was challenging and he uses Giesen machines (incl the sample roaster) every day.
The final day, Friday was all about the judges. For the competitors it was an empty day just waiting for the supposed 3.30pm announcement. Some slept it, some went to the gym, a few of us went into Brighton for coffee and brunch (17grams was excellent btw if you're heading to Brighton at any point). 3.30pm came and went, 4.30, 5.30. The results were finally announced at just after 6pm and all the competitors were gathered in front of a decent sized crowd (I think the proximity to Beak brewery had a significant part to play in this) for the announcement and presentations.
Deep down I knew I'd not performed well and if my name had been called at any point in the top 3 I would have been shocked.. but there's always that hope. Aaron came 3rd, Stephen 2nd and the reigning champ from 2019 Diana first. All extremely worthy winners and I feel honoured to have spent time with them and the other 8 competitors.
When I think about what it would take to win this competition I have to look beyond the act of roasting coffee. That's really just one small aspect of what skills are needed to be up their with the best. All 3 winners have been working in coffee for a good number of years (as have I). All 3 have competed at various events in coffee, cup tasters, brewers cup, aeropress, barista over the years and both Diana and Stephen have been on the world stage. Diana as the former UK roasting champ, and Stephen as the Irish brewers cup champ. They all understand competition and have been under the pressure of performing. Aaron had the extra knowledge of how Giesen machines perform.
These are not excuses, but reasons why these three winners are winners. They're the best, better, more skilled in competition and therefore better prepared for the pressures that it puts you under. At the end of the day I was (and still am) disappointed with my 8th place. The bonus was spending time with a bunch of fellow coffee professionals, some of which I already knew, and some new friends.
If you've got to the end of this and happen to be a coffee roaster (i can't imagine many non-roasters making it this far tbh), and you were thinking about competing in the future then if I may (as only the 8th place getter) offer some advice:
- Get very familiar with the competition machines.
- Get very familiar with the rules and where points are won and lost.
- Ask for help from the likes of Diana, Stephen and Aaron (I guarantee they will all be happy to share their knowledge and tips).
- Think about this in the broader context of coffee competitions. To win requires you to understand coffee, not just roasting, but green and brewing and sensory aspects. Maybe enter cup-tasters or brewers cup.
- Be firm in your beliefs of your abilities and preparations and take control whilst you are competing. Make sure the timekeepers are marking your temperatures by giving them clear instructions.
Thanks to all my fellow competitors for making it a fun (at times) and friendly (constantly) event. In the pic above from left to right. Alex, Alberto, Anna, yours truly, Jack, Julian, Aaron (amazing 3rd place), Giancarlo, Emily, Kasjan, Stephen (2nd and an amazing person to compete alongside), and our superstar winner Diana. She posted a dedication on her insta this week, which was to her grandfather who worked on coffee farms in Mexico and her grandmother who roasted the coffee for their family. Coffee is in her blood, her DNA. Who could possibly deserve the title more. Congrats Diana.