Ever wondered what it takes to become an Irish barista champ? We extracted tales of blood, sweat and tampers from 2018 champion Arvind Khedun (pictured) and SCA judging coordinator Vini Arruda
Feature from The Ireland Independent Coffee Guide No 2 – buy your copy here.
There’s almost never blood, only a light sprinkling of sweat and a helluva lot more tamper talk at a coffee comp than the Ultimate Fighting Championships. However, the professional espresso slingers taking top honours at the SCA Barista Championships carry McGregor-level clout in the coffee industry.
Every year, baristas at the top of their game pour hours into perfecting a carefully choreographed routine for the highly respected coffee competition, battling it out against other baristas in their region to secure a spot in the national, and then world, finals.
Fifteen minutes to prepare four identical espresso, milk-based and signature beverages (that’s 12 drinks in total while giving an in-depth description of the beans and what they’re doing) in front of a panel of experienced judges (plus a sizeable audience) is no mean feat. So it’s no surprise that those who gain world glory become icons of their profession.
So what goes into a winning performance? 2018 Ireland winner Arvind and experienced judge Vini let us into the ring …
With two technical judges, four sensory judges and a head judge to impress, what are the pros looking for in the next coffee champ?
‘Besides basic skill, we’re looking for excellent coffee knowledge, customer service and a high standard of technical ability,’ explains Vini.
‘We want someone who can be an ambassador for the SCA – as well as the wider coffee community – who will set an example for others in the industry. A good barista will be able to share their passion for coffee through the drinks they craft and, most importantly, do this while remaining humble.
‘Taste is everything in the overall score. It doesn’t matter if the competitor has the highest numbers in all the other criteria; if the coffee doesn’t taste right then they’re not going to win.’
Nailing the routine
While the championship is designed to showcase the repertoire of skills that baristas perform on a daily basis, prepping for the competition is rather different to gearing up for a day behind the bar.
‘I’ve lost count of the amount of hours I spent preparing for the competition,’ admits Arvind. ‘Around three months before the regionals I got together with my team to create a routine based on the coffee I was going to use. I competed last year, so we reflected on my performance, the other competitors’ coffees and the feedback I received from the judges to come up with three drinks which would secure a place in the top three.
‘Each time you compete you need to bring something new to the table. You have to go back to the drawing board and come up with something fresh. After much thought, I decided on a fully washed Ethiopian heirloom variety, which I paired with a sugar cane juice, rose petal, raisin and hibiscus flower reduction and peach whipped cream for my signature drink.
‘Routines are performed to music which often takes spectators by surprise at their first competition. I usually pick something instrumental as it helps to give me an idea if I’m on track with my timings.’
On competition day it may be a one-barista show, but behind almost every competitor is the expert guidance of a team of coffee pros.
‘It takes a lot of dedication, practice and learning to become a barista champion, and it’s not something you can do alone,’ continues Arvind. ‘I sought help and consultancy from others in the industry, and gaining advice from former competitors was invaluable.’
It’s not just the barista’s reputation which rides on their performance: coffee farmers, importers, roasters and coffee shops invest time and energy in a winning routine.
‘The competition raises the standards of the industry as a whole,’ adds Vini. ‘From farmers aspiring to produce a winning coffee to roasters who want to craft a champion roast, each beverage presented to the judges showcases skills at different points of the coffee chain.’
Any tips for budding barista champions?
‘Training, training and more training,’ asserts Vini. ‘It’s also essential to believe in your choice of competition coffee and, most importantly, enjoy yourself.’
‘The championships will push you to see how good a barista you really are,’ adds Arvind. ‘Learn the rules, go and watch a couple of performances live and study videos online to understand how the competition works. Repeat the routine as many times as possible and you’ll find yourself improving. Finally, seek advice; this isn’t something you can do by yourself.’