October 29, 2018

Behind the Clipboard: Judging at the UKBC

First Published - May 1, 2014

They’re the Men (and Women) in Black. Vital to the success and smooth running of every UKBC event, a cohort of calibration (sensory) and technical judges work hard to ensure consistency and the same high standards are a hallmark of each heat. At the 2014 “Superheat” in Birmingham this year, our own Dave Jameson trained his beady eye on some of the aspiring champions, and we asked him to tell us just how he got to be there.

“The judge certification process is truly scary. This year was my second time through the process, and I felt just as nervous this time as last time. 30-odd people you don’t know in the very swanky surroundings of the Masteroast cupping lab in Peterborough. The certification process is not a training programme – it is expected that you know what you are doing when you get there, from the right way to tamp, to the correct procedure when filling your basket, to being able to accurately gauge the weight of waste coffee left on the grinder and judge the correct volume of leftover milk.

Dave judging during John Gordon's heat (©Kate Beard)


Day one basically consists of instruction on how to correctly complete the judges scoresheet, so we set to pulling shots, making cappuccinos and assessing them, testing coffee and milk waste and running through mock routines with the help of Guan Ha Park, the Korean Barista Champion. It’s a long day, and the epic coffee ingestion does nothing to lull you to sleep at the end of it!  Chair of the Judging panel, Jessica MacDonald from Square Mile, tweets that she is awake at 4am – I have full sympathy, as I am too!

Day two is certification, and takes a very similar format to day one, except this time everyone is being examined on their performance. The pass mark is 80%. Some of the judges claim not to have taken an exam since they were at school, others show the tell-tale signs of being that kid who walks out of the exam in tears claiming to have failed before coming top of the class.

Jess and World Coffee Events Head Judge Sonja Bjork Grant spend the evening marking papers before emailing the judges to give them the good news……

A trio of judges scrutinise Eve Purdy's performance (© Kate Beard)

Day three is calibration, this is to ensure that all the newly minted judges are scoring the same things at the same level. Once more we have espresso, cappuccino, full routines (including a brilliant and intentionally bad display from Andrew Tolley of Taylor Street/Harris + Hoole – Rich tea, earl grey latte anyone?) By the end of it, we have consistent and relevant scoring and a real sense of achievement that this disparate group of people with very different levels of expertise in the coffee industry have pulled together and managed to form a cohesive team.

Judges getting right into the thick of it at the superheat

It is such a privilege to be in a position to be able to judge these competitors. Coffee is a temporary, fleeting sensory art. This is not a statue or a painting, more a brief moment in time where flavours, emulsions and solutions exist momentarily in perfect balance before they die away. Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Craftsmanship, Skill, Artistry and Experience work together and the result, in the right hands, is spectacular. So few people get to experience the genuine brilliance of this work first hand and close up, and each competitor we come into contact with has made the commitment to stand up and be judged alongside their peers. I have so much respect for everyone who competes, and it’s so important that the quality and commitment of the judges matches that of the competitors.”

Not only a judge, Dave also competed in the Coffee in Good Spirits competition this year and he’ll be back to tell us more about that soon!



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