Judging, Competing and Connecting: An inside perspective on CoffeeFest Nashville

CoffeeFest Nashville 2017 marked a bunch of firsts for me. I had the absolute distinct honor to join the World Latte Art Open Judges panel with fellow champion Shroeder Hsieh [Tokyo 2015], owner of Milkglider University, Taipei City, Taiwan, and David Schomer of Espresso Vivace, one of the first developers of latte art in America. We [S&D Coffee & Tea] also had entered the second regional Best Cold Brew Competition as well as the 2015-2016 National Best Espresso Finale. This was also the first time I had attended any CoffeeFest as a father, and the reception of our at the time three-month-old daughter was nothing more than extraordinary.

How were all the competitions you ask? Intense to say the least. Here I thought competing in the World Latte Art Open was difficult. No no no, judging is difficult. Over half of the 64 person bracket were dear friends of mine, and I personally had watched the majority of the competitors’ careers from their barista growth standpoint as well as their latte art development standpoint. The breakdown of the categories in this competition is straight-forward: speed, aesthetic beauty, color infusion, symmetry and difficulty. The breakdown of categories are incredibly difficult to justify one way or the other as well. Some questions that perused my mind as I was judging were, “How intentional was this pour?” “Was this pour executed like it was meant to be executed?” “How is the milk texture?” Judging was not easy as there were two other judges that I deeply respected that agreed and disagreed with me all weekend. In the end, latte art is subjective, and what we consider beautiful and complex varies from state to state and from country to country. In the final four, we had competitors from Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and America. Amazing, isn’t it? We crowned Robert Kim from New Zealand as the new World Latte Art Champion…and of course, this was his first time competing.

One item of business that always has been lacking in the World Latte Art Open has been live updates. This competition is fairly fast paced overall, and several baristas from all around the world are always curious to see the pours as they happen along with who had won or lost a round. We live in a technological savvy world now, and what better way to give the baristas an update other than using social media? But, we have to be careful now, because there is a fine line of overloading an individual’s feed with post after post. So, I decided to use InstaStory every day to document the pours as they appear in front of the judges as well as who had won the round. I also put in small notes on if the judging was a sweep one way or it was a split decision…because those answers matter to frequent competing baristas.

Best Espresso Nationals and Best Cold Brew Regionals in Nashville…we had prepared and prepared and then prepared some more. The espresso that we brought to the nationals was sourced by Ally Coffee and was this fairly wild naturally processed Sumatran. We had partnered up with the master coffee roaster from Greenway Coffee [Houston, TX] to help us profile the green coffee and maximize its flavor potential in the form of espresso. While we did not advance to the national finals, it did give me the perspective once again that espresso is incredibly subjective and biased in what it should or should not taste like. One judge commented that our espresso did not have the flavor of tobacco and the finish was too clean. Those are two sensory notes that I always try to stay away from when dialing in espresso, but some people enjoy it!

For our best cold brew coffee, we sourced a single origin Nicaraguan from Caravela Coffee. We had partnered with Summit Coffee Roasters [Davidson, NC]. We had also used a method of extraction that was counter intuitive from standard cold brew methods. We used vacuum extraction to product a sparkling and bright cold brew that mimicked a fresh iced coffee. We had succeeded, and our only caveat was that we presented a ‘still’ cold brew in a competition set of coffees that were infused with nitrogen. Our cold brew was delicate, while other cold brews had a more viscous, winey texture, with a much more powerful fruit forward flavor note. This was quite the learning curve, but hey, the company that beat us in a split decision made it all the way to the finals to snag second place. So it wasn’t all that bad.

I had said this phrase to a fellow coworker at S&D that apparently stuck with him. I was sharing some coffee that I had procured at a trade show, and I told him “I always find pleasure in providing friends with the gift of coffee.” I had worked with Eric Mitchell [S&D Green Coffee Buyer] to procure these special bags of coffee, and I wanted to share all the work that was put into these competition coffees. There has been incredible positive feedback on them, and reiterated the work and efforts to get these coffees in the frontlines of competition.

On a personal level, bringing our daughter to CoffeeFest Nashville was a major highlight and stepping stone. It was incredible to introduce our newest family member to friends and family that we only get to see a few times out of the year, and it reiterated just how close and tiny the coffee world truly is.