At the end of August earlier this year, I entered the UK Roasting Championships for the first time. Now if some of you are reading this thinking, ‘What’s the UK Roasting Championships?’ then let me do my best to explain what all the fuss is about.
In 2013, the World Coffee Roasting Championships debuted in Nice, France with this year’s competitors soon to be heading over to Taipei in Taiwan between the 15th and 18th of November. Clearly then, this isn’t something that is limited to just the UK but instead a competition that many people around the world enter to push themselves to develop as a professional.
This year, 24 champions will be appearing in the world finals – some of which you can see through this link including the UK’s very own Diana Johnston, head of quality at DRWakefield and a persistent coffee competitor. There’s a great article courtesy of the Barista Guild with Diana here which really gives a good insight into her coffee journey so far.
Although it was my first time entering in a coffee roasting competition, 6 years ago I did take the time to compete in the UK Barista Championships and the Uk Aeropress Championships, both of which are still going strong today. Back then I came fourth in the Aeropress and was just short of the making the semis in the UKBC but they were both invaluable experiences that really helped me to grow. I would recommend either to any person working in coffee.
What was super interesting for me concerning this year’s roasting competition was the difference in atmosphere and the set-up of the event. Unlike the UKBC which can be more of a solo experience and is over quite quickly, this year’s roasting competition was something much more friendly and collaborative and more like a marathon than a 200m sprint.
An example of this was when during the open cupping session of the second day, participants were helping each other and giving feedback about different peoples coffees in a relaxed way, which seemed to give the room a much more engaging atmosphere. From my own perspective, when I was younger and working as a barista I definitely had a lot more ego as to my own skills and abilities, something that I think can be common in the coffee industry. Whether this more collaborative nature was simply because most roasters are wiser, older and more experienced in matters such as this I can’t say but it was definitely interesting to experience the difference in dynamic.
So, back to the competition. Rested, ready and having read the quite extensive rules numerous times, I was ready to do business. Or rather, coffee roasting. Ever since I’ve worked in coffee I think somewhere in my subconscious I’ve known I have wanted to go further down the value chain and roasting is certainly one way a barista can do that. It’s competitions like these set up and managed by the SCA, which can really help, so for that reason I was pleased and excited to be heading down to the London School of Coffee (where the competition was held) on the Friday morning in question.
After being briefed by the judges, and having had met participants it was time for the first challenge. Green grading/evaluation! In this section and generally throughout the two days of heats, I was towards the end of the queue, which gave me a bit more time to prepare. This was the aspect of the competition I was most new to though having looked at the SCA’s very own arabica green coffee defect handbook and practicing recording defects & different densities back at the roastery I was determined to give it my best effort.
Above you can see me in my heat against the formidable Stephen Houston, head roaster at Bailies Coffee in Northern Ireland. I had actually met him last year at Roasters Camp in Portugal so perhaps that familiarity was a good thing. 30 minutes of time was allocated for this heat with all competitors needing to record the correct colour, moisture & density readings, correct odour, correct screen sizes and of course defects! As you will be able to see from my scores for this heat further down, I achieved a kind of ‘ok’ score of 14/24. Having said that based on my previous experience with this it could have been a lot worse!
Things of note for improvements in this section include: I should have been a little quicker & tidier in sorting during the screen sizing section and I should have been far less generous with my defect giving. On the plus side I didn’t run over time though had I had more, it would have been nice to have measured the moisture and densities of some of the other coffees on the table (these would be used in a later stage of the competition to create a blend). Undoubtedly useful information for creating the perfect roast.
After the green evaluation stage, it was time to sample roast. I don’t actually have a picture of this section nonetheless it was fairly straightforward. Essentially we used the ever impressive IKAWA professional sample roaster to test roast all of the coffees we were going to production roast on the Diedrich. I opted for a simple approach using the ‘Mercanta’ profile for every sample so I could see what potential each coffee had for the next stage.
The next part of day 1 was practise roasting. This was included so competitors could get to know the production roasters a bit better and have some coffee to taste during their open cupping time. Although I only started roasting properly in April this year what was useful was that I had already used the same manufacturer of roaster, albeit a much larger version called the Diedrich IR-12. I think that overall this helped me to be comfortable with the workflow of the machine though Jamie Banwell (who works for Diedrich) gave a thorough break-down of how they work to all competitors during a briefing regardless. Interestingly in the practise roasting section, all competitors were given a very different coffee to practise with. In this instance I think it was an Indian pulped natural, obviously done to put roasters under pressure a bit more come the main production roasting heat the next day. Nonetheless it was great to ‘do some stretches’ in this round and get familiar with the layout and setup I would be contending with again in less than 24 hours. So green evaluation done, sample roasting done, production roasting done. What was next? Why cupping of course.
In specialty coffee, an essential part of discerning and evaluating quality involves coffee cupping. It is an objective way to determine sensory differences between samples, describe flavours and determine preferences between products. Often, cupping forms can be used to record important information about specific coffees by people taking part such as fragrance/aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, body and so on and it can be invaluable data to refer back to – especially for a coffee roastery or green coffee trader - in order to help people make the right decisions and improve quality. After competitors had completed their practice roasting time, all were given the opportunity to assess and evaluate their work so far in order to settle on and understand a chosen direction for the main production roasting. For me this took place at the very end of the day where time was limited so I had to make sure I worked efficiently, preparing my samples in a chosen space close to an EK43 where I could quickly grind. Another interesting aspect of this section was that all competitors were allowed to bring a colleague or friend to taste the samples with them. While I initially had support from my colleague Enea, I soon realised (especially due the lack of space) that I would be better off tasting alone so I could be more focused. This cupping session would provide me with a great deal of sensory information, which I would need to use for the roast plan (to be submitted by 9am the next morning) so it was important to make every second count. With cupping soon in hand and olfactory systems engaged I began furiously jotting down flavour notes and sensory qualities to the best of ability so I could refer to them again later.
Below you can see images of the three roasting plan reports I submitted. On the other side there was space for sensory information to be put down (intended levels of acidity, body & sweetness) plus a space for flavours. Aside from the more technical elements which you can see, essentially the judges were looking for an accurate depiction of both final coffees: a single-origin (the washed coffee from DR. Congo) and the blend (comprising of coffees from Guatemala, Ethiopia and Colombian). I really liked this aspect of the competition as it made me think harder about how to modulate and influence flavours and sensory attributes through the roasting process. In this section I was pleased with how I did scoring 41 out of 48. Not bad if I say so myself! I could have gained a few points by doing better with my start and end temperatures but I was ‘chuffed’ with my accuracy regarding colour readings.
During the main roasting section, I chose to roast the Guatemalan & Colombian coffees together (pre-blended) and the Ethiopian separately. This was because the Ethiopian was a naturally processed coffee, of a small bean size and seemed to roast quite differently compared to the former two coffees which had a more similar flavour profile and were both washed. Had I done this part of the competition again, I think I would have pre-blended all of the coffees so I could have had multiple goes at perfecting the roast during my heat. This time around I opted for a simpler ‘one-roast’ approach to ensure I didn’t run over time and was able to cool and mix the finished blend correctly. As it happened I had heaps more time than I thought I would and was able to finish quite early. Nonetheless, better safe than sorry.
Before my heat during my wait time, I was actually pretty nervous thinking back. I ended up going to a nice specialty coffee shop and taking my mind of things with pancakes and good coffee, which seemed to help quite a bit! As a person who likes to get things done I would have much preferred to have been roasting earlier on in the day though the friendly atmosphere, well-run event and comfortable location all helped. In my heat it all happened very quickly. I made sure I took a focused approach, doing one thing at a time and making measured decisions which also seemed to help. I enjoyed competing against Stephen Houston again, taking my place on the black roaster while he took the red.
So what did I learn by entering the UK roasting championships? Well, after six years of not competing in a coffee competition, I learnt that competing is still a great thing because it pushes you to learn more, opens up new opportunities and helps to show that you care about what you do. I learnt that coffee roasters are a friendly bunch who, despite all the smoke and mirrors in the industry, are very willing to open up and share what they know. I learnt that I perform better in competitions that are longer and have many aspects to them rather than fast paced ones. But ultimately I learnt that there is always something more to learn, another conversation to have and that you should always keep things simple.
In the future I hope to enter the UK roasting championships again but for now I will keep on learning and keep on roasting. Below you can see my overall score sheet and the total scores for all competitors on the day. If you are interested in seeing the judges individual scoresheets get in touch. Thanks for reading!