Roasting coffee influences flavor, but it is not the final step in the process. Unless you are roasting your own competition coffee, roasting for a barista or brewer competitor is a similar process to roasting for any other customer. Once a competitor chooses a coffee, they will need the roasted coffee to consistently produce the same flavor results from the beginning of the journey through to the end. You as the roaster are the steward of that flavor.
Since competition season is just starting in the United States, I wanted to reach out to a couple of friends to see what advice they have to give on the matter. Mark Michaelson, Head Roaster of Onyx Coffee Lab and Baylee Engberg of Dillanos Coffee Roasters have generously offered up some advice for those of you that might be competition roasting for the first time or are curious about someone else’s approach.
How soon do you look for a coffee before the competition? What qualities do you look for in a green coffee for the Barista Competition?
MM: A couple months before, just in case something falls through.
Honestly, it really depends on what (coffee) they are looking for. Personally, I look for a coffee that has tons of complexity and goes great with their brew method. I also look for a coffee that has similar screen size so the roasts are easily repeatable and even.
BE: I’ve seen our team at Dillanos visiting farms in their search about 5-6 months beforehand.
JA: The first task at hand is choosing the green coffee that will be used in the competition. Sometimes availability can play a crucial role in the decision and it is important to earmark the coffee for the competition as early as possible so that the roaster and the competitor have enough time to work with it. While freshness is king, waiting for the freshest possible offering is a risky strategy; the process will be rushed.
Keep in mind how much time it takes to develop a profile of your favorite coffees on your menu from start to finish. In my experience, the first few weeks consist of working out a primary profile and creating marketing materials, but it is not until a few weeks after that coffee has been on bar that it really starts to shine. If your profile needs 7 to 15 days of rest for the best results, then your preparation time needs to be that much longer.
How closely do you work with the competitor when creating roast profiles?
MM: I like to work with them closely. That way I can understand what they are trying to convey to me when they cannot fully explain it. Also it’s important to know what they desire to get out of the coffee, instead of what I think it should taste like.
BE: My competitor was insanely curious about my processes. Due to schedule issues, we didn’t get much time together, but I couldn’t stress how much I would have rather had them there.
JA: Keeping an open line of communication is always best. Cup and taste coffee with the competitor as much as possible so that you are calibrated with all of the sensory attributes. If you have a low supply of the competition coffee or are still waiting for it to land at your doorstep, tasting coffees other than the competition coffee will help you understand the what the competitor is looking for and aid in the process of creating a shared palate. When it comes time to fine tuning the competition profile, the Roaster will be more confident in executing what the competitor is looking for if they share a common coffee language.
Playing a part in the whole process will only set you up for success. Tasting the prepared coffee and listening in to the routines will only increase your understanding of what is needed in the profile and what is lacking. As the Roaster, you are there to assist, not dictate. Use your knowledge and experience to achieve the balance they are looking for.
What is your process for finding the correct profile?
MM: I have a sample type roast I know most coffees will taste good on our 12kilo. From there, and after we cup/brew it the way they will, we note whether or not the coffee needs more sweetness, more acidity, or a little bit of both. Then I re-roast the batch and go through the same process until the desired result is reached.
BE: Honestly, all I had was a conversation beforehand with our competing Barista. I know I was looking for a balanced acidity and I was given a list of cupping notes from their origin visit. The hardest part for me was realizing that when you cup the coffee — that’s great — but ultimately it’s being brewed as espresso. So the profile I enjoyed the most didn’t translate to espresso very well. This is where we could go into the saga of “choosing the right coffee for the right brew method” but let’s just leave it at that. I can’t stress enough that while developing a profile, I was pulling shots of each rather than relying on cupping. It saved me.
When experimenting on the roaster, what variables in the profile do you typically change and why?
MM: Stretching out caramelization to enhance body, sweetness, and aromatics. Development after 1st crack to balance out the acids with sweetness.
BE: I knew where I would want to end my roast and played with varying drying periods, entire roast lengths, drop temperature, ending rates of rise, and micro adjustments. How many days the coffee was off-roast was pivotal to the process. I was roasting a couple pounds a day for our Barista to take on the plane and decide how many days off-roast extracted the best espresso in that altitude. It was nuts.
If you could give one piece of advice to a roaster going through this process for the first time, what would it be?
MM: Check your ego at the door. Be patient and listen intently. Be brutally honest.
BE: It’s going to be great, and it’s out of your hands. You’re essentially a sugar refiner and your competitor is the baker. There are SO MANY variables to coffee and the extraction of it — you’d go mad trying to control all of them. Secondly, your expertise is not limited to roasting — talk to your competitor (even as a friend), drink a Chemex or pull some shots of your roasts, try something experimental, take notes, and don’t be intimidated by “a big thing” because it’s still just a thing.
Competitions can be serious business, don’t forget to enjoy yourself and be a clutch player for your competitor. When it is all said and done, lose or win, the experience will create a closer bond with your team and you will all come out stronger for it. If you have the opportunity to roast for a competitor, don’t shy away for lack of experience. Be honest about the time you have to give to the process and do the work.