Kalle Freese, who placed 2nd after incumbent champion Joona Suominen in the 2012 Finnish Barista Championship, offers his perspective on the competition and the training involved.

In a barista competition the competitor has 15 minutes preparation time, 15 competition time and 15 minutes to clean up afterwards. During the competition time the competitor serves four espressos, four cappuccinos and four so called signature drinks, which are basically coffee cocktails without alcohol. Four sensory judges, two technical judges and a head judge evaluate the performance. Emphasis is on flavour but technical skills and the overall impression also count.

You could think of the barista competition performance in terms of choreography. Just like dancers or gymnasts, during those 15 minutes there shouldn’t be a moment when the competitor doesn’t know what to do. Every move has to be practiced over and over, the speech should be well-rehearsed but still natural sounding. It takes a lot of time to achieve.

Above all barista competitions are a tool for learning. Those 15 minutes can be the most intensive learning experience you’ll ever have as a barista. Though the relationship might seem a bit adverserial, the judges are there for you, to help you to improve and become a better barista in an everyday coffee bar environment.

It all starts with the coffee. The whole routine and presentation starts by finding the right coffee and getting to know it as well as you can. I started looking for the right coffee about four months before the semi-finals. I would have loved to have a very special, absolutely delicious fresh coffee to compete with. In reality, most times you have to stick with what’s available and what might not be the freshest or best coffee you’ve tried.

Espresso is by far the most difficult method to produce a nice cup of coffee. Even slight changes in the brewing process can have a profound effect on the result. In order to get to know the coffee I began tasting it using different parameters. Weighting is by far the most accurate way to do this. By using 17 grams of ground coffee, extracting it for 25 seconds and ending up with 30 grams of total weight in the cup gives you completely different experience than 19 grams / 28 grams in 30 seconds.

A good espresso is a beautiful thing. It can be a symphony of sweetness, flavours and nuances in perfect balance accompanied by a great mouthfeel. I can describe great espressos that I’ve had several years ago. There aren’t many of them – most times espresso is frustrating and disappointing. The long process of getting to know my competition coffee, a sun-dried Bourbon from El Topacio in El Salvador, was full of ups and downs.

One day the coffee would work fine, the next not at all. One Sunday I was training at the roastery and nothing decent was coming out of the coffee. That’s when I really thought if there is any real point in doing this at all: spending all my spare time for the sake of those 15 minutes. The following day, the coffee was working beautifully, even though I brewed it to the very same recipe as the day before.

After several kilos worth of tasting I found out that the coffee worked best 10 days from the roast, by using 18,5 grams of coffee, extracting it for 30 seconds and ending up with 30,5 grams espresso in cup. That way the coffee had a lovely acidity, just like biting a very juicy, perfectly ripe pink grapefruit. The juicy mouthfeel was topped with a honey-like sweetness. In the aftertaste there was pleasant dried cocoa notes.

Once you know the coffee – the best recipe and how it tastes like when brewed that way – you’re almost halfway there. Now it’s time for cappuccinos. Milk has a huge effect on the taste – a very fatty unhomogenized milk might taste better side-to-side compared to a standardized whole milk. However, after a ton of cappuccinos, I decided to use the normal whole milk because of its consistency and neutral taste that let more room for the coffee to come through.

Finding the right cappuccino cups is much more difficult than one could possibly imagine. I prefer using ball shaped cups to the tulip ones. The rules state that the cups must be 150 – 180ml. With smaller cups you have less milk and the taste of the coffee comes through better, so I prefer using the 150 ml cups. The only problem is that ball-shaped cups are really tricky to find in 150 ml. Often they are 160 ml and even though the 10 ml difference sounds minor, side by side it makes a big difference. I ended up using 150 ml tulip cups since I couldn’t get hold of round shaped ones this time around.

As a cappuccino, the acidity of my espresso disappears and sweet cocoa comes through in a big way.

The traditional approach to signature drinks is to highlight and complement the notes and flavours found in the coffee. Another, maybe bit more modern way is to produce a balanced and interesting drink by creating contrast with ingredients that aren’t the first to come to your mind. I chose the first approach since I wanted to come up with something simple yet delicious. There were two aspects that made me choose this coffee and in the signature beverage I wanted to highlight those – that lovely grapefruit-like acidity and juiciness.

Pink grapefruits happened to be in season in January-February so I wanted to use freshly squeezed juice from them. To give the drink some sweetness I used honey and served it over ice to make it as fresh as possible. The result was exactly what I wanted yet maybe bit lacking in showmanship.

Serving just great coffee isn’t enough. Judges also evaluate total impression and professionalism based on competitor’s routine, speech, setting, cleanliness and a dozen of other things. I practiced my 15 minutes at least 15 times, to the point where I knew exactly which song was coming next on my soundtrack and that I should be steaming milk for the other set of cappuccinos when it kicked in.

Training and competing can also be expensive. Using coffee that costs 40€ per kilo becomes expensive very quickly if you don’t have a supportive employer. Luckily I had an amazing team of people behind me.

You could easily use several hundred euros just in the judge’s table setting. I worked with an architecture student to come up with a setting that looked good and reflected what I wanted to tell the judges. Lots of beautiful glassware meant lots of polishing. There couldn’t be a single fingerprint on the glasses, no wrinkles in the tablecloth nor coffee stains on any cups at any point.

After all that work, once you’re standing on stage with judges and the crowd waiting for you to begin the feeling is horrible. What if the coffee doesn’t pour the way I want, the way I need it to? What if I don’t remember what to say?

Once the clock starts you don’t think anymore. The competition flow kicks in and it’s just 15 minutes of haze. All of a sudden you’ve served all the drinks, cleaned up a bit and it’s time to raise your hand and call “Time!”, concluding the shortest 15 minutes of your life.