On Saturday, I was up before the sun, doing yoga and going for a short run to clear my mind before the sensory skills test to be administered that morning. I had no idea what to expect, so it seemed that clearing my mind and engaging all my senses would be the best approach. All the prospective judges for this year's US Barista Championships would be taking the test if they were not already a USBC qualified judge. If I passed the test, I would be USBC certified for two years, and have an increased chance of being able to judge at this year's USBC. If I didn't pass the test, my chances of judging would be decreased.
Joseph Rivera, publisher of www.coffeechemistry.com
and Specialty Coffee Association of America staff member, presented the sensory skills information. He told us that 25% of the population are non-tasters, having less than 10 fungiform papillae (tastebuds) per 2 cm of tongue surface area, 50% of the population is classified as medium tasters (15-30 tastebuds per 2 cm) and 25% of the population are super-tasters, with more than 50 tastebuds per 2 cm of tongue surface area, the majority of whom are women. Furthermore, he told us that as children, most of us had about 10,000 tastebuds, and as we age, that number decreases to around 2,000.
All of this information struck me as comforting. Taste is somewhat genetic; it's hardwired into us by how many taste buds we have. Although I have to admit that I was curious as to why most of the supertasters are women, yet in the coffee cupping field, there are very few women.
Joseph told us that he had been the one to design this test as a way to calibrate people's tasting abilities. He had opted to not use coffee since it is too complex and there are too many variables to isolate. Instead, all of the sample solutions would be water-based, specifically distilled water.
The first part of the test consisted of three solutions each of sweet, salty and sour. To make the sweet solutions, they used table sugar, for salty they used table salt and for sour, lemon juice. Within each taste category were three increasingly concentrated samples, and it was our job to put them in the correct order. We took a few minutes to slurp, swallow and write on our test papers. Then they read the answers outloud, so this part of the test was not challenging. Although I misread the instructions and thought the solutions were already in order of concentration, but my tongue soon told me that they weren't.
The second part of the test was the same nine samples, but they were not divided out by category. So we had to identify the flavor (sweet, salty or sour) and the intensity. A passing grade on this section of the test was 80%. It didn't seem tough to me.
The third section was difficult. There were eight mystery solutions, four of which contained two ingredients (the previously mentioned sweet, sour and salty mixtures) and four of which contained three of theafore mentioned solutions. After half an hour of slurping watery test solutions, I had to pee and I felt queasy. So I took a bathroom break and returned to my table with the cleanest mental palate I could muster, and began to taste. A 70% score was required to pass this section. Less than 1/3 of us would pass this part, I found out later.
Some of the solutions tasted pretty much like water, so I guessed that they contained the mildest solutions. Joseph had also told us that our tongues are most sensitive to sour, as a natural protection from being poisoned, and sure enough, the sour solutions were the easiest to identify. The ones that contained the sour and the sweet were also relatively easy, as they resembled lemonade. Salty was the tough one for me to pick out. I experience "salty" as almost a tactile sensation; salty solutions seemed thicker than the ones without salt.
I filled in the answers as best I could, erasing multiple times, comparing one solution to another, and then finally just turned in my test without much further thought. I figured my tongue either worked or it didn't.
On our lunch break, I tagged along with Liz from Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Eileen Hassi from Ritual Roasters in San Francisco and Scott Lucey from Alterra Coffee in Milwaukee. We found a cute cafe on North Tryon. On the way back, I asked Scott about his plans for training baristas at Alterra Coffee. He talked about first using a written test, then only scheduling baristas during slower evening shifts and requiring them to demonstrate espresso proficiency before they were scheduled during a busy morning time. He also talked about his recent epiphany that a semi-automatic espresso machine was preferable to the more expensive automatic machine, as the lack of portion control forced baristas to pay closer attention and resulted in better quality shots. Scott and I bonded because during the introduction to the seminar, we both listed Sulawesi as being our favorite coffee. :)
After lunch, we did some mock judging. My first station was with Nick Cho from Murky Coffee in Washington DC. We were supposed to judge Nick on his Overall Presentation skills, professionalism and passion. His first performance was bare bones; he included little coffee information, he put his fingers in our cups as he "served" them (pantomime) and made little eye contact. We gave him 1's and 2's. Then he repeated the performace with pep and zing, coffee education information, eye contact, humor, and sparkle. We gave him 4's and 5's.
Throughout this phase of the workshop, the head judges were judging the way we completed our forms and how we conducted ourselves, as part of their assessment of who would be assigned to actually judge in the real competition. It was hard for me to practice my "poker face" and not crack jokes. I was giddy, surrounded by other intelligent coffee professionals, my peers in the indstry, both the baristas and the prospective judges, and my natural instinct was to reach out to them, to entertain and to be friendly.
Bronwen from Zoka and Aaron were the dueling cappuccino station. One was supposed to make flat, lifeless capps and the other was supposed to make great ones. The difference was tougher to distinguish.
Two baristas, one of whom was named Steven, were supposed to demonstrate the difference between a bad espresso and a good one. Problem was that they were all terrible. I was distraught.
My last station was Phuong Tran, last year's barista champion, demonstrating her signature beverage. This was by far the sweetest stop of my mock judging rotation. Watching Phuong at the bar was like watching a well choreographed ballet. Every movement had a sweet, efficient quality. I wanted to sing. And the beverage was exquisite. She steamed coconut milk mixed with regular milk, added espresso and a little cane sugar syrup and zested lime over the top. She coordinated the color of the lime zest with the color of the green dots on her ceramic cups. Simple, delicious, fascinating. I gave her a five. And now I'm thinking about adding this drink to our menu. Yum.