blog from the ceo & superbarista of phoenix coffee, home of the best baristas in cleveland, ohio

Friday, April 07, 2006

Day 3 of the USBC Judging Experience

I got the joyful news at 10:00 last night that I would be judging today. When I reported to judges chambers for my judging shift, and looked at the list of prospective judges who had passed the sensory skills test, my name was written in neat print at the top of the list. The last time I was that happy to see my name on a list was in 1989, when I stood near the back door of Hawken School and looked at the list posted on a bulletin board by Theatre Arts director, Roger Atwell. It was a list of the students who had been cast for roles in Spoon River Anthology. I was a junior, and I got to play Sarah Abernathy and other characters, which meant a got a lot of lines. So there I was, in the convention center of Charlotte, NC, 34 years old, looking at my name on the list, feeling like I just got cast as the lead in some high school play. I will admit that I came back to the clipboard in the judges chamber more than once, just to see my name at the top of the list again. I didn't even have to hunt for it, there it was, right at the top. Delicious.

I immediately wanted to call Charlotte and Veronica (my nine and eight year old daughters) since they are two of my biggest cheerleaders, but quickly realized that they were in school and not available for phone calls. So I called Phoenix Central (the Roastery) and told Dennis and I called Carl, and I called Steve, who was roaming the SCAA show floor nearby. During all these phone calls, I had to keep giving myself permission to revel in my tongue's victory over the sensory skills test. It's not like I had just passed and IQ test. This was a taste test. So now I know I have taste, objectively verified. It's OK to be proud of that.

Soon I had to reign in my small celebration and focus on getting my apron on, finding a spoon, and a sharp pencil with a healthy eraser, putting my hair in a judge-like ponytail-bun, filling in the names on my judges score sheets, and calming my nerves to get ready for my first shift as USBC judge. And, of course, running to the bathroom at least once. Would I be able to tell the difference between a "3" cappuccino and a "4"? How deep was the froth supposed to be, again? The head judges had assured us that everything would come together, especially when we were watching a really good barista perform, we would just know.

A few minutes later I clutched my clipboard under the glare of a dozen spotlights and looked into the eyes of my first competing barista. He had curly dark hair and a blue button down shirt, and a tie. He was nervous, but composed. The second barista was very sweaty and had shaky hands, and almost forgot to pour water for the judges; he remembered JUST IN TIME, thanks to the ESP message I sent him, I think. The third barista seemed to have coffee flying everywhere as she pulled her shots. The fourth barista was polished and calm, miraculously enough. The fifth barista was dressed head to toe in brown and made good coffee. I can't really write more about their specific performances, because I think I might get in trouble with my fellow judges.

Although I had found my way to what is arguably the esoteric center of coffee culture in the US, it struck me that this felt nothing like drinking a good cup of coffee in a cool coffeeshop. Fascinating, exciting, yes, but very different from the subtle pleasure of a gently sweet latte and a riveting book or conversation.

Each barista impressed me with the time, effort and thought that had gone into their performances. As a boss, it melted my heart to see that kind of dedication; that's what I love to see in my employees. It was bittersweet to rate their efforts, as I felt honored to be a recipient of their passion for their craft, regardless of their technical score or the style of their presentation. But as a judge, it was my duty to discern which efforts had better results, from an external point of view, and that is exactly what I did, to the best of my ability.


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