27 Feb 2011

Norwegian Barista Championships: Cup Taster competitions is opened up for amateur participants

This year, the Norwegian barista championships is held in Ulsteinvik on the western coast. In addition to lectures, exhibitions etc., several competitions are held. Among the most interesting things is that the cup taster championship is now open for non-professionals. Also, I talked to the host for this year's competition: Kaffikari.

Last week, I went over to Ulsteinvik to have a chat with Kari Janne Andersen, proprietor of Kaffikari coffee bar & kitchen and got some excellent coffee/espresso as well (her espresso is among the very best I've had). I wanted to know a bit about this years Norwegian barista championships which are held in Kaffikari's hometown, Ulsteinvik. More about the other competitions below, but first a few thoughts by Kari on the upcoming competitions and what makes this year's event different.

fooducation: What are your thoughts about reaching a larger audience through this year's competitions. Is that a goal? Why?

Kari: Previous years, the competition has been held in rather secluded places; the offices of a producer in an industrial area, inside the Norwegian gastronomic institute and such places. One of the unique features about this year's competition is that it is held in an open venue which invites a non-specialist public in a whole new way.

fooducation: Was this your idea, or...?

Kari: The initiative is thanks to the Norwegian branch of SCAE, Speciality Coffee Association of Europe. SCAE is responsible for the competitions, we are the hosts and were fortunate to attract the interest from SCAE and that way were able to get the championships here.

fooducation: What's special about the place Ulsteinvik?

Kari: There are some practical/logistic benefits because it's easy to get here by plane. Also, there's just a short walk between the coffee bar and the hotel (venue for the competitions and lectures). It's got both the benefits of being somewhat rural but at the same time being urban.

fooducation: Are people in Ulsteinvik different from other places? Do you find some special support from the surroundings?

Kari: I guess people in Ulsteinvik are entrepreneurs by nature and it is quite easy to engage both the general public and the industry (fooducation's comment: Ulsteinvik has a strong environment for international shipping industry). We have even been able to engage a school class to help us with the event!

fooducation: What are the benefits of opening up the event this year? Focus on fair trade? Something else?

Kari: To me, the main motivation is to spur the interest among people, spread the joy of coffee. Increase people's consciousness about coffee flavour, quality and diversity.

The competitions
General information on the various competition categories are found on the SCAE website. This year there are a couple of new features:
  • Classic baristaIn 15 minutes, the participants shall make and serve 4 espressi, cappuccino and a signature drink.
  • Latte artSome latte art pictures from wikimedia commons and some picture galleries from previous SCAE championships. Just google the phrase and enjoy lots of beautiful (and quite a few less beautiful) pictures, tutorials etc.
latte art II by Dream in the Dark of Day, on FlickrCreative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by Dream in the Dark of Day
  • Coffee in good spirits
    The theme is coffee & alcohol. The contestants are to make 2 identical Irish Coffees and 2 identical signature beverages

  • Cup tasting"Identify the odd cup among three". See below for description and some reflections
  • Black coffee freestyleNew event this year. Best black coffee by own choice among a range of predefined coffees and brewing techniques
Cup tasting
According to SCAE, the objectives of the cup tasting championships
[...] are many: To educate and motivate the cup tasters of the world. To give them the same status and credibility as the wine tasters, and to promote the concept of quality coffee as such.
To me, such a competition (it needn't be a competition at all, actually) is a great way to experience how different coffee might be - a cup of coffee is not just a cup of coffee. It's not just about quality, but to realise that there are vast differences among good coffees as well. Some are full of fruity and acid flavours (a pleasant acidity, that is). Others are featured by chocolate, tobacco and roasted nut aromas. Some have a berrylike fruitiness, others are distinguished by marked citrus or green apple aromas. Nevertheless, all might be high quality coffees.

When doing non-competitive cup tasting, you'd like to identify the various aromas, flavours and mouthfeel of a coffee, perhaps look for how growing region and roasting imprint themselves in the coffee in the cup. For competitions, however, it is necessary to have a much more rigid rule framework to ensure the highest possible credibility when judging. Hence, SCAE writes
To make the event fair to all the coffee cultures of the world we do not ask the cup tasters to identify or judge coffees. We simply test their skills to discriminate between tastes in triangular tests. 8 triangles are set on the table. In each two cups are identical, one is different. With ability to smell, taste, memorise and concentrate the competitor will identify the odd cup in the triangles. The one with the most correct wins. With equal numbers the one with the shortest time win. The organizers sets up the triangles with selected coffees from all over world, and the spectators will be able to taste the coffees after the competition
A youtube search on "cup tasting championships" reveals numerous videos showing such competitions.

Opening up the competitions and events in general
In a previous post, I reflected on the difference between food geeks and food lovers. I'd say that this applies to coffee as well. Whereas some appreciate the characteristic wild strawberry flavours of an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe or the marked forest berry acidity of some coffees from Kenya, preferably drinking them lukewarm, others just look for a cup of something hot and pitch black with enough caffeine in it. Why bother that coffee can be fruity, nutty etc.? Why all this fuss about flavours, mouthfeel and aroma? Isn't it just snobbishness?

One reason to bother about this, as I reckon Kari says in between the lines, is that knowledge and pleasure go hand in hand. Maybe there is something that can be called "flavour literacy"?1 We can consider "literacy" as a generic term, such as been used in "scientific literacy" or "digital literacy". In such context, literacy can be the ability "to identify, to understand, to interpret, to create and to communicate" (St. Melding. Nr. 30, 2003-2004). Perhaps, "flavour literacy" can encompass such things as
  • being able to describe what you taste and smell (including mouthfeel)
  • having more or less qualified opinions of what you taste
  • being able to discuss quality in what you taste
  • compare flavours and aromas
  • etc.
I believe that such a "literacy" is quite generic, useful and meaningful for anyone and not only particularly devoted ones (aficinados). Just as reading, writing and dealing with numbers helps you get along in society and life, what I've coined "flavour literacy" might as well fill a similar space in your "Allgemeinbildung" (I can't really find a good English word for this. The Norwegian word is "allmenndannelse"). I guess we're talking about developing sensory skills, or highlighting everyday sensory perceptions, and the ability to communicate something sensible about these perceptions. Actually, there is research to indicate that such skills can be learned and might not be innate, as Ballester et al. (2008) indicate for wine tasting: "wine expertise may be more of a cognitive expertise rather than a perceptual one", and I cannot see why there should be any difference for coffee, or any food/drink in general for that sake.

Another reason for promoting such skills is to enhance one's experiences through the phenomenon of "mere exposure". By promoting curiosity and inquisitiveness in relation to food and flavour, I believe we might help people to acknowledge variety and and diversity. I'm not talking about food lovers, but promoting interest among the general public. Perhaps this can be a small effort towards fighting scepticism, pickyness, or even neophobia (Pliner & Hobden 1992), towards trying new foods among people, e.g. "I don't eat fish" as a general statement. Yes, I know this is a rather pretentious statement, but I believe every little effort might make a difference in the long run.

Welcome to Ulsteinvik
So, since the event is open for everyone to attend, I am eager to see if we'll find other participants (and contestants) than the initiated coffee elite of Norway. I'll end this post with the welcoming video that (I've been told) charmed the Norwegian SCAE branch to arrange this years barista championships in Ulsteinvik.

Ballester, J., Patris, B., Symoneaux, R., and Valentin, D. (2008). Conceptual vs. perceptual wine spaces: Does expertise matter. Food Quality and Preference, 19(3), 267-276.

Pliner, P., and Hobden, K. (1992). Development of a scale to measure the trait of food neophobia in humans. Appetite, 19(2), 105-120.

St. Melding nr. 30 (Report to The Parliament): Kultur for Læring (Culture for Learning), 2003-2004.

1 Other food related literacies are "health literacy" and "nutrition literacy", but I don't believe these encompass what I'm dealing with here.

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