So, What Exactly Is a Competition Coffee?

So, What Exactly Is a Competition Coffee?

See how one competitive barista makes the ultimate coffee match.
by Team Trade | March 22, 2019

_In our ongoing series, we speak to the people responsible for the coffee you enjoy every day. This week, _ Augie's_ barista Blair Smith tells us just what separates the good from the great._

Meet Blair Smith. Fresh off a trip to the 2019 United States Brewers Cup in Kansas City, Missouri, this Augie’s shop manager sheds insight on just how much scrutiny goes into picking the perfect competition coffee. Working far beyond a number on a page — coffee is scored on a 100-point scale, with specialty coffee rating 80 and above and coffees over 90 being most coveted by competitors — Blair experiments, hones her recipe, and gets it just right preparing for the moment that she, and the coffee, take center stage.

“Selecting a coffee for the Brewers Cup can be challenging. Ideally, the coffee needs to score well, so starting out with a 90+ coffee is what most competitors find themselves looking for. That was my plan as well, until I came across Red Plum. Red Plum isn’t an exotic variety or a 90+ coffee. Red Plum is an anaerobic Caturra from Colombia. Anaerobic fermentation is used frequently in wine and cheese processing, and with coffee it refers to letting the cherries ferment without oxygen, boosting the organic and inorganic acids produced by bacteria. This produces brighter, more complex acidity and vibrant flavors. Before we were given the sample of Red Plum, I had cupped really exquisite coffees from very well-known producers. I found myself unsatisfied, as none of these coffees really had any unique flavors I hadn’t experienced before. I wasn’t really blown away by any of them. While choosing one of them would have been a very safe decision, I knew I wanted to bring something different to stand out from the dozens of geishas [a delicate, botanical coffee variety with a tea-like body that is beloved by coffee competitors] the judges would be tasting at nationals.

Now I won’t say that I threw out any preferences when it came to choosing this coffee. As a former judge myself, I look for integrity of aftertaste and a well-structured body. To put it simply, I am always chasing coffees that have a sweet, lingering aftertaste, and a tactile experience that carries the flavors of the coffee around my palate. Ideally, the acidity has complexity that balances with the sweetness of the coffee.

"I got a text from my boss saying 'just cupped a f*cking wild coffee.'"

One day I got a text from my boss saying 'just cupped a f*cking wild coffee,' and I knew that meant he’d found our competition coffee. After listening to what the warehouse team thought about it, I was able to pick it off a blind cupping. I loved how densely sweet it was, with a noticeable plum flavor. It had a complex strawberry acidity that then turned into a caramel note, with a chocolate lingering aftertaste. The body was light and turned creamy as the coffee cooled. Overall this coffee had the complexity and the uniqueness I was looking for.

So what happens now? I’m basically dating this coffee for the next month and a half, figuring out what it likes best. I’m using my favorite brewer, the stagg, and combining it with my go-to tool, the melodrip. My melodrip is modified to sit stationary on the brewer, trapping humidity and giving the aroma amazing sweetness. Together these tools allow me to create an environment that produces clean, consistent brews, with the body and acidity cooling more favorably than other shaped brewers. Right now my recipe uses a fine grind, and I’m doing the first half of the brew in smaller pours to maintain flow rate. For the second half of my brew, I remove the melodrip and just use my kettle to provide more agitation, giving me a more complex acidity. My total brew time is around three minutes and 30 seconds, giving me an aroma of cherry cola and strawberry and flavors of red plum, grapefruit, and cherry blossom. Leading up to the competition, I’ll keep playing around with different roast profiles and possibly combining roasts to achieve a good ratio of sweetness and acidity. Once I have that, I will manipulate the coffee flavors further by creating my own water chemistry. I am excited to understand this coffee more as time goes on and to bring a unique and accessible coffee to the competition."

—Blair Smith, Barista and Manager, Augie’s Coffee Roasters

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