Barista Competition Guide Part 1: How to Pick a Competition Coffee

Being part of the barista competitions have been transformative for me. From meeting some of my closest friends to helping me move from a barista to roaster to traveling the world sourcing coffee. It has help me build the life I have.

Josh Tarlo UK Barista Champion at the World Barista Championships Amsterdam
Photo @blackwaterissue

I’ve been lucky enough to win the UK’s in2018 and have roasted 9 of the last 15 coffees that people used to get on the podium. It all feels a bit vain to write but I mention it because I know how hard it is to find experienced advice when you’re starting out. So with closing the chapter on my competing time I want pass the knowledge learned on to people getting started.


The first lesson to learn is always know the rules, so many people (including me) have gotten disqualified for something silly.


The second lesson is almost all the points you can get come from the coffee, so the one you pick can decide how well you do. Here’s some pointers on finding a winner.


Choosing a Processing

Judges have been tasting coffee all day so their palates are fatigued which means big bold coffees do well. They reward coffee with intense fruit or floral notes. This means you want naturals, carbonics, anaerobics or dark honeys. Washed coffees, pulp naturals and light honeys tend not to stand up as well and present too high of an acidity which distracts from the sweetness.


When selecting a coffee pick a processing with an innovative or unique story so you can use that as part of your speech.


Choosing an Origin

The primary importance in choosing an origin is freshness. Most coffees need to be within 9 months of harvesting when you roast it for comp day to be at its peak. Old coffees taste flat, lacks sweetness and sometimes taste baggy or woody.


If you have a great coffee but the comp is months ages away you can freeze the green in vacuum packed bags to retain freshness but it is risky so be prepared to change at the last minute.


Choosing a Varietal / Cultivar

Much has been said about how everyone who wins comps uses a Gesha, honestly the cultivar doesn’t matter, Gesha just tends to have what scores well because at its best it's high in flavour clarity and intensity. Don’t make a statement with your cultivar choice, pick the one which will get you the points.


Flavour Notes

Once you have your coffee you’ll need flavour notes, take inspiration from Paul Ross’ 2019 comp and crowdsource your notes. Get a minimum of 4 experienced coffee people, give them the coffee and without talking to them get them to write the 5 flavour notes they can taste by intensity. Use the top answers as your baseline on the day. 


Cost

If you’re really aiming for the top expect to pay around £60 per-kg minimum for the coffee, it can be an expensive investment but winning is one of the best ways to make a mark in the industry and build your coffee career. 


Finding a Farm

If someone has used a coffee from a farm to win a comp chances are it will be hard for someone starting out to get the best coffee from that farm. You’re better off looking for up and coming farms and developing a relationship.

Costa Rica Cup of Excellence Results
Costa Rica Cup of Excellence Results

The best way to do this is to look at the Cup of Excellence site, check out the past winners and look for farm at the low end of top 15. Try and find a farm that has ranked a few times over the years but hasn’t managed to take the top spots. These are ambitious people who want to succeed but like you are learning how. If you invest in them and collaborate you can succeed together.


This is just a start on how to kill it for comp. Subscribe below and I’ll be sending out updates to help you succeed. 


-Josh