Tuesday, February 23, 2010
whew...

and all atlanta beansters breathed a collective sigh of relief.

so, firstly, congratulations to atlanta's finest.
chandler rentz (batdorf and bronson) - 2nd place
dale donchay (octane coffee) - 3rd place

you guys do atlanta proud.  your performances were awesome and you have my utmost respect.

also, dustin mattson (octane) and dave delchamps (1000 faces coffee) get props for ending top-6.  have fun in anaheim, everyone, and make sure someone is filming it for those of us that can't be there.

so, that's it, the SouthEast Regionals have come to a close, and most of us are able to get a decent night's sleep for the first time in months.  the turnout was incredible.  35 baristas.  that's a 100% increase in participation over last year.  the field was strong, and the performances and creativity overall were off the charts.

personally, i am proud of my showing.  as a first time competitor i didn't know exactly what to expect.  i mean, i've watched hours of performance video from the WBC and whatever i could find online, but nothing really prepares you for those 15 minutes on stage, with all eyes on you.

i want to thank everyone who came out to support me.

first and foremost, i want to thank my loving girlfriend, hasanthi.  your selflessness and strength held me up in my weakest moments.  you pushed me through the long nights of training, you kept me humble when i was proud, you kept me calm when i was frustrated and you kept me focused when my mind wandered.

and to my jonesboro people, i salute you.  dale and chevy, john and allison, kenny, valerie, max and joan, kit, susan and stacy, ben and paloma.  you guys lit the fire in my heart and gave me that huge smile you saw on my face.  without you guys, there's no point in doing any of what i do.

i want to thank my coffee family.  ron, you trained me well and imparted your vast knowledge upon me.  i hope i was able to represent you, your company and illy to the utmost of my abilities.  speaking of illy, thank you caroline, sarah and barry.  without your support, i wouldnt have had the means to compete at all.  thank you for everything.  also, janet, julie, nick and bob, you guys all kept us focused on the task at hand, and your humor kept us laughing through the tough moments.  rally and jezara, i was more than happy to see you guys at the show, and i hope you saw that i represented the cafe proudly.  everyone else at cafenineteen, i'm sorry none of you could make it, but i know i was in your thoughts.  thanks guys, you're the best.  and everyone else in the coffee world that has helped me along the way.  david lamont and byron holcombe, ben helfin, dale donchay, john cole and josh flail, hunt and amanda slade, jacob, david and dozier, and the rest of the safehouse guys, you all play some role in the barista i am today, and i thank you profusely.

finally, i want to thank my family.  thanks for all the kind words and support before and throughout the process.

okay, now to business at hand.  i will upload a video to the blog as soon as i possibly can, but for now let me mention some points that i might change for next years performance:

-practice on a competition machine and grinder, if i can get them on-hand
-become more familiar with my coffee, on a micro level.  it's not just about knowing the flavor profile, but the individual components of the blend that create the nuances in the coffee.  it helps to know origins, blend structure, roast profile and optimal dosing in order to create the very best drinks possible.
-tighten up my technical performance/cleanliness.
-tighten up my timing.
-create a sig-bev based on flavor profile, not simply a delicious drink.  in all fairness, my choice to create a good-tasting drink over one that was indicative of the contents of the espresso was against my primary notions, and in the end was a stupid decision, although the drink itself was tasty, and i encourage all to come to my shop and try one.
-don't change my coffee at the last second.  also stupid.

despite some technical errors on my part, the fault pertaining to my somewhat lackluster scores in the comp rests in the execution of my drinks and the descriptions of flavor profiles that i gave the judges.  thinking back on my choice of wording, i realize my descriptions of the coffee were a bit generic.  even beyond that, working on unfamiliar equipment had detrimental effects on my drinks.  i prepared for the competition using illy's normale blend, which is illy's signature blend of coffee at a medium roast profile. the coffee has a red fruit nose, with hints of cinnamon toast and a chocolate-y, caramel-y body.  problems arose when i chose to use their scurro blend at the last moment.  scurro is a darker roast profile of that same signature blend, but those red fruits in the nose turn much darker, into a raspberry, black currant-y nose.  lost are some of the faint citrics in the body, though the dark chocolate remains.  also, there isnt so much of a caramel finish.  its more carbon-y.

at any rate, in my preparations i didn't pick up on these changes.  working with mahlkonig grinder and simonelli machine at the comp severely changed the expected flavor profile.  i can think of a couple reasons for this.

1.  the mahlkonig is a much higher-quality grinder than the one i was using in practice, which was basically a chinese knock-off of a mazzer major with a doserless mod.  the burrs were worn, i fear, leading to a lack of uniformity in grind.  this may or may not have muted some of the more delicate flavor notes and most certainly affected extraction levels.  in my practice time before i went before the judges, i was pulling shots like i'd never seen illy pulled.  the crema was thick and dark, deep red with striping.  in my own shop, ive barely seen the crema color pass tan, with only occasional striping.  needless to say, i was a bit shocked.

2.  the simonelli itself was programmed with a soft infusion cycle.  wow.  this feature is NUTS!  this was the second major driver behind these sick shots i was pulling.  basically, my linea is set to shower an espresso puck with an even 9 bars of pressure from the get-go.  the simonelli starts an extraction by drenching the puck in a 6.5 bar pulse for a moment before ramping pressure up to a full 9 bars.  this soft infusion saturates the puck in water, creating a uniform infusion throughout before full pressure sucks every emulsified bit of syrupy goodness out of the puck.  i've been speaking about pre-infusion on this blog for a second, and this soft-infusion program is basically what i've been wanting to play with the whole time.  i really want to spend some more time on this machine, or another of its ilk, to push the limits of what soft infusion can do, especially for illy coffee.

3.  the portafilter basket on the simonelli was a 20 gram basket.  in training i had optimized my dose at 16 grams, in a 14 gram basket.  using a 20 gram basket, i was unable to properly distribute the grounds.  upon requesting a change of basket, i was denied.  this seemed unfair at the time, as my coffee was not optimized for a 19 or 20 gram dose.  there was no way around this, however.  so, every shot i pulled i was penalized for improper dosing a tamping due to my optimization of dose.  it struck me that this may be the result of current trends conditioning competition rules, which is backwards.  the drinks i present to the judges should be an accurate representation of myself as a barista.  the competition rules, in effect, held me back from creating the drink i had optimized.

4.  i got a lot of points off for my signature beverage not articulating the flavors in the espresso, which 1.) they did, and 2.) should matter little.  why shouldn't that matter?  because the signature drink shouldn't represent the espresso as much as the barista who created it.  the comp already requires two drinks that allow the coffee to shine.  the signature drink should allow the barista to shine.  if what the judges want is another drink to elevate the coffee, they should require a pour-over or a press or something.  it just bothers me that my drink should be deemed "too sweet" when the whole point of the signature beverage is to take creative license.

so, the preceding is a bit of a rant, but its neither passive nor antagonistic.  i learned a lot about what it takes to deliver a stellar coffee drink, how to connect with your beans and how to be an entertaining and effective performer.

i love the idea of competing, and as ambiguous as some of the competition's principles are, i love that we baristas are given this opportunity to share a bit of our passion with the public.  i do feel that i didn't fully understand the expectations of the judges going into this whole thing, but all that has changed now.  next year the southeast will get a better show.  i'll have the game locked down.  i'm stoked and i can't wait to get started.

see you all then.  as always, i invite commentary!

-dan

Daniel Stewart Mueller at 9:52 AM |

2 Comments:

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At February 23, 2010 at 12:40 PM, Anonymous Jacob Orr said........
Dan,
I'm really glad to hear an upbeat perspective about the weekend. I can't wait (and also am afraid to...) to compete against you next year. I think we will be completely different baristas next year and that will be exciting.

Jacob
 


At February 25, 2010 at 9:24 AM, Anonymous David Fountain said........
I agree with you Dan on the fact that if you are expected to put flavors in a espresso it should represent you as well as the coffee. You held your self well.. Next year its on..