Judging the Regional Barista Competitions in Sweden

Valentines Day, 14 of February 2012, saw me judging my first competition here in Sweden, which was a really exciting experience. Since the first Regional already had happened in Malmö, and there were apparently not enough sensory judges there to fill a whole panel, we had to judge all the competitions the same way: each judge had to taste two of the competitors four drinks.

Karlstad, a city I’ve been in less than three times as an adult, and always during a blizzard for some reason, was the stage for this Regional where I together with local judge Anna Nordström (for local organizers Löfbergs Lila), Erik Rosendahl of Stockholms Drop Coffee and head judge Emil Eriksson from J&N in Malmö were doing the sensory evaluation of eight competitors this day. Technical was Dan Magnus Wingård and Matte Carlsson.

photo by Ida Hedqvist

On this day, the Regional was, as mentioned before, organized by local roasters Löfbergs Lila, probably Swedens largest still family owned roaster, in their fairly new opened café Rosteriet (“The Roastery”) in the same building as the actual factory (of which we were given a guided tour). As the saying goes in the Highlander films; there can be only one, and after a long and tough day of coffee drinking barista Johan Morén from Stockholm was crowned winner of this Regional, using a natural Ethiopian from Shakiso that he later told me was used as a reaction to what he had experienced during his studies in Canada, where the naturals basically were non-existant in the shops.

photo by Ida Hedqvist

Tuesday the 21 of February, it was time for the third Regional. This time organized by Kaffeknappen, on a venue that slightly reminded me of those cruise ships to Finland. Again, an interesting field of competitors had risen up to the challenge and I was lucky to judge four out of ten together with Peter Frenhoff of Love Coffee, Emil Eriksson again, and his collegues Jonas Hult and Rebecca Thurfjell of J&N, with their boss Johan Damgaard as the head judge. And again, Matte and Dan Magnus did a great job doing the tech judging.

For this competition, the competitors basically served the judges from across the counter, like a true bar experience basically, which was interesting but maybe not optimal from a judges perspective. I hate to be picky, but the lightning also sometimes made it tricky to fully evaluate the color of crema I found. It’s very interesting as well to experience the change of dynamics in the Judges room, when there are a different set of judges. Not that it was better or worse, just different.

Unfortunately, this time I didn’t get to judge the winner of this regional, Alexander Ruas, who delivered a routine that was taking us back to last summer and his grandmothers apple tree garden. Alexander is last years Swedish Barista Champion, so it will be very interesting to see the progress, since in Malmö Sebastian Ryberg, last years runner up, also directly qualified for the Semi Finals that will be held in Stockholm in April.

Brew Bar

The last of the regionals was hosted by Da Matteo. When applying for the event, we were told that each application will be evaluated from what kind of extra activities/arrangements the organizer could offer. Since I work for Da Matteo, it might sound a bit biased to say that the Gothenburg event was the most interesting one from that point of view. Well organized (there were no time delays, everyone knew exactly what to do and where to go), and a really really good vibe and preparation of both the event (Pernilla Gard did a beautiful job at organizing) and of the community (the TNT GBG has hosted events prior in order to gain interest in the competition etc.). Before the actual competition there was a brunch beat in the room, to get both spectators and competitors in good spirit, and afterwards there was live music from the lovely Lovisa Samuelsson, beers and snacks in the ambient location of Magasinsgatan, in between brewed coffee was served from the brew bar sponsored by Love Coffee, J&N and Da Matteo (see picture above).

So, what about the competition? At this event, Lars Pilengrim and Anders Holzner of J&N were  sensory judging, together with Emil Eriksson as head judge (also J&N), and event coordinator Ida Hedqvist as tech judge. In order to cut out conflicts of interest, we took turns in judging the competitors where I couldn’t judge the baristi using Da Matteo coffee for instance, and in the case of always one judge being from J&N, we chose the judge that came from another region than the competitor.


Hard working coordinator Ida Hedqvist

At the end of the day, Carl Ahlman of J&N won the Regional in Gothenburg with a presentation I really enjoyed and a coffee to match made out of three coffees from the same region with three different processing methods (unfortunately I have no pictures of the winner(s) since I was judging and also announcing the winner) . So that concludes my experience as a regional judge in Sweden. Now I’ll get into some thoughts around this.

These thoughts are not in any way to point fingers in specific directions or at certain people. It’s not a way to undermine the value of the competition either, since I believe in the format and love it. What I am about to say is sometimes what I already suspected took place in the judging room, but think is worth mentioning once experiencing it first hand.

judge dread

"the judges room"

For the first round of the competition, we had four inexperienced sensory judges (the head judge was inexperienced too, but was judging as sensory in the Regional prior). In my opinion the head judge did a great job, however that competition was setting the standard for me since I was a first timer. The points we scored were probably calibrated differently from the other competitions (we did a pretty long calibration this time) and even though I strongly believe that in each competition (at least in Sweden) there is one clear winner that all judges before counting the scores, already agree on and then the scores usually match those opinions.

As far as bias and conflict of interest is concerned, I think in most cases the psychology of the situation drives the person with any conflict of interest to evaluate the competitor harder and score on average lower, so to me this is not a big issue. However, I found that in the group dynamics of the competition there might always be someone who on average is a lower scorer, and someone else in the room balancing that out (good cop/bad cop). Again, in that certain competitors score sheet, those two extremes might be balanced out, however comparing that to other competitors scores, I am pretty sure anyone with an agenda (be it consciously or unconsciously) can raise the scores a couple of points that later will throw the totals out of balance.

I also think this specific competition suffered from a very unfortunate start, where not enough judges could be found, and instead of compromising the “standard of the judges”, all competitions suffered from being judged by two sensory judges instead of four. I think definitely this is altering the group dynamics regardless if for better or worse. Instead, why was not the first competition postponed to a later date, in order to make sure all competing baristi got the evaluation they deserved? If you judged eight competitors on the day, it actually mean you judged sixteen since each judge evaluated two drinks each round and scored an average.

GBG event

beautiful poster by DCILY

From commercial point of view, I think it’s essential to host regional competitions in order to gain media attention. In Karlstad no less than two local TV-channels came and did a story, in Stockholm it was on the news, and in Gothenburg there was a story in the paper. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for regional coffee communities to push the event and make a night out of it as well as getting it out to the public (the brew bar was an amazing way for people to actually get an idea of what coffee is and can be from full blooded coffee professionals).

However from a judges point of view as well as the SCAE, I believe it was not satisfactory. How can Sweden have so many certified judges, and still a lack of them? The first regional might have been unfortunate, but it cannot set the standard for a whole competition. Also, having three different head judges (only Emil actually experienced all four competitions together with coordinator Ida) is risking inconsistency between Regionals. You might argue that in all cases there were competitors that were clearly ahead of the pack, and that all judges agreed on this before even seeing that the score sheets told the same story, however the ones that didn’t make it straight to the semi-finals had to wait to see their scores. Not saying it actually did occur in this specific round of competitions, but the risk of it is still that between two to four competitors there might be such small differences in scores, we might end up sending the wrong barista because of Regional differences.

The conflict of interest is problematic, and I say this not because I suspect foul play, but to prevent any such thoughts from people who only look at the scores eventually (which mostly will be the competitors). With such lack of judges willing to be there on the actual competition days (or judges living in the area not even asked if they could do it), it is hard naturally to get this a 100% correct. Also, the coffee scene in Sweden is small. What if someone doesn’t feel comfortable with for instance me judging them (we might have a history of huge disagreements etc. but not necessarily an obvious conflict of interest)? That person should be able to say that they do not wish to be judged by me and another judge should be chosen. Again, a lack of judges doesn’t help in this case even though if necessary it would probably been able to work out anyway. Just saying…

So, who am I to say this? And what credentials do I speak from? I entered the wonderful world of judging to better understand what goes on behind the scenes, how the dynamics of the group, and the psychology of that group dynamics plays part in evaluating the drinks, and in the end the competitors. I also did it because I love the competition, I think it’s a great way to promote a progressive coffee culture, and also from a sensory point of view I’ve gotten the opportunity to taste a lot of coffee from other backgrounds and with other philosophies behind them than my own, that I’d rarely do otherwise.

I am only writing this in order to try to get my head around how to possibly make the competition even better! When keen on getting started on my judging “career” I thought the idea of “tail judging” (as a newbie, judge behind an experienced judge without my scores being taken into consideration) was nonsense. Now, with first hand judging experience three times, I actually agree it is a good idea, out of respect for the competitors. What if I was the one that made an error somewhere and it made a difference for one or more competitors? I hate the thought of that being on my conscience.

The judging is also from volunteer work, so I am not pointing fingers at specific judges not putting their hands up. I know there is a reality factor in this, and if anything there can be more effort in planning ahead for next years competition. Like, get started once this competition is over. Also, I think the extra arrangements, such as in Gothenburg, holds a quality to the competition for its spectators and volunteers that can be deepened and more thoroughly executed at all Regionals. The Brew Bar is such an event I think should be at all events! And the Head Judge should be the same in each competition to sure fire consistency from the start.

I would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone that helped out, arranged, judged, running and most of all competed! All did a very hard and great job! I am looking forward to next years competition season already!

NP: Agnidev Das Damodar Astakam

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