On Being a Judge


Rob Tuttle, Thrive Farmers Coffee, Roswell, GA

The old industry saying goes, “those who can’t do… judge”. I don’t know if I would fully agree with this statement now, but there is still some truth to it. When I first started judging barista competitions back in 2004, it was much easier to approach this barista world that I was so mesmerized with. I was an owner of a coffee shop at the time of my first exposure to a regional barista competition. As a rookie to the world of specialty coffee, I knew that I could not compete, so I decided to go through a class to learn how to judge.

So, why judge? I felt that judging was the best way to gain an understanding of the rules and regulations on a more intimate level. I was not confident enough to compete, but the desire was there. Gaining an understanding of what the competition is all about and discovering what the judges were looking for would be important if I was going to compete.

The 2004 Southeast Regional Barista Competition was my first event. The whole event is kind of a blur at this point, but I recall meeting many of the people who would ultimately shape my current coffee career. An exciting new world opened up to me during this time. It was full immersion time - understanding espresso and how to actually make a latte while effectively communicating the components of the barista’s signature beverage was mind blowing.

I am a competitive person in my heart, but judging allowed me to impact quality, curriculum and coffee excellence. Being a judge allows me to have a greater impact to the industry, which was more important than for me to try to be a barista champion.

Much progress was made in the competition arena over the course of the next few years. During this time I was highly involved with the SCAA and volunteered on many different committees, including the head judges committee. It became apparent that there was a need and desire for more education. This was not just my opinion, but that of the entire committee, as well as the SCAA Board of Directors. Breaking down the walls of the “us and them” mentality was critical. “What are the judges looking for?” was a question asked all too often from competitors.

Open communication of changes to the rules and regulations of the competition was key and a great dialog between baristas and committee members was sparked. Many baristas joined the committee and brought their viewpoints to the table, including that of the World Barista Champion, Stephen Morrissy, who joined in judging many of the competitions throughout the USA after his win in 2008.

The statement, “I wasn’t sure what the judges were looking for,” was finally addressed.

So getting back to the original question, why do I continue to participate as a judge in barista competitions? My beginnings in the coffee world were a bit bumpy, but it could have been much worse. I have many people to thank that have helped me along the way, and many of them are baristas. From the start I knew that I could better serve the specialty coffee community in a supporting role rather than being the guy out front. I applaud those baristas who have embraced the role of being coffee ambassadors.

This coffee journey is really not about any one of us. To me, it is about being able to connect the end consumers, our customers, to the farmers who grow their favorite beverage. And the most important person in that whole link is the barista! Having a professional barista in a coffee shop is like having a humble professor on staff. This person is able to speak to the science, the origin, the farmer, the processing methods, the roasting process and all of the other aspects that go into producing a cup of quality coffee, and this is critical to the continued cultivation of the specialty coffee consuming world. When we look at the different barista competitions, this is exactly what the judges are looking for: a coffee professional! One who can teach, train, and inspire others while still turning out a delicious cup of coffee. To be part of that process is a wonderful experience that I am proud to be part of.

BlogLily Kubota