As we tick off another fantastic year of World Coffee Events, Brew Methods had the opportunity to chat with 2021 WBrC Finalist (4th place) Carlos Escobar and his coach Simon Gautherin about what it takes to make it to the finals of the World Brewers Cup Championship. In a Brew Methods exclusive article, Carlos and Simon of Australia share their insights—from picking a concept to choosing their brew method—this is their must-do 5 steps to be a WBrC finalist.
From our experience, picking a concept is the most crucial part of the process and its always our first step. If not done right, the following steps will only bring uncertainty and doubt. In other words, nailing this part of the process will set you up for success.
But before you can do that, you need to define – What does success look like for you in this competition? It’s a very important question, but it won’t give you a concept alone.
Below are some questions we always ask ourselves at the beginning and throughout our competition prep. By being able to define these questions, it’s helped us define our concept.
You may have had somebody tell you this in the past, the age-old phrase of wisdom, “Find your why”. If you’re struggling to answer this, then you need to give it some more thought. It’s incredibly important to ‘find your why’ because it defines what really matters to you, not just as a competitor, but as a person and coffee professional. Knowing this will guide you to define the outcome or ‘success’ you’re looking for and answering these questions will give you an insight into what your true purpose is.
This question will help you define the message you want to convey. Your message should be completely personal and there’s no right or wrong answer. It doesn’t have to be ‘perfect’ or ‘glamarous’, it just needs to be yours.
As much as you want to highlight the coffee, producer, and method that you use, this isn’t what people will remember you for. People will remember you for your concept and how well you deliver it. Your concept should motivate you and be the reason why you’re in this competition, practicing day and night. If your ‘why’ or ‘purpose’ isn’t clear, you’ll find it hard to develop a concept and to engage with your audience. Define your purpose—define your concept.
In saying that, the answers to these questions don’t have to be philosophical and deep. It could be as simple as showcasing a producer’s work or your latest brewing discovery, or perhaps sharing a personal experience. As long as your concept is clear in your mind—because if it’s not clear in your mind, it won’t be clear for your audience.
Carlos Escobar (left) and coach Simon Gautherin (right)
We respect and admire competitors that really want to do it all, but the total amount of work to prepare for a WBrC competition is astronomical and doing it all on your own will put you under a lot of stress.
Start by Identifying your strengths and weaknesses. You’ll work a lot smarter when you do.
To put it short; identify your strengths and focus on them, identify your weaknesses and let your team help. Work smart, not hard.
Something we hear very often is that you need to work for a large company in order to get help with all aspects around competition. Quite frankly, this couldn’t be further from the truth. You don’t need to work for a large company to reach out for help, ask a friend, family member, or someone from your local community that is willing to help and has a specific skillset you’re looking for. Simon and I didn’t work for the same company when we first started preparing for competitions together. You simply need to find people that you trust and will be as committed as you are.
Don’t cut your circle short, find people who can help at all levels. For example; someone to sit in on your rehearsals and give feedback, someone to prep your equipment, someone to taste your coffee, someone to help with your logistics on competition day. In our experience, we’ve had some of the best feedback from people who don’t work in the coffee industry as they are not bias don’t have preconceptions about competition.
Now that you’ve built your dream team, it’s time to build your timeline. If you don’t know where to start, a little technique we like to use is to start from the end. As crazy as this sounds, it actually makes the task breakdown much easier. This means starting from the ‘Open Service’ and working your way back. Outline everything you need to do, learn, source, etc, and plot it on a timeline. It can be as simple or detailed as you like, but try to include as many tasks as you can. Having to add tasks halfway through your campaign will be inconvenient.
We usually aim to have 12 – 16 weeks (3 – 4 months) of preparation before competition day. Tasks will be split among the team and milestones will be set. One thing we learned early on was the importance of meeting deadlines together. If one person missed a deadline, it would affect the whole team. All the more reason to make sure you’re working with people who are as committed as you are. Once you find them, there’s no going back!
We normally build three different timelines; one for the entire campaign, one for the week prior to competition, and one for competition day. These detailed plans allow you to operate in auto-pilot and not have to think or worry about what you need to do (assuming that the plan was done well).
When you build your strategy and plan for competition day, do your best to stick to it. Most of the decisions you’ve made up until this point can’t be changed, it’s final. If you’ve prepared well, there’s no need for you to change your coffee, your grinder, your brewer, etc.
That said, we highly recommend preparing for the worst on competition day; what if you get sick and lose your taste? Have you packed spare equipment? What if there’s no music? Or what if the judges are standing instead of sitting? Will any of that impact your ability to perform?
Now that you’ve built your plan with your dream team, it’s time to select your coffee. There are several things to consider, but first and foremost, remember that it’s a competition and competition involves protocol; judges and scoring.
Yes, you want your coffee to be aligned with your theme, but you also want a coffee that will do well on the scoresheet. For that reason, we believe that understanding the scoresheet is paramount.
What will the judges look for? What attributes are rewarded? Remember the coffee is not going to be assessed by you, it’s all about the judges (your customers for the day)!
So we cautiously advise, don’t just pick a coffee that you love drinking or have a special relationship with, pick a coffee that’s also going to score well. We know it’s hard to hear, but if you want to place high in your national competition and at WBrC, you need to focus on the scoresheet (especially the multipliers – acidity, body and balance; as at 2021). Try not to get too fixated on the flavour attributes of the scoresheet – for example, at times we had to dismiss certain expressions of a coffee because the acidity and body weren’t in-line, even though the flavours were absolutely incredible.
So how do you decide what a world-class coffee should taste like? Where do you even start? Cupping many coffees is one approach, but to really know what a world-class coffee tastes like, you need to taste world-class coffee. This will give you a point of reference. We recommend tasting coffees that have won previous years in WBrC, you can also taste coffees that have placed well in other competitions such as; Cup Of Excellence, Best of Panama, Golden Bean.
We spent countless hours tasting such coffees until we decided on a coffee that we knew was consistently scoring well among our team and had a aligned with our concept. The coffee that you take to WBrC HAS to be one of the top three coffees you’ve ever had in your life, if not, keep searching.
It’s also important to mention, the latest statement only applies if your reason for competing is to win. If your purpose is not to win, perhaps you’re competing for other personal reasons, then you can choose any coffee that will help you achieve that goal. This refers to ‘finding your why’.
In our freezer, we always keep a handful of high-end, vacuum-sealed coffees at hand. This is another way for us to consider potential coffees for competition. Obviously, brewing them on random occasions is not going to yield the best representation of that coffee, but you need to be able to project yourself dialing it in and getting the most out of it.
What we mean is that you don’t need to brew a coffee and be totally amazed by it immediately, we recommend approaching your cupping/tasting sessions with the notion; Can the team work with this coffee and can we improve it?
Carlos Escobar brewing on the Origami Dripper
Finally, the part you’ve all been dying to read. There are many ways to approach this step but having a coherent plan is key if you want to stretch your time with your selected coffee, especially if the coffee is expensive and limited in quantity.
If your core strength is brewing, then it’s a good idea test a wide range of brewing variables, however if you feel more confident with roasting, you’ll be able to tweak and adjust your profile more easily while keeping your brewing variables relatively constant. As a rule of thumb, unless you perfectly understand the impact of each variable, we suggest only changing one variable at the time, otherwise you won’t know which variable affected your result.
For instance, our strength is brewing, so we had a member of our team roasting with whom we could easily communicate and provide feedback to. Remember, it’s about having a team that you can trust and work with. Each member will play to their strengths. As we like to say, “let the roaster be the roaster”. You don’t have to be in control of everything. Focus on your strengths and play your role in the team.
Our approach to dialing-in may differ to what you’ve learned in the past or to how other competitors do it, and that’s fine. We respect everyone’s opinion. We know that our method is not the best way, but it’s worked for us and hopefully it could work for you.
Our first step is to start identifying the variables that are the most impactful in a recipe, such as grind size, brew ratio, water temperature and water mineral content, etc. We suggest trying to spend more time focusing on these variables in the initial stage of your recipe creation. We recommend ranking these variables in order of most impactful and tackling them one-by-one methodically. Try not to deep-dive into every rabbit hole, pick your battles and make sure it all fits into your timeline, otherwise you’ll be at it forever.
When dialing-in, always keep the scoresheet in mind before locking in a variable and make sure there is an improvement on your score from previous brews. Take extensive notes of every brew, log all your recipes in detail and make sure to include every variable, such as roast profile, age of coffee, water recipe, etc. Also note the attributes of each brew and feel free to score them so that you can refer to your best recipe.
We’ve also found that in order to perform perfectly on competition day, you need to recreate the exact same conditions and environment. So don’t forget to grind ahead, rinse you papers the same way, set up your station the same way, queue your music the same way, etc. It may sound really obvious, but you will notice every little change on competition day—as will the judges and it could throw you off
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading our 5 Steps to be a WBrC Finalist. We’d just like to reiterate, it’s not a silver bullet for success. It’s simply a methodology and framework that we have developed and adopted over the course of our WBrC campagin and past three years of competition.
For us, competition is not just about the outcome. The process is paramount and the preparation is an integral part of the competition itself. Make sure the outcome doesn’t define you as a brewer.
Take notes, debrief, and learn from your outcome no matter what the result. The feedback and lessons from a campaign should only help you develop a better understanding and starting point for your future competitions. This will help you become a better competitor.
We hope our 5 Steps to be a WBrC Finalist have given you some guidance for your next campaign, filled some holes, or even better—inspired you to give competition a go. We love seeing new faces each year and we’re always happy to answer any of your questions. We’re big advocates of approachability, so don’t be shy to get in touch!
Article by Carlos Escobar and Simon Gautherin
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