Build Up to Nationals 2020: Competition advice from behind the scenes

Wednesday, 15 January, 2020

The Inside Scoop on Competing in Coffee

Some of Chris Rootman’s favourite moments of his career have been at the SCASA competitions: “small things like two competitors giving each other big hugs after their sets, helping a competitor backstage, seeing how nervous they are and then absolutely smashing their set on stage.” National Sales Manager of VDP Distributors and a SCASA board member, Chris gave us the inside scoop on coffee competitions in South Africa…

What do you like best about coffee competitions?

“The friendships and camaraderie. There is the most amazing spirit shared between everyone at these competitions. Whether you are competing, judging or organising. On a more serious note, there is always something to learn. The competitors have spent a lot of time and invested money preparing for the big day, and with that comes a whole new knowledge base that everyone who takes the time to listen, can learn from. 

Those who are involved will understand what I mean. If you have never done so, come spend some time at your regional competition. Be a judge, volunteer to work behind the scenes, or even better, come and compete. It really is life changing!”

As a judge, is it difficult to stay objective when you’re judging industry friends?

“Back in the days when I used to compete, I did sometimes think like that. But when I started getting more involved behind the scenes, I soon realised that the scoresheets leave no room for personal interpretation. The judges’ training as well as the daily calibration is led by industry legends like Alessandro Morrico, Bernard Muneri, George Bertolis, Tim Krynauw and Shaun Aupiais, who leave little room for personalised interpretation.”

What do you think it takes to succeed at the international level of competition?

“Like Gary Player says, the more I practice, the luckier I get… I think that attitude in life will get you far no matter what you do. International competitions are of course a very different beast. Having read a lot of interviews with the top six in the World Barista Championship finals for the past 10 years I think there are some constants which a national champion should consider when the planning starts. As a list person, here is mine:

1. Start at regional level. Plan, train and perform as if you are on the world stage.

2. If you make it to nationals, use the same attitude, give your preparation absolutely everything you have, and compete as if it’s the most important thing you’ve ever done.

3. Network. There is a wealth of information and expertise within the local coffee community.

4. Team effort. You will need a group of people around you who can help you from the planning phase to competition phase. They should know what you think before you even think it and have the ability to handle the stressful situations in a way that will keep you calm and focused.

5. Live practice. Once the set for worlds start taking shape, repetition is important to build muscle memory. I personally feel that the national champion should be running sets for judges and other competitors daily to get used to the pressure and to find ways to work around problems that could happen during sets. The more sets you run, the better you get to understand the areas of a set where you get to be creative, but also to build areas within the set which are standard. These standard areas can serve as time checks, but also keep you grounded when pressure mounts.

6. Be different. Judges want to leave your set feeling excited and inspired. Give them reason to by being creative.”

What do you think lies ahead for South Africa’s coffee industry in 2020?

“2019 has been a hard year. We faced some interesting challenges in terms of our economy which has affected the entire supply chain of our industry. As South Africans, we find ways to make things better, and to change a negative into a positive, and I think 2020 will be a big year in the coffee industry. In the competition space this year I saw some talents take themselves to the next level, and have seen some incredible presentations in every single region. 

I know several baristas who are already practicing for Nationals at HOSTEX (1 – 3 March at Sandton Convention Centre) and I think the competition is going to be fierce! I think this year we will see a South African break into the top 12 at the World Barista Champs, and both Latte Art and Cup Tasters will get the best rankings we’ve had in their competitions to date. On a more personal note, we are launching The DaVinci Gourmet Flavour Genius Academy in 2020. Everything is top secret for now and we will launch this at HOSTEX during the SCASA National Coffee Championships.”

As a judge and competition ‘insider’, what’s the best advice you can give to new competitors?

“Practice, practice, practice. Know the rules. Study the scoresheets. Remember that you are competing because you love coffee. Let this be your driver.”

Got something to say? Then leave a comment!