How to take second place in a Coffee Roasting Championship

How to take second place in a Coffee Roasting Championship

Last year I competed in the Norwegian Roasting Championship for the first time ever, and I wanted to share what I did to secure second place. Spoiler alert: it's not because I'm a good roaster.

I've previously competed for many years in both the Brewers Cup and Barista Championship's, taking two first places and one third place in Barista, and two third places in Brewers. In other words, I'm no stranger to coffee competitions, but the Roasting Championship was a new format for me with new rules and new skills to master. Going in there was no quarantee that I would do well, or even qualify for the finals. I also knew I'd most likely be one of the most inexperienced roasters in the competition.

Doing well in any kind of coffee competition is two-fold. First you need to understand the competition format and what you are being asked to do, second you need to use the rules and the opportunites you have to maximise your chances of success. Being good at what you do obviously helps, but isn't always enough if you aren't able to use those skills when you're in the middle of the competition. 

The first round is a compulsory roasting challenge. Each competitior was sent a 60kg bag of an unknown coffee. They then had to grade, plan and complete a roast of the coffee and send 1kg to be anonymously evaluated by a panel of judges. The 6 best scoring coffees earned a place in the finals.

The coffee I got was a washed coffee from Peru. I roasted my coffees on a 1kg Ailio Bullet roaster, because it allowed me a lot of freedom in how I roasted and I could do many small roasts as opposed to a few big ones. My theory was that with enough trial and error I should be able to produce 1kg of delicious coffee no matter which compulsory coffee we got. I also did a calibration 7kg roast on my 12kg Diedrich using a profile I had for another washed Peru to have a baseline to compare my Bullet roasts with. After 12 batches I was happy with the results on the cupping table and sent in my coffee, which secured me a spot in the finals!

The finals round was held over two days. The main part of the competition involves roasting a single origin and a blend coffee to the best of your ability on day two. You don't know in advance which coffees you'll be given. The first day was practice roasting, sample roasting and green grading. We got to practice on the competition machine, a Diedrich IR-12, using a Brazilian coffee that was not part of the competition, just to see how the roaster behaved and to help us plan our other roasts accordingly. For the green grading we had to complete several tasks such as checking screen size, moisture, density and amount of defects. This isn't something I've done a lot, being relatively new to roasting, and predictably I did poorly, ranking second to lowest.

For the sample roasting we used the Stronghold and we got a small bag of each of the competition coffees we were going to use the following day. I had never roasted on the Stronghold before and was not at all happy with my sample roasts. One was too dark, one was too light, etc. This meant that when I cupped them with my coach, Alexander Monsen, it was difficult to evaluate the quality of the coffee vs the quality of the roast. My practice roast on the Diedrich IR-12 was also very underdeveloped, showing that my usual roasting routine that works on my own Diedrich was not going to work on this one!

After day one we had a lot to think about and a lot of challenges to overcome for day two. I'd made many mistakes, but I knew I could make up for it if my production roasts were good, since those amounted to the majority of the points in the competition. To do that, though, I needed to plan roast plans for the coffees based on cupping subpar sample roasts, and I needed to figure out how to roast delicious coffee on a machine I had very little practice with and that I now knew behaved very differently to my own Diedrich machine.

I had to produce a single origin roast of a washed Pacamara from El Salvador, and a blend roast with coffee from Brasil, Kenya and Colombia. I decided to things a little differently from the other competitors and do all my blend coffees as separate roasts, starting with the coffee that I planned to use the least of in the blend, and finish with the coffee I planned to use the most of. Then I would roast my single origin at the very end, since that was the single most important roast in terms of points. That gave me four separate attempts at roasting, so I could learn and improve with each one, finishing with the one that would give me the most points. Most of the others did their blend as one roast with pre-blended green coffee, so they only had one attempt at their blend and one at their single origin. That felt a bit too risky for me.

I also used 7kg batches in a 12kg machine, even though we were given 9kg we could use. This gave me better heat transfer for more evenly developed coffee and a wider range of options when it came to gas settings, I didn't have to go full blast on heat for the majority of the roasts to keep the roasting time short enough. I believe most of the others used all of the 9kg they got, which meant they had longer total roast times, and had to use more gas and heat early on in their roasts which runs the risk of scorching, tipping and some roasty flavours.

My strategy paid off and I jumped from 5th overall after day one to second place after day two. It wasn't because of my skill as a roaster, but because I knew I didn't have the experience and instincts needed to succeed on my first attempts. I had to give myself room to practice and learn while I was in the middle of my production roasts, which turned my weakness into an advantage.

I'm definitely going to try competing in the roasting championship again this year, and I hope my experiences from last time will help anyone else who is thinking about competing, regardless of which championship or country you are in.

- Adrian Berg

Photos by: Klaudia Koldras

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