One of the ways of safeguarding the standards and precision of high-quality coffee is through competitions and grading, as producers all vie for the opportunity to have their crop crowned king and baristas battle it out to receive recognition for their beverage-making skills.
Whatever the competition, these will consist of numerous rounds in order to ensure comprehensive and fair evaluation of the skills and produce being scrutinised by the prying eyes of expert panels.
One popular component of barista competitions is the signature beverage round – one that many will say is arguably the most challenging of them all.
What is a signature beverage?
It's one thing to make a faultless espresso or cappuccino, but to design and perfect a signature beverage is a whole different kettle of coffee.
Described by the World Barista Championship (WBC) rules as a "freestyle espresso-based beverage", the round leaves a lot more to the imagination and opens up the playing field to even more subjectivity – as if there wasn't enough when it came to something so dictated by taste and preference as cupping.
"The ever-popular signature beverage allows baristas to stretch their imagination and the judges’ palates to incorporate a wealth of coffee knowledge into an expression of their individual tastes and experiences," the official website of the championship says.
Writing for Barista Magazine, coffee expert Travis Riley explained how at the Southwest heats of the 2013 UK Barista Championships he was presented with an inventive concoction by a competitor named Jason Gonzalez. It consisted of dark liquid in a glass tumbler and could almost be mistaken for an Old Fashioned cocktail. However, a cocktail it was not; rather, coffee but with two ice cubes floating in it – one orange and one purple – that gave off tangerine and lavender flavours.
Why is it so tricky in the WBC?
As is to be expected, a barista cannot throw together a signature beverage. The rules of the World Barista Championship make that much apparent.
Firstly – and perhaps obviously – it must be a liquid that those scrutinising the beverage can drink. It has to contain a minimum of one espresso shot, failing which the creator will receive no marks when it comes to taste balance evaluation. It must be prepared within an allocated amount of time and nothing other than water or coffee can be used in the portafilters to alter the extraction or, again, the barista will score no points.
There is, of course, some flexibility, or else those creating the signature beverage would not be able to show off their skills in any sort of unique or outstanding way. It can be served at any consumable temperature and any ingredients can be used, except alcohol or associated extracts and by-products – so that rules out a good Irish coffee!
Rigorous and obligatory inspections of the packaging of any ingredients used in the beverage only add to the meticulous nature of the process.
Even when the drink has been prepared, the work is not yet done, as its creator must explain it to the panel of judges. This must include a description of the ingredients and how it was prepared, a run-down of the flavours and aromas to be expected, a commentary on its inception (for example, why certain ingredients were used) and, if required, instructions on how it should be consumed – such as, whether it should be stirred, sipped or drunk in one go.
What does it have to do with everyday roasters and retailers?
It goes without saying that creating a signature beverage is a great way to stand out. As Travis says: "Given the right environment, this model of coffee, of celebrating the signature beverage, can find a place on the manicured chalkboard menu of the contemporary coffee shop."
At its foundation is the right espresso and this is where we come in. At DR Wakefield, we pride ourselves on providing the right coffee for your particular needs. If you are interested in creating a signature beverage, have a chat to us about how you want to achieve this and we may just have the perfect coffee to help you get started.