Tips & Tricks

Coffee Competition Lessons for the Home Brewer

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Blair Smith
Blair Smith
February 20, 2019

Coffee competitions have always been about the process for me and what I learn along the way. Through competing, I have undoubtedly become a better barista, a better brewer, and have gained a better palate for tasting coffee. Most of my journey has been trial and error – simply trying different variables and seeing how they affect taste. It can be as specific as the amount of magnesium in the water I’m brewing with, or as simple as the temperature of my kettle. There are endless variables that can impact extraction and taste, but three lessons come to mind when it comes to big takeaways:


  1. Experiment as much as you can. Just because something you tried once didn’t turn out quite right doesn’t mean you should abandon that idea entirely for other coffee. For instance, most people will say that you should use coffee beans within two weeks of the roast date. Two years ago, I competed with coffee beans one-month post-roast. It was everything I wanted that coffee to be: sweet, balanced, and, still, so vibrant. I would have never thought to use those older coffee beans if I hadn’t brought every roast of that variety of coffee to the competition and tried them side-by-side.


When making a pour over at home, experiment with different grind sizes and weights of your coffee, seeing how each one affects the taste of your cup. Try a longer or shorter bloom or waiting after the first pour for the coffee to degas. Try stirring the brew bed after you bloom the coffee, and before your second pour. Try a slightly higher brewing temperature. Each of these will influence how your coffee will taste. Look for sweetness, balance and the aftertaste of the coffee as it cools. Does the coffee become sweeter as it cools? If it turns sour or bitter, adjust to shorten or lengthen your brew time, adjust your grind, or adjust how much water you pour. Write down what you have tried and what’s working with each roast. These are starting points for different methods of experimentation.


  1. Taste everything. Even if it brews quickly (like, 2 minutes quickly), or if the brew bed looks uneven, or if you accidentally pour more water than you intend to, taste it! You might find a happy accident, or at least something closer to what you are looking for. I’ve made a simple mistake many times, and because I’ve tasted it thoroughly, even as it cooled down, I’ve experienced different flavors or characteristics about the coffee that I may not have if I didn’t taste it.


  1. Equipment is super important, both in competition and home brewing. First off, ergonomics is important. Do the physics of using your equipment make sense? Is it easy or difficult to pour slowly with a certain kettle? Does the filter sit right on the brewer, or does it consistently get stuck in a funky way, giving you inconsistent results? I absolutely love Brim’s coffee makers, grinders and kettle. I recommend them to my customers on a regular basis, because they are approachable yet have the craftsmanship of a seasoned brewer in mind.


Smart Valve Cold Brew Maker – Before using this cold brew maker, I’ve avoided making cold brew at home simply because of the mess it creates. This device makes the process so simple and clean. The recipe is marked on the decanter, so all you need is a 12 oz bag of coffee to make a perfect cold brew concentrate.


The 8 Cup Pour Over Coffee Maker is super reliable when you don’t have time to make a pour over by hand – the cup quality is really impressive. With most automatic coffee makers, the long brew time completely ruins the extraction, even when you’re using very high-quality coffee grounds.  The 8 Cup Pour Over maintains perfect extraction as determined by the SCA Gold Cup standard with ideal water temperature and an evenly soaked brew bed, allowing for a bloom phase, just like a manual pour over.


Burr Grinders – One of the most important pieces of equipment is a burr grinder. Using small burrs instead of blades ensure evenly ground coffee, and therefore evenly extracted coffee – resulting in a smooth, balanced cup of coffee. Once you go burr, you can’t go back – you’ll be able to taste the difference between coffee brewed with grounds from a burr versus blade grinder.


For manual pour overs, using a gooseneck kettle is also vital while brewing at home. A slow pour is key to a balanced cup. Gooseneck kettles are designed to pour the water very evenly and slowly, allowing for a longer extraction. Brim’s Precision Temperature & Perfect Pour Capacitive Touch Gooseneck Kettle not only allows for that slow pour, but also has extremely accurate temperature regulation, which is key to a perfect brew.


Coffee competitions have taught me you can never truly know everything about coffee. Even when you think that you do, there’s more to learn, the variables are so precise, and each roast can be so different than your standard recipe. By understanding how to taste coffee, and using the right equipment, you will be well on your way to brewing like an artisan.