This post comes a bit later than the competition (end of April!), but I should at least make a small post for posterity. The judging panel consisted of many folks from the Singapore Specialty Coffee scene, two from Vietnam, and one from Hong Kong. Vietnam expats included Nat Paolone, trainer for Lavazza, and myself. We were led by Head Judge Ross Bright, of Spinelli Coffee Roasters.
Other judges included: Pamela Cheng, of Bettr Barista Coffee Academy. Danny Hor, of Kaffa Kaldi. Darren Chang, of Smitten Cafe (former Singaporean Barista Champion). Danny Pang, of Academy of Coffee and Wine and SCAE-certified Barista Trainer. Michael Ryan, an Australian barista based in Singapore with Jimmy Monkey Coffee Bar (which houses Singapore's first Slayer Espresso machine). It was really a pleasure to meet all of these folks and I look forward to connecting again, whether here or in Singapore.
Baristas from all around Vietnam's coffee industry participated, giving their best to the three-day event at the Convention Center in Saigon's District 7. This semi-annual event has been gaining steam over the last few cycles and the judges who were at previous Vietnamese competitions say that the participants have really improved every time.
The competition is based on the World Barista Championship rules and regulations, format and structure. Competitors must prepare four drinks in each of three categories (espresso, cappuccino, signature beverage) for four sensory judges, while being watched by two technical judges and a head judge, all in under 15 minutes. The barista must demonstrate proficiency with the equipment and ingredients, excellent customer service skills and of course, coffee and preparation knowledge. One big difference for this competition vs the ones in the US I've judged was the coffee sponsor element. Competitors were required to use the sponsor's coffee (Perfetto, based in Australia with operations in Vietnam). I suppose that in a country like Vietnam, where coffee with additives (butter, artificial flavor, sugar, chicken fat, fish sauce!, among other things) is the norm, it's safer (for the judging panel and the equipment) and more competitive to level the field by striking this variable. Otherwise, who knows what will be in the espresso blends being presented. It is a coffee competition. This actually made it quite a bit easier for the sensory judges to stay calibrated, because we were very acquainted with the coffee by the time competition routines began. We were judging the baristas rather than the coffee, though tasting the same coffee for two-dozen competitors became a bit boring and lacked the sparkle I was used to in the US.
Some of the baristas really impressed me with their technical abilities, customer service and quick hands. Latte art is definitely well-developed here, as every competitor was able to pour basic patterns (while others poured very advanced ones in their tiny cappuccino cups). Signature drinks varied from super-simple (a hot water ginger extraction with a touch of simple syrup plus espresso) to overdone (I believe I counted 12 ingredients for one competitor's sig drink). Others had over-decorated the glasses to the point that there was no way to consume the drink. The general critique I had about the signature drinks is that they were all created for super-sweet toothed people. The flavor of the espresso rarely stood out and was even more rarely complemented by the ingredients. It seemed that most of them were geared toward people who didn't like the taste of coffee. The few who kept it simple and coffee-focused came out on top, and the finals were a breeze to judge.
The winner was Ho Quoc Tuan, of Highlands Coffee. His routine possessed the quiet calm of a craftsperson who takes pride in their work, and has a true love for coffee. Second place was "Ken" Ngan, of Cafe Me in Ho Chi Minh City. Trung Truong, of Tuno Coffee in Ho Chi Minh City, took third place.
The most important takeaway, of course, was meeting so many good coffee people! I'm sure they will begin to show up on this here blog (I know, I'm sooo early-2000s) in due time.