A couple of months ago, Dung (founder of The Workshop in HCMC) and I had an idea to bring the burgeoning Vietnamese specialty coffee community together for some friendly competition. The details weren't really worked out for some time - these competitions can take on a variety of formats, from very detailed and strict with pages of rules for competitors and judges, to simple "throwdown" formats where judges simply pick the best of two or three cups.
As Dung began to include more people from the community, it was more apparent that they wanted to have something closer to an international standard competition. Organizers Ms. Tiep, (The Cupping Room), Mr Phi Bay (Nam Long Coffee Company), Mr Hung (Bosgaurus Coffee), and Dung called upon an experienced World Siphonist Championship judge, Wong Ching Ching, for help with the competition format and judges' calibration. Ching Ching joined us for the week prior to competition to work out the details and calibrate the judging panel. This would not have been possible without her guidance. Joining us on the judging panel were UCC's Ho Chi Minh City office cuppers, Mr Baba and his assistant Mr Chau.
The international competition format allows 15 minutes for the competitor's routine, in which she will prepare a siphon brew for each of the four sensory judges, along with a signature drink course that utilizes a fifth siphon brew to make the main ingredient. The rules are many, and very particular, so it's a challenging contest.
Since this was the first year, and the first organized competition for many of the siphonists, we adjusted the format just a bit. The time allowance was extended to 20 minutes with a maximum of 30 possible bonus points for finishing early (along with a penalty for going over 20 minutes, and disqualification after 21 minutes). We also decided that three sensory judges were enough for this year's challenge. Since I was the only volunteer with any coffee competition judging experience, the team pushed me to the front to act as Head Judge, whose job is to be sure sensory judges are grading drinks fairly and stay calibrated throughout the day. This meant that I was present for every single competitor's routine, tasting a slew of yummy drinks.
A total of 18 competitors from various parts of Ho Chi Minh City (one flew from Hanoi to join!) gathered for an intense day of preliminary rounds. The pool of judges were worn out after the first day, which lasted over 12 hours of continuous routines.
Many participants were competing in their first coffee competition and did an impressive job in the realms of professionalism, cup quality, and hospitality. Some brought out the big origins (Kenya and Ethiopia showed up more than once), while many stuck to presenting Vietnamese coffees. Signature drinks varied from chilled to iced to hot, some combining lime zest and coconut water with the coffee, others with cascara, and others with tea.
Five finalists came out on top, to battle it out the next day - three of the five were from The Workshop!
Finals day showed the competitors at their best, but there could only be one Champion - Mr Thai Son, a freelance trainer, came out on top with tasty drinks, great service, while taking advantage of the bonus points for finishing early (less than 15 minutes!). Truong, of The Workshop was first runner-up, with Truc of Nam Long Coffee as second runner-up.
In the week following the event, I noticed many of the judges and competitors hanging out at The Workshop, chatting at the brew bar like old friends. The high from the event was still in the air, and didn't seem to be fading but quite the opposite. There's already talk of the next event - everything from "brew-offs" to espresso throwdowns. They've definitely caught the bug, and it's not going away any time soon
The best thing to come out of this competition was the feeling of community and collaboration, that competing companies and baristas can come together for the common goal of elevating the efforts of those who simply want to make coffee better. And I can definitely support that.