[T]he air was cool, but a bead of sweat glistened on Randall Jackson’s brow. He sipped yet another espresso, eyelids heavy and tastes buds nearly numb. A hint of unpleasantness caught his attention—the espresso still wasn’t quite right. He focused his gaze on the grinder, preparing to pull another shot, settling in for another grueling night of training.
Randall competed in last month’s CoffeeChamps competition in Austin, Texas. His training began long before his name appeared on the competitor list, during months spent dreaming up a barista routine that would dazzle the judging panel.
The dreaming stage was pure fun. Randall researched how to alter cow milk flavor by feeding a herd certain herbs. He bought xanthan gum and experimented his way into culinary foams. He watched dozens of past competitions, analyzing techniques and patterns.
When Randall’s name appeared on the competitor list (a lottery selection process), his whimsical ideas started to materialize. Grocery lists evolved into drink variations; bags of freshly roasted coffee transformed into rich espresso.
Without a coach or former competitor to support his journey, it was up to him to prepare for the event. Randall spent most nights working at Yellow House Coffee in Lubbock, Texas. With only one espresso setup, the only option was to practice his routine after business hours, late into the night.
His training began long before his name appeared on the competitor list, during months spent dreaming up a barista routine that would dazzle the judging panel.
As the competition approached, it was time for tough choices. Randall decided a savory drink wasn’t the right move for his first competition. Neither was a thick, sage-infused xanthan foam. He shifted his focus to a more familiar flavor landscape: chocolate, berries, and espresso.
His script evolved slowly, stitched together by a common theme: taking the judges back to a time when they knew little about coffee. He would share a newcomer-friendly signature drink with them to build a relationship, then draw them into the story of his coffee with the espresso.
The order of Randall’s drink service would symbolize the relationship between barista and customer and how it develops into a common appreciation for the coffee, its origin, and its story.
The script started coming together, his espresso was tasting good, and his signature beverage was close to what he imagined.
His ten-minute routine centered on a honey processed coffee from Finca Retana in Antigua, Guatemala. The coffee was the result of an experiment at the farm and featured a crisp acidity, sweet raspberry flavor, and light body. The team at Dallas’s Oak Cliff Coffee Roasters suggested the coffee to Randall and roasted it for him.
Randall’s signature drink was a soda shop tribute: a beverage made with espresso, butter ganache, dark chocolate, carbonated raspberry syrup, and lavender infused milk. A heavy, creamy body and a diverse and sweet flavor profile were designed to draw skeptical customers into the world of coffee—and to grab the attention of his judges.
The final weeks leading into competition were a far cry from the whimsical dreaming stage. Day after day, new challenges arose. The raspberry syrup didn’t taste right. The milk didn’t infuse long enough. The soda charger wouldn’t arrive in the mail. One of his glasses broke. Then another. With each new road block, the anxiety piled on.
Randall grew intimidated watching past competition footage, lying in bed, wide-eyed and stressed. He didn’t want to make a fool of himself. He wanted to make his city and coffee shop proud.
Friday arrived, the day Randall would travel to Austin to compete. Customers poured in to wish him luck during his bar shift. The support of his city fueled him, but the tension continued to build. The car ride to Austin dragged uncharacteristically long. He recited his script endlessly. He couldn’t eat. Another restless night.
The Saturday of competition, the Palmer Events Center buzzed with excited baristas, roasters, and fellow industry members. Randall felt the imposter syndrome hit hard in his gut.
The final weeks leading into competition were a far cry from the whimsical dreaming stage. Day after day, new challenges arose.
He approached the machine for his morning practice time and began to dial in. He pulled a bad shot, then another. His mind reeled as he tried to remember how to brew tasty espresso. The pressure of the day built and built, and before he knew it, his practice time was up.
Randall anxiously watched the morning hours pass by, then found himself before the judges. His station was set up, his espresso was dialed in, his head was spinning, and he began his routine with that terrifying word: “Time.”
“I don’t remember much of the competition,” he told me when we caught up a couple days later. “There was a lot more going on in the room than they show on the live stream. Brewers Cup in one corner, Cup Tasters in another. Everything was surreal. Trying to take it all in was hard.”
As he walked me through his months of preparation, he looked at peace, glad that he could breathe without the weight of the competition on him.
“I’m definitely going to try again next year,” he says. “Definitely going in with more confidence. My idea was solid, but I wasn’t able to present it confidently all the way to the end, so it didn’t come out like I was hoping.”
Randall scored 169.5 points. Not a bad score for a first-time competitor, but not great either. He’s already got ideas for next year’s routine, but for now, he’s eager to take his girlfriend on a date, refocus on school, and get to bed at a reasonable time.
—Garrett Oden is a barista at Yellow House Coffee in Lubbock, Texas.