The cost of competition

Barista competition season is getting close to its peak – UKBC just gone, and a great result, and the USBC happening as I type this.  I’ve been pretty immersed in competition now for 5 years – either as a competitor or training or supporting.

I love barista competitions – I think they can be inspiring, educational and create community and spread coffee knowledge.  I also have a fair few gripes with them, but I am saving those for another post.

What I want to discuss today is the cost of competition.

Looking back over my years competing I was lucky that I was often supported by my former employer La Spaziale – they took care of my travel and accomodation costs, got me trained up and gave me time and support when competing for which I am, and was, very grateful.

Despite that the costs of competition have been substantial – and I am talking in terms of money spent.  I would estimate that I’ve spent nearly £3,000 of my own money in the course of 3 national comps and two WBCs.  I’ve actually performed only 10 times on stage – so quite a high average spend.  After 2007 I/Square Mile spent a lot again supporting Stephen – which of course turned out to be worthwhile, but on paper it was hard to rationalise the spend.

Where does all the money go?  Often you feel compelled to spend on stuff that really has no reward dictated to by the rules.  We buy nice glassware, tablecloths (why are these pieces of cloth so damned expensive?), endless napkins 1, spoons, pots, pans, knives, tongs – often all for a little 6 point box labelled ‘Attention to detail’.

I worry that we are pricing many baristas out of competition.  In fact I know we are pricing baristas out of competition.  Baristas who progress in competitions – lets say to the semis or finals – recieve no help from the competition towards their travel or accomodation.  I think that could, and should, change.

I hope judges start to realise that punishing baristas with comments about clean, suitable equipment or tableware not being beautiful enough are damaging the competition.  I remember a comment from a tech judge in my WBC final in Bern in 2006 that justified a lower score at startup with the phrase “Not Special Enough!”.

I am not advocating an enforced set of provided cups and tableware – but I think judges need to be sensitive to the investment already required to step up and compete.  If the competition continues to get more expensive then baristas are quickly going to rationalise the best investment of £500 or £1000 of their own money – several training courses, loads of amazing coffees from round the world and a bunch of barista jams could well be cheaper than a single performance at a regional barista competition.  Again – I am very pro competition, in fact this post is really about wanting to make them more accessable.

If there are competitors reading this then I would be grateful if they could post up in the comments the amount they estimate they have spent on competition (if they are comfortable to do so).  Other comments welcome!

  1. Why is that judges make it through their day to day cappuccino drinking without a napkin, yet when judging in competition seem to greatly need one and therefor stain the pristine white ones the performer is using meaning they can’t be used should they progress in the competition.  As for judges who leave dirty cutlery on white tablecloths…. competitors – send them a bill!  ↩︎

56 Comments The cost of competition

  1. Les k

    Sad news, Christian, about Nana, the German champion.

    The giants of the industry (non specialty coffee) are generally the only ones who can advertise to the consumer. Very few artisan roasters and 3rd wave cafes have the resources to advertise to the masses, so these barista championships are one of the few opportunities we have to speak to the media in efforts to reach the consumer about our way of specialty coffee.

    Nana’s no-show for the nationals means one less article, one less news segment, one less radio sound byte.

    Though a champion barista may work for a competing cafe or roaster, they are collectively a champion for the entire specialty coffee industry in their area.

    In my pollyanna view of the world, I always think that competing factions will cast aside their corporate colours and unite under a nationalist loyalty, and jump onto the bandwagon of support for their champion.

    We’ve seen this spirit lately in Canada. Baristas from rival cafes in Victoria training together, in order to vanquish their Vancouver rivals, an Elektra dealer in Calgary, allowing a Lamarzocco into his showroom for a jam, a Toronto cafe owner TRAINING a rival cafe’s finalist for the nationals, and competitors in Quebec banding together to promote their first regional championship.

    Hopefully the local specialty coffee players in Germany can band together and come up with an airline ticket. I know economic times are tough, and politics thick..but that’s when we can get creative..Collection tins in every cafe? Fundraising Bbq’s? raffles? *shrug*

  2. Zach

    I never knew how big these competitions were. I wasn’t too aware of this until a student in my class actually did a presentation on this stuff, it’s pretty amazing.

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  5. ant

    I could be wrong but we have 54 comments here and I don’t think anyone has mentioned asking for the WBC to revise the latest scoring options or inserting another clause here or there to establish some certainty behind the value of using expensive table settings.

    I know of several competitors who use riedel glassware just for water, which is absolutely insane and a whole host of other funny things that people do to try and get a competitive edge but if people are spending so much on competitions and dressing up like they are a 7star hotelier isn’t this taking it way too far away from what we do behind the bar?
    I see such an amazing alternative and still diverse subculture full of tattoos and awesome musicians and coffeegeeks. It’s fairly safe to say that baristas as a populace tend more towards bohemian rather than corporate but it is the latter image that we project in a lot of these competitions. Now I’ve been watching these comps for so long now and we’re turning into buttoned down baristas for 15minutes a year twice a year when we compete. Does anyone else think that these competitions are getting further and further away from who we are?

  6. Gary

    Agreed. Many things in the rules are still open to interpretation and are very subjective, I.e. The table cloth thing, but the rules are constantly evolving and in real terms the competition is still in its infancy.

    As for barista’s not being themsleves and expressing themsleves more during competition I think we may see a move away from “black tie” at next years WBC and see more competitors behaving like they would as if the stage was just an extension of their cafes. Not that I have anything against dressing smartly, I unlike many baristas come to work dress quite smartly in my shiny black shoes and a shirt. I just never got the tattoo’s and t-shirt thing. Im babbling a little now so I think the most important part of this is be true to yourself and don’t try to be something you think you have to. Its a barista competition afterall not a popularity contest. Maybe we need a few judges dressing down and showing off the tattoos to help us relax.

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