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 thoughts on “The cost of competition

  1. Stephen just told me that he has only paid off his competition debts at the start of this year, and concurs with all of James’ comments. He also says that it’s looking like the US judges are being trained to anchor all their comments and feedback in what the rules say, which for the moment is a good thing.

  2. Barista’s definitely pay more than the price of entry to perform in a Barista competition. If I had to estimate the cost of competing in this years NERBC I would guess anywhere from 700 to 1000. This all of course came out of my own pocket. Another expense which should be taken into consideration is the amount of unpaid work days needed to attend a Barista competition. I would be extremely disappointed with a judge for compromising a competitors chances of winning with a score reflecting “not special enough”.

  3. I agree that the cost is high, and if you want to compete at a high level, you need to count the costs before you start. I have never competed, but have footed the cost of 3 competitors now. Not just travel costs all over the country, but the capital investment as well. Last year we spent over $15000.00 in equipment, travel, etc. This doesn’t include the 100’s of hours that Chad and Josh spent training, nor the time at the shop they were training, instead of something else. This doesn’t include the countless number of hours volunteers spent in critiquing their drinks, nor the weekends spent organizing, setting up both the regional and national stages. I agree with James, competition is fun, it serves a valuable function in our world, it is a game in the best sense, where you put your best foot forward and hope that the judges agree. But it is very expensive. In Canada, there is no funding whatsoever for any competitor, unless you win nationals. I look at the USBC’s which have been going on for two days, and can’t fathom their budget, nor the amount of time and money spent on 62 competitors getting to Portland. Last year we sat down at Transcend and did a cost benefit analysis on competing at Nationals. This year, Josh and Chad will compete again, as it inspires and pushes the barista to the edge. But as an owner, judge, supporter, cheerleader, I know first hand how very expensive competition truly is. Great post James, I look forward to the upcoming post on gripes and concerns, as I too have many.

  4. the take-away issue for me is the un-level playing field these costs create. the expenses seem to intrinsically favor shop owners or baristas with backers or connections — people with time to tinker and maybe develop a competition blend with a roaster. a working stiff at a small start-up can barely find time to practice, in many cases, not to mention travel and compete.

    not to gratuitously self-link, but you did ask about specific costs. this commenter (an australian) said back in 2006 that some people were beginning to spend — gulp — $250,000 on their competition routines. i still wonder if this could be true.

  5. On the other side, thinking from a restaurant side and not from the barista side:

    Has anyone thought of maybe, with regards to the nice glassware/silverware, of approaching a restaurant for sponsorship? Considering it’s just 6 cups/spoons, etc. in exchange for the free press and the exciting possibility of a win I think most places with a high end reputation would jump at the chance. Not that it would solve the problem of the cost of training vs. working etc. but it could help fray the costs for that ‘attention to detail’ bit? I know that’s part of the reason why I went into it with Stephen, and perhaps it might be easy to find more like-minded restaurant owners.

  6. Hmmm, I don’t know…

    In 2000, the club that I belong was the club of record for the Aloha Racing Syndicate that was in the challenge to win back The America’s Cup from the Royal New Zealand YC. For those unfamiliar, it’s not unusual for a syndicate to raise and spend tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars to mount a challenge for the cup. All of this money for a prize that includes little more than bragging rights and a perpetual trophy.

    It’s true that competing in barista competitions costs money. But that’s the price of admission. If the competition is to be the premier barista event of the world then the cost will probably be high.

    Is this to say that only those with deep pockets can ever expect to win? Perhaps. But do we begrudge those companies who can afford greater resources for their barista competitors?

    James brings up a great point about expected return. If the expectation is that winning a barista competition will be great rewards then does any of this make financial sense? If one spends $150K to win the WBC Crown, can they expect to turn that $150K investment into $1.5 million?

    Before competing, I think one ought to define and set goals and objectives to determine financial commitment and expected return.

    The problem with items like “attention to detail” is that those are areas which are poorly defined and poorly defined areas leads to wide variations in interpretation and uneven application. Subjectively vague categories need to be quantified and defined so that the expectation is clear.

    I mean, why use lead crystal when tempered glass will suffice?

  7. I was all too aware of staining expensive napkins / tablecloths at this years IBC, but especially with some sig drinks, where no saucer is offered, yet you are required to stir, you have to decide quickly where the point of least damage is to place the spoon.

    It is a very expensive event to compete in, prohibitively so. If you do it without a backer, someone picking up the tab, it gets very messy.

  8. I would say that including spoons, pots, cups, tampers, research trips, sig drink ingredients and all the novelty culinary accessories I bought I think it would definately total cirqa 1200EUR so far. On top of that is the opportunity cost, i.e. what you could have earned had you not spent all that time training. I was lucky to have a very supportive boss in Karl who helped me out with Milk, beans and a top-notch grinder, but on my own I dont know how I would have faired. In saying that I do have a sizeable pile of unused stuff in my spare room. Its the fear that makes you buy it…
    p.s. All my napkins were spotless after both rounds of the IBC. Napkins are just as daft as the aprons they make the judges wear. What do they thinks gonna happen?

  9. As I already told you Jim, I broke the mould this year and did the whole competition on a budget. Besides the travel and accommodation (which everyone has to pay for) I spent less than £100 – £50 on glasses and cups, £30 on other equipment, £20 on ingredients.

    Last year on the other hand (including travel and accommodation) cost over £1000, fortunately most of that was funded by Fifteen, but I was left at least £300 out of pocket.

    I do think that it is a personal decision to go out and spend a fortune on stuff, with the exception of the grinder it is possible to do things fairly cheap depending on what is required within your presentation.

    Regarding the napkin/tablecloth thing – I was glad this year that we no longer had to go through the pointless ordeal of serving sugar! Agreed though, napkins are there for show in my opinion and really shouldn’t be used unless entirely necessary. Dirty spoons can be left on the saucer.

    On a separate point – An over enthusiastic stage hand decided to throw a bunch of dirty teaspoons at a pile of my white napkins sat on a tray, as I was clearing up after my semi-final this year. The ones that didn’t need washing certainly did after that… cut to a makeshift hotel room washing line being rigged up at 11pm.

    Another reason why it would be great to get more former competitors judging.

  10. I was extremely lucky as my company bankrolled my purchases for the last 2 years. It scares me to think of funding a full years competing. Last year I was helped to the tune of £2k. I have a great looking table last year but this was the mistake I made. It is a coffee competition not a table dressing competition. This year I spent £100 on my table. I like to think that if we all had the same cups, glasses, tablecloths and spoons this year that the result would have been the same. Taste must continue to be king.

    Please pass on my congtatulations to Gwilym. He was superb. I only wish I had tried his coffee. Well done James with the coffee too.

  11. This is a great thread. One thing that we haven’t talked about is the benefit of ownership and personal investment. It is just a fact of life that if you don’t have a stake in something, you are less likely to truly commit. This is definitely true in business. Employees will work hard and commit to a point, but there is always the exit three rows up if things get too uncomfortable. Owners on the other hand, live breath and sleep their business, in good times and bad. Comparatively, they are flying chained to their seat with no hope of escape. I personally think that this plays out in competition too. If everything is covered, then the competitor is less likely to truly own every aspect of their competition.

    The other side of the equation deals with the expectations of the company or individual backing the competitor. What is expected if they win, is it talked about, or simply assumed. James you know better than anyone the demands on your time after winning the WBC. Stephen is now experiencing the same thing, and he left SQM in order to properly benefit from his win. This issue could definitely come into play if an owner bankrolls a competitor, with the expectation that if they should win, they will bring value and financial benefit back to the company. Simply put, I think that there are many factors at play, and at the end of the day, and the cost of the napkins is not truly on the map. I agree with the Ono, competition is at its core, especially at the WBC level, a thing which takes huge resources both in terms of time and money.

    Whether you are talking about sailing or football, the team that spends the most on talent, typically fairs the best; not always, but usually. This might not sit well with you, but it is true. Take for example Intelligentsia, a large coffee company with resources at its disposal. Enough resources to have Stephen Morrissey help prepare for the regional competitions. Help at this level would give any competitor an edge. The reality is not everyone has the resources to access experienced talent to help prepare for competition. In short, I think it is impossible to level the playing field. And if the playing field were leveled, would their be any competition? If you aren’t prepared to commit significant resources both in time and cash, perhaps competition just isn’t an option.

  12. An issue that strikes a chord with us all, I’m sure!

    I must have spent somewhere in the region of 300-500 pounds of my own money on competing this year, not mention 4 days off work, and countless hours of practice and preparation in my own time. I must have spent over £100 on Chuao chocolate alone.
    …And don’t get me started on table linen (I ironed it, I swear! Damn those stubborn creases!).

    I think it is a shame that the competitions can therefore be prohibitive to all but the most dedicated baristas – especially if you are actually just an ordinary, work-a-day barista, on a barista’s wage (with a mortgage to boot!), who doesn’t receive any financial backing for your coffee endeavors. Fortunately for me, after winning the Welsh heat, my boss offered to pay most of my travel and hotel expenses for Glasgow (quite right too, I think; it’s great for the cafe in many ways – but still very decent of him all the same) – but up till then I was completely self-funded.

    I was hoping that this year would be a kind of ‘initial investment’ – with a view to
    re-using stuff in future competitions, but on sorting my stuff out after getting back, I fear much of it may be too specific to a theme (or tired-looking) to use again – you don’t want your recipe, etc, to be dictated by your equipment!

    I guess one advantage of the expence aspect is precisely that only baristas who are really serious and passionate about the craft bother entering, rather than people who don’t really care very much just ‘having a go’. It’s also nice to be able to make your own individual statements about the type of cups, etc, that you prefer.

    I’ve heard some talk recently about the possibility of more streamlined, cheaper, more accessable competitions being created, which might be a good thing, but I don’t know if this will come about or not, and think it’s probably important to keep some cohesion to the competitions (I.e: just one national and international competition, that can be reccognised by the wider audience as THE official and unbiased champioships)…

    Congrats to everyone too, by the way!

  13. Whilst I don’t count the cost of a competition, I did three years of the UKBC at feck knows what expense…and it paid off.

    This year Barista boy reused nearly all of my kit… table cloths, napkins, cups & jugs are now in their third year. Spoons, trays, additional jugs and coolers are bought new then added to the cafe stock. Glasses came from home, bottles from the charity shop. Coffee donated by Origin Coffee (it’s no coincidence that Cornwall is so well represented in the UKBC) and speciality glassware was sponsored by our local kitchen shop…. however we did use a lot of stainless steel polish.

    The point is if you can’t afford to lavish money on it don’t. Se Gorman gave the best advice to me a couple of years ago, treat it as an investment. Spend what you can afford, work out what it’s worth.

  14. Hi James,
    Excellant piece, we over here in sunny Northern Ireland have to pay more than most to enter the UKBC, Last year when Subi and Kerry both got through to London the cost of the regional comp and London comp stood at ………. wait for it £3800.00. We even had to get one of our staff to drive a van all the way from our head office to London because we had so much equipment to take with us. This year was not so bad as we were involved in the technical side of the competition with sound and video etc so we already had a vehicles going over but yes it is an incredible burden and considering the margin most of us work at, when you look at how many cups of coffee we need to sell to do the competition you do often wonder is it worth the effort.
    It does provide an excellant oppurtunity to network and improve standards but I would be interested to know if anyone thinks that it helps them sell more coffee, I think it certainly helps the standard of the coffee we serve to customers but I’m just not sure it brings any more customers in the door…… Thoughts anyone??

  15. It definitely helps sell the coffee. The forum we are reading right now, is in large part a huge success because of James and Anette’s and Stephen’s success in competition. As a result of their championships, they have had opportunities and experiences that most other coffee professionals never get. They have all been awesome ambassadors for the world of specialty coffee, and they have taken their many experiences and now are capitalizing on them. I truly believe that success at competition provides credibility to not only the barista, but the roaster who provided the coffee, the company which sourced the coffee, it all trickles down. In short it is why we try so hard in terms of competition, because we know that winning a national, or better yet, a WBC title will open doors and opportunities all over the place. Ask James how many people simply send him samples of coffee for him to try. And while that might be overwhelming at times, it also is access to a whole world of coffee that most roasters would give their right hand for. And yes, I am a bit jealous, but also glad that they represent so well. This speaks to their true character, and I am proud to be part of the same industry.

  16. Hi
    I would agree that there are certainly advantages at the wholesale end of the business and from an individual point of veiw for those successful enough to win a regional or WBC title but for independent owners of less than say five sites, does entering the competition bring additional sales and increased profits? I believe that the process of entering staff for competitions does improve standards in the stores and in turn if standards are consistently high you would in turn expect trade to increase. My staff love entering and I do believe they get a great deal out of it but I have been thinking about the commercial aspects of entering and James has posted about this at a time where all of us should be looking inwards at ways to make our businesses more profitable without lowering standards. I am pro competition but I am worried that the cost is becoming prohibitive for us to enter.

  17. It seems to me that the recognition tied to a solid performance (though not a winning performance) is of great value.

    When I travel I search out the places that I’ve heard of and seen via their competitors. You could say the list is infinite and I wouldn’t disagree as it appears to go on and on.

    The names are big and small though their reputations for good coffee are nearly equal: Alterra, Intelligentsia, Spro, Klatch, Square Mile, Wendleboe, Albina Press/Billy Wilson, Caffe Artigiano, Zoka, Black Sheep Coffee Cafe, PTs, MadCap, Kaldis, Ritual, Octane, CCC, etc………. Heck, without comps I’d be of the mindset that good coffee cannot be found in the Midwest (U.S.)

    On the other hand, the places I know of strictly from word-o-mouth reputation are a finite few: Kopplins Coffee, Metropolis, Terroir, Ninth Street Espresso, Stumptown.

    The irony, for me I suppose, is that I do not compete and y’all are probably reading this and thinking, “Who the hell is this guy?”

  18. Darren, you could be right, as we have yet to experience the effects of a National champion, yet alone a WBC title. I can say that the competition brought a lot of free press to our shop. That definitely drove business at least from a local point of view. On a broader level, I guess I have this notion that if Chad or Josh won a national title, the rest of the specialty coffee community would take us more seriously in terms of what we do with coffee. At this point 49th seems to be the only option for serious cafes in Canada, and Intelli gets the nod as well. If it were more affordable, I am sure that James and Anette would be providing coffee to cafes in Canada as well, given their stellar reputation for roasting competition blends. After the showing of Intelli this USBC where 4 out of the 6 finalists are from Intelli; I am sure that they will see an increase in demand as well. Having said all of this, I have no hard data, all of my “data” is purely anecdotal, and speculation. Nonetheless, I would be willing to put money on the table, to stake my hunch.

    In terms of the recession, I think that is another issue, although I know that when money is tight, people tend to cut back on the frivolous, and focus on the things which are both affordable and high quality, which I think fits the bill for most of us serious enough to spend time posting comments on Jim’s blog.

  19. After a read-through of my comment it seems obvious to me that I write from the perspective of an owner. I should clarify; in my previous statement I meant that a business benefits from the recognition of a barista’s performance.

    With that being said, I believe the same argument also applies to individual baristas who are relatively free of the responsibilities of their own business (though I imagine many are invested in their shop on a personal level). Baristas who invest in themselves and compete at a high level year after year are afforded opportunities that likely aren’t available for relative unknowns.

    Known baristas are now traveling to origin… as BARISTAS! Known baristas are able to re-locate with relative ease and travel through another country as a guest barista. Billy Wilson has the support of the entire Portland community (w/ press clippings) as he opens his coffee shop. I get the impression that Carl Sara’s opportunities are endless in this business. Would the early success of SQM or the Coffee Collective been obtainable without the recognition earned through competitions?

    So, in an effort to be constructive and on-topic with my words, I feel a barista has a lot to benefit from if they put forth the effort and money required. Is there an opportunity to even the playing field? Would eliminating all ambiguity in the judging help? (ex. losing points for chipped/spotted serveware vs. ‘attention to detail’) Perhaps we could lessen the financial burden through controversial rule changes such as standardizing grinders, espresso, porcelain, and attire or maybe limiting the number of competitors representing one company.

    I’d prefer that a barista of smallish resources dream of success, work hard, make sacrifices, research, practice, and basically do all that a barista of many resources does… but better.

  20. We were watching the USBC with our staff here in Lima Peru and this exact subject came up.

    “Who pays for all that equipment, cups & travel . . ?”

    “The competitor and their company” I answered.

    “Wow those companies must have a lot of money?” was the response. My immediate thought is that the publicity must be worth it for those companies. Was it James?

    I would think for $30k someone could come to Peru, gain residency, set up a barista association, win the national competition and assure a seat at the WBC.

    Not to “limit” creativity, but could there be a reasonable financial cap put on wares &/or equipment for the competitors?

    I’m not sure if there is a way to put a similar cap on preparation costs? I’m guessing that the most expensive “cost” is the payment of professional trainers, which is certainly out of the reach of the individuals & small companies. Yet the level of excellence is pushing the art to the next level.

  21. Was it worth it? I think I have to say yes, but quantify exactly how.

    In the UK my title as WBC, let alone UKBC really means very little in terms of press/coverage/impressing people in the industry. This is fine by me. I can’t really expect a title to shortcut the important work of building relationships and trust with potential and current wholesale customers and more importantly it doesn’t guarantee anything about the quality of the product. People still want their coffee to taste good regardless of whomever is selling it.

    The return for me in terms of knowledge has been huge. Indescribably really. Not just in making me a better barista, more aware of that role in the chain and the goal of preservation of quality, but also in wider coffee terms. The opportunities to travel did give me an increased perspective and understanding of origin, but also I got to see a lot of other coffee businesses – many of which were hugely inspiring – and I got access to people whose opinions and insights have influenced and shaped mine. Coffee is an industry full of kind people willing to share their knowledge as they are aware the common goal of more great coffee being drunk benefits us all.

    As far as financial return on investment – well I was very aware that every year the marketplace of WBCs who you can hire gets a little more crowded. In the early days I think it was easier to leverage more money based on both skill and scarcity. I never really set out to milk the title. I only trained/consulted to one person in the run up to the WBC in Copenhagen (I don’t count Stephen for whom my time was obviously free) and this year my plan was originally going to be to train just one national champion again but to do it for free. That was before Gwilym was competing and winning! I will probably do it next year – just offer up two days of my time for free (though at no expense of my own – travel, expenses etc) to whoever wants to do the most interesting thing at the WBC in 2010.

    I’ve gone a bit off topic there.

    It would be interesting to see if the total sponsorship raised for the USBC is equal to the total amount spent by the 62 competitors there, and their companies. I don’t know if it would tell us anything useful but it would be interesting nonetheless….

  22. I’m currently in Portland for the USBC where it seems I’ve spent quite a bit of time defending the competitions from their critics on this very subject.

    The competitions are a great venue but the USBC/WBC is not the only game in the business. Competitions like the Millrock Latte Art Competition are vastly cheaper to participate and reward the winner quite generously – I believe much more generous than the USBC.

    And while I’ve spent time defending the USBC/WBC this week against the argument that only the large companies can win (due to an abundance of resources), it becomes quite difficult to make that argument when a company like Intelligentsia can train, send and compete five competitors (and their support people) and take four of the six finalist slots.

    We can go on ad nauseam about how it takes time, dedication and passion – and discuss how these baristas will work on their own time after hours (like small shop baristas) but the sheer numbers that a company such as Intelligentsia can field (along with the retaining of the current World Barista Champion) makes the argument much more difficult.

    That aside, on the topic of staining napkins and serviceware – are we really complaining about that? Isn’t this about hospitality? If you’re going to fret over the judges soiling your linens, then perhaps one ought to provide compostable paper napkins – afterall, the rules only state that napkins must be provided. It does not specify the type of napkin or material.

    Darren – I do not think that the cost to enter the USBC/WBC is prohibitive. However, the cost of actually winning certainly is reaching the prohibitive level.

    I think we should look at the benefits of participation. What I’ve always found most valuable (especially in my early years in the business) is the camaraderie and exploration of coffee amongst peers more knowledgeable and more passionate than yourself. It’s a time of learning and improving craft – and for a barista from a small shop in a city void of coffee culture, the price of participating has been worth the expense.

    Yet there still are some problems within the competition. One judge was relating to me how they were restricted from commenting or basing scoring on culinary aspects of competitor’s signature drink. Whether or not the drink/flavors worked was not part of the scoring – merely the content of coffee inherent in the beverage.

    And while the judging is competent for the most part, there certainly were a couple of judges in the USBC ranks that I would have protested had they been assigned to judge my presentation because of concerns I have over their ability to remain impartial and objective.

  23. You raise a heap of interesting points here Jay – and I kind of want to respond to them all but for now just a couple of things:

    How is the general mood of folks in PDX about the 4/6 Intelli presence in the finals?

    I think Intelligentsia are an interesting case. They’ve won (or their baristas more accurately) the USBC twice, have a lot of competition experience in the company. It is interesting that they fielded 5 people. If they wanted to win it may have made more sense to concentrate resources on one or two entrants. However, by fielding a larger team I think it sends a strong message to the company itself – about standards, support and its belief in the craft of the baristsa which I think is a good thing for a company of that size.

    We can argue the linen thing another time….

    As for judges – they have come a long way recently, and people like Brent have done a really great job. However the baristas have also come a long way as well – hearing them talk about varieties, processing and flavour in such a connected and thoughtful way has been interesting and I am sure slightly nervewracking for the judges.

  24. Jay, I agree, I think the Intelli showing at the USBC this year does raise some interesting questions. I know in Canada right now there is a limit on the number of baristas any one company can put forward. This year we have three competitors that want to compete, and unless the rules are relaxed, we will have to have an internal competition to determine who competes in the regionals. While I am supportive generally speaking of the work Intelligentsia does, it does rub a bit that they have access to coffees and talent that the rest of us can only dream of. I don’t have the resources to travel like they do, or Aleco from Stumptown does. As a result, my access to coffee is limited and I rely on importers, for better or worse. This year’s showing of Intelligentsia and their access to the current WBC champion does start to look a bit like the New York Yankees, who have the bank roll to build if not the winning team every year, a team which is always in contention. This is not to diminish in any way the hard work of the 4 finalists, because at the end of the day, they must perform. But, there is no doubt that having Stephen hang out for a week critiquing and offering advice is a huge benefit. Maybe the USBC needs to adopt the canuck standards and limit the number of competitors, that is, if the USBC thinks the results of this year are problematic.

  25. James-
    The tenor here has been generally positive and upbeat. It seems to me that the consensus here is that the USBC has been a great event.

    Of course, there’s what I think are the usual gripes regarding larger companies fielding more competitors and greater resources – in fact, it was the same thing the first couple of years I competed when the Big Team on the Street was the Zoka Crew. That said, I think this is the first time in USBC history that the Final Six were so dominated by one company.

    But what is the general mood here regarding this situation? Honestly, I really don’t know. I spend most of my time here meeting baristas and coffee people and discussing just about everything else other than the politics of competition. I think people are tired of the politics and just don’t want to have anything to do with it more than absolutely necessary. If anything, there may be carefully worded phrases passed about.

    Doug came up to me tonight outside of the Stumptown party with a quip about having “resources.” He wanted to let me know that he’s been keeping up on his reading and I respect that – I also stand behind what I’ve written above. But he made an important point in our very short conversation before he was called away for an interview, and that Mike Phillips is the first man in and last man out. He’s a committed and passionate barista and I think that should not be discounted in the discussion. And, from what I’ve heard through the barista vine, Mike (not having finished in top three of his region) actually paid his own travel to Portland. That’s commitment and dedication and I do respect that intensely.

    Which brings up the question: did Phillips want it more because he had to pull it out of his own pocket?

    The Intelligentsia question really is an interesting one. While I think there’s validity in the notion that concentration on one or two competitors may increase the chances for the USBC Crown, I also think that fielding more very intense, qualified and downright amazing baristas increases the probably of capturing the crown as well.

    There’s a lot to consider. Intelligentsia has brought their A Game to the mix. They are elevating the field of competition. Mike’s score was just over 730 – amazing. That score blows other competitors into dust and as much money, equipment and resources that Doug Zell can throw at them, the drive for success still resides and must come from the passion of the barista.

    This situation is ripe for discussion and dissemination, and I think that this conversation can help propel our craft.

    On the topic of competitor limitations: if I remember my USBC rules correctly (and I could be very, very wrong) there is a limitation on the number of competitors may field in a competition. I believe it is two until a certain timeframe before the competition then a company may add competitors if additional spaces remain unclaimed.

    While Intelligentsia seems as though they have exceeded the limitation, this has also been determined by the region a company operates (LA = Western Region, ORD = Great Lakes Region) as well as corporate structure (FEIN/Tax ID per location/corporation).

    Of course, I don’t know how valid those criteria are since we seem to have had situations were the implementation of the rules regarding regional eligibility have been quite grey indeed!

  26. I’ve been more of an armchair spectator and occasional critic with regards to comps but this year I had the pleasure of watching the aussie nationals. I think that within this atmosphere, how much someone spends on the comp will be highly subjective without clarification of the things that onocoffee points out- i.e the level of professionalism and other vague scoring items.
    It may be possible that as baristas our guys can get pretty close to one another scorewise. It’s quite possible that having elaborate equipment and it’s adjoining cost may be an indication of trying to find something, anything to be noticed above the crowd. To be honest I don’t blame people for this mentality, because at the end of the day it is a competition and in the past people have been criticised for (imo) stupendous things like wearing jeans and/or wearing white sneakers, not cutting their fingernails enough..

    While we have investigated lots of coffee sponsors, how about table setup sponsorships? How about asking ikea to get onboard as sponsors.. Two possible options,
    1) we get them to match every dollar a barista spends at their shop ikea and we can only buy our tablewares from ikea.
    2) we do a reality tv show/web-blog/twitter/facebook where baristas competing get a voucher for X amount of dollars and they have to pick and choose their tablesettings and napery. Then they can extoll the reasons why ikea is so rad.

    We’d be affordable and elegant competition baristas for sure!

    Bar all of that, why not introduce a spending cap on the competitions or address the issue of vague rules which influence this type of spending.

  27. Having competed in the UKBC twice now, I spent about £2000 over the two years I entered (at a guess – I didn’t count it up, it was too painful). The first year I put 3 of my staff through the heats as well. The majority of this cost is the hotel, travel and food costs while away. I agree with Tristan – you can create a fantastic table on a budget if you are creative and I made a lot of my set myself. To put a member of staff through you also have to factor in paying them for the hours spent practising (not included in that figure above).

    However, one of the problems I now face is that I can’t encourage any of my staff to compete, because they have seen what I did to get to that point. I would happily sponsor my staff to go through the competition, but it puts a barrier in place to less experienced baristas who feel uncomfortable having money spent on them if they just want to have a go. The first stage of competing in the heats is alone enough to do wonders for the passion and interest of the person competing, which then feeds through to the shop and the others working there.

    We should move towards encouraging the people who are working day to day as baristas around the country to enter the BCs without spending a fortune and feeling intimidated by the lack of financial support. It should be fun and accessible to everyone who wants to compete.

  28. Wow, so much money spending just for competition. For me that is too much. But if it worth, you should not look how much money you spend.

  29. A ‘cheap’ hotel in London can be upwards of £100 a night. One thing a lot of people have mentioned is that having the 3 days of semis and finals now can triple the spend on accommodation. At least this year it was in Glasgow and our hotel bill was half that! (Even if we did have to endure water pouring through the lobby ceiling at 1am and the fire alarms going off all night).

  30. First off, let me preface this by saying, no one really gives a rat’s butt what I think about any of this. But, I just wanna get it out of my system. I will not take anything away from Mike’s set, it was amazing. I had the honor of judging him in the GLRBC, and I saw first hand how excellent he has become. And the guy is one of the nicest guys in coffee. Also, Intelligentsia is in an enviable position as a roaster who has done alot of things right, and become very successful as a result. No one can doubt that they have elevated all of us, and given us all a goal to shoot for. Their history of excellent baristas and staff is endless and amazing. From Ellie, Matt Riddle, AMS, Kyle Glanville, Sarah Kluth, on and on…..
    But what concerns me, and has to do with this conversation is in terms of competition, how does it affect the view of common everyday baristas in terms of competing. It is my experience, and I hear it all the time, that baristas don’t feel like they can compete because they don’t have all the money, time, or resources as companies like Intelly, Counter Culture, etc. I spend my days visiting independent coffee shops all over the SE, and I hear it all the time that they don’t feel like they could compete against such big Goliaths.
    Smaller shops/roasters simply do not have access to the same “resources’ as Jay put it, and it does affect their view of competing, and that I view as wrong. Because I want to see every barista view winning a competition as an achievable goal, not just another case of the “haves and have-nots.” Smaller shops/roasters don’t have access to all the best coffees or the ability to create crazy espresso blends. I work for a micro roaster out of Charlotte, and sure we could buy the best coffees out there, heck spend $100 a pound, but the fact is, that we don’t have people around here willing to buy it. So, what would I do, have my company take the cost of buying a whole bag of “x” expensive coffee, or pay for it myself?
    Also, we just had a mandatory BGA EC meeting in Chicago, a trip I had to pay for out of my pocket. For my wife and I it ended up costing me about $750. Since I was there about the same time a competitor would have been there, you could say that a competitor would have to have paid the same amount just to get there. And again, think Joe Barista, the guy/girl who’s working behind the bar, trying to make enough to pay at least a few bills. But, they don’t work for a large company like those listed, we are already expecting them to pay this out of pocket. And the glassware, cloths, napkins that aren’t necessary anymore, and ingredients, etc. Easily now you can see how companies like Intelly can have an unfair advantage. And again, this is not a knock against them, it’s just reality of their success. I know of a competitor who could have gone to the USBC, but couldn’t come up with the money. And it’s important for those baristas to know they have just as much a chance as everyone else.
    Those that know me, know I speak for the small guys, the average barista. And I want to see more of these guys embrace the challenge to be the best at what they do. I don’t want them to look at a previous years finalists list and see four out of six from one company and think it’s an insurmountable task. I want them all the get the same shot. I want these competitions to be about crowing the best barista, no matter what company they work for. (My opinion about said competitions not withstanding, I think there should be more weight placed on the tech portion again, as we are judging their competency as a barista, not just how well they rehearse their intro speech, but that’s for another day.)
    I think there should be a real enforced limit on how many baristas can compete from each company. Two to Three. Just for fairness sake, so everyone has the same odds. I am not trying to handicap companies that are successful, but make sure everyone knows they have a real chance to win. If you asked me would I be willing to compete against Phillips, Griffith, Willbur, Pedde, I wouldn’t do it. Probably have my butt handed to me on a serving tray. A 730? That’s insane. I don’t even know how that’s possible, besides dropping the espresso out of a plane into the demitasse cups. Even I see that as a huge mountain to climb.
    Let me say, however, that I do see them raising the bar as good. I don’t want to contradict myself, but they have elevated us all, but we have to see bars set that every barista can strive for. Even the barista in Podunkville, USA. It shouldn’t be about money, it should be about passion and a love for coffee and it’s power over us all. Something that both Phillips and Lucey displayed so graciously, I feel. It should be about us taking the best care of being the last link in the chain, and channeling all the work the farmers have put into it, in the cup for all to see. It should be about showcasing a baristas hard work and hours pouring over their daily machine, information online, studying about coffee and the farmers, and sharing that passion with the nation and world. And there are so many of these stories yet to hear and see that I would like to see in my time in this amazing community.

  31. Just a clarification, in case the thought wasn’t clearly made when I said “A 730? That’s insane. I don’t even know how that’s possible, besides dropping the espresso out of a plane into the demitasse cups.” I was saying that I don’t know how beating that would be possible.

  32. but I think judges need to be sensitive to the investment already required to step up and compete.

    Just wanted to throw a word in there on the behalf of judges:

    At least for the two years that I’ve been a certified Regional and US competition judge, the mandatory training/testing has very clearly driven one point home: we judge according to the Rules and Regulations handed down from the WBC.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with your point, but I think the work to be done and feedback to be given is with the WBC as the body that drafts the rules and regulations, setting the standard for what judges are looking for.

    It is unfortunate that the Judge/Competitor relationship is inherently estranged. As Jason’s sympathetic comment reflects, most if not all the judges I’ve worked with are incredibly supportive and aware of the baristas competing at great expense, time, and effort. It’s difficult to convey that sometimes because we’re literally and figuratively “on the other side of the table,” but I for one was brought to tears when I had the opportunity to watch from the sidelines this week. I’ve seen/judged many of these competitors regionally, even some of the same ones for two years in a row now. Regardless of what their score or placement is, I get chills when it comes down to those last few moments and see them pulling it all together.

    I don’t want to digress much more with that, but I hope that competitors understand getting knocked 1 point off (under current scoring structure) because a judge sees a fingerprint on your steam pitcher at start-up isn’t because they don’t appreciate how much has gone into the competition.

  33. As a former Intelligentsia staff member I’d like to give my point of view of the Intelli/Doug Zell/ Barista Competition.

    I’m sniffing a bit of “Intelligentsia’s mission is to win the USBC and they are willing to outspend anyone to do it”. While I stand by the suggestion that spending limits could be helpful to consider, I don’t believe the above is a correct characterization.

    Doug Zell is the most dedicated & competitive working CEO I’ve observed. There is no doubt in anyone’s head that DZ isn’t loafing around in the back room with a cup of water in his hand. That said, I can testify that Doug is 1000 times more concerned about being the best at his business than Intelli baristas winning the USBC. Check out their retail stores and see if the Intelli business surpasses their Barista competition results.

    I’ve heard many baristas complain and say, I’d love to compete but our company (ie owner) doesn’t support it. Wouldn’t they love to work for a company which sponsors all their coffee experimentation, give them a location and equipment to practice on all night, and if they do well sponsor their travel?

    What Intelli has done is create the opportunity for baristas to get excited and compete. So is it Ironic, or logical, that young passionate talent is willing to move across the country to work for Intelligentsia, and subsequently those dedicated baristas place so high in competitions?

  34. Very interesting topic. From what I’ve been reading in the comments, the amount of money these competitors are spending is mind-blowing. But I do think is has helped the coffee industry in terms of promoting quality coffee and a platform where baristas can gain more knowlege. As a barista here in the Philippines I’ve only been exposed to the possibilities coffee can bring or what coffee should be through coffee sites and blogs like yours James- and I don’t think that’s enough. The coffee here is still being dominated by the green mermaid (the drink of choice here are those blended coffee stuff). Baristas here don’t get much exposure to great coffees. I believe if we only have competitions like these, it will help our baristas expand their overall knowlege of coffee and thus be able to serve that quality cup, exposing consumers to what coffee really is. But the problem is we dont have any governing body like the SCAA and SCAE to conduct and host such competitions. I do agree with you that competitions are great and that we need to make these more accessible (money wise) to baristas.

  35. Im not sure if anyone has seen the thread on coffee geek about Mike Phillips win in the USBC. It would appear despite the fact he work for Intelligentsia he actually had to fund the cost of competition himself as he did not make the top 3 in a regional. Not sure how true this is but if it is then it certainly blows a hole in the theory that the small guy can’t truimph. That said In sure Mr Zell will have picked up the tab afterwards. But it give us hope that he was able to overcome the three baristas that were bankrolled by Intelli. Well done sir!

  36. In terms of expense, the numbers that are being thrown around on this thread are way in the stratosphere. I do think expenses can get out of control, but that is why you have to budget for them. If you are wondering how much it cost to field a competitor at the USBC I would estimate that it is somewhere around $1,000 all in and considerably less for a regional (no airplane flights usually). If you think about spending $1,000 on anything in your business, you will quickly realize that this is a great “investment” for all the right reasons-you build discipline, work ethic, set standards, develop leadership skills, inspire and motivate others, for that’s right, $1,000. Those that do well do not do so because they have the fanciest tablecloth or best dishes. They win because they present something inspired that is centered around great coffee. As I have said elsewhere, I am not ashamed that we invest in the things we believe in. I get the resources thing, but I must tell you, if I were an aspiring barista at a small shop and had the desire to compete, I guarantee I could find the backing I needed by asking the right people for it. I also think that there are many seasoned competitors that if asked by the right person, the right way, could get their expertise pro bono. If there was an “unaffiliated” competitor that wanted access to great coffee, I am willing to bet that most of the roasters with great reputations would be glad to provide them with the coffee they are looking for free of charge-I know we would. So, is it as easy for someone to do things this way versus say being a competitor at a company that covers competition expenses? Clearly it is not. Is it possible? Absolutely. It depends on how badly you want it.

    To open the books a bit further, I have included our competitive barista policies below so no one will have to speculate as to our practices.

    They are as follows:

    Barista Competition Policies for 2008-2009 Competition Season

    Qualifying to Compete

    Intelligentsia will field up to five competitors per regional competition.

    Regional competitors will be determined either by an in-house competition or on a first come first served basis.

    To qualify to compete at the USBC a competitor must have finished in the top three of their regional or have won the previous year’s USBC.

    Compensation for Competition

    Competitors will not be compensated for either their training or competition time or transportation time at any level.

    Intelligentsia will provide transportation costs and lodging for competitions.

    Intelligentsia will not cover the cost of food or drink during the course of competition.

    Purchase of Supplies for Competition

    Each competitor shall spend no more than 300 for hard supplies for a regional competition.

    Each competitor shall spend no more than 600 for hard supplies for the USBC.

    For the WBC, no competitor shall spend more than 1500 for hard supplies.

    If supplies exceed this amount, Doug Zell must approve them.

    Competitors are encouraged to use supplies from previous years for competition.

    Equipment for Competition

    All competitors will have access to the same level of equipment for competition. The responsibility of finding and securing this equipment is the sole responsibility of the barista.

    Competitors will have access to soft supplies and coffee as extensively as necessary to find the best coffee and best ingredients for them.

    So that’s it. This has been a great discussion. I look forward to continuing it.

    Very truly yours,

    Doug Zell
    Intelligentsia Coffee

  37. Thanks for sharing that Doug, it was greatly appreciated, both in terms of the information, and in terms of Intelligentsia’s transparency. It should be noted that my posted figure of $15,000 spent last year on competition, included the cost of an Aurelia, a Robur E Doserless and all of the travel associated with regionals and nationals. Just to clarify on my part too.

  38. Great discussion. Special thanks to Mr. Zell for giving us more insight into the incredible story behind Mike’s rise to the top this year. It is an amazing story, and reiterates why I want to see more of these stories. (As a perennial Cubs fan, I love rooting for the underdog.) I want to make a few clarifications related to my post above. In my zeal of writing it out, and I didn’t make certain things as clear as they could be. First off, I, like most in our industry, am a Intelly fan. I spent no less than $100 there while in Chicago, and drink coffee most days out of an old school Intelly diner mug. I honor and respect Doug Zell and Geoff Watts for what they have accomplished, which I did say earlier, has been very good for all of us.

    A couple of people messaged me to tell me about Mike paying his own way, and didn’t understand the point I am making. I said it before, I will take NOTHING from Mike’s amazing rise to the top, his story is remarkable, and if the Oprah story is true, a great testament to human will and triumph. I first met him at the GLRBC, and can honestly say, I was incredibly impressed with this demeanor and attitude, his passion and zeal. I had heard Mike paid his own way at the competition, and loved hearing more of the story from Doug on this post.

    Also, I loved reading Doug’s info on how competitors are taken care of for competitions from Intelly. I think his rules to his baristas are fair and appropriate. However, I stand by my original opinion on how many competitors should be able to compete from any one company. Again, it’s all about allowing more of these stories to be heard, instead of ones we expect. And since there’s only room at the top for a few, the odds are different when you have companies so large throwing not only a large number of baristas, but great baristas. Heck, my favorite from the GLRBC was Talya Strader, and the heart that she showed. You take that large number of competitors from one company in comparison, and add access to the best coffees out there, which the larger companies have access to, and again, you can see why it’s just not fair. Again, it stinks, because I am not advocating handicapping companies just because they have become successful.

    I am just trying to see a more level playing field all around. With that being said, it’s obvious that there is another conversation about the philosophy of what a “barista competition” is. Heath Henley and I had this conversation yesterday, and it’s a good one. It’s one that’s been had around here for years. The “pay to play” model becomes the “haves and have nots,” and this is not one that I personally am a fan of, because companies that can “pay to play” are in the minority when you consider the vast number of coffeehouses in the country.

    I live in Charlotte, which is the home to NASCAR. Now, I do not watch it myself, and have no idea who number 26 is, or how many wins Jeff Gordon has this year, but I have learned a good bit about the sport just from living here, and it directly coorelates to this conversation about what a “barista competition” is. First off, NASCAR used to be “whatever car you want, how ever you want to build it and prepare it.” Well, obviously, it became a sport where the larger, wealthier companies with the largest sponsors had the fastest cars each week. The guy who was sponsored by Budweiser, had a much better and faster car than Team “Mystery Cola.”

    So, NASCAR set out to level the playing field. They set restrictions on everything, from how low the car could be, the how much power the engine could put out, to what angle the rear spoiler had to be. They unveiled the Car of Tomorrow, which is in essence, a generic body that all teams use, and apply their vinyl on to make it look like a Ford, Chevy, Toyota, whatever. They put everyone at mostly the same starting point in terms of their cars. There are little tweaks they can make, and advantages the larger teams can have in terms of their pit crews and engine staff.

    And that’s the philosophy conversation. Do we want one that represents the best of the best, based on which companies have the best resources, or the one who simply has the best baristas regardless of resources? The fact is that there is currently more emphasis based on the sensory portion of the competition, and obviously, Intelligentsia is again, in an enviable position by being able to buy the best coffees. Geoff Watts, as has Duane Sorenson, has really been incredible in sourcing the best coffees and building relationships with farmers that have created some amazing coffees. However, all coffee shops/roasters do not have access to those same coffees. Or, they can’t afford them. I had a conversation with someone just today that said that everyone should have to use the same coffee, and I definitely don’t agree with that. The fact that the majority of baristas have to pay some of, if not most or all of their way, as well as all the stuff they need, and you can see the odds go down substantially for the smaller guy.

    Is this a “barista” competition, or is it a coffee competition? If it is a “barista competition” there should be at least equal weight based on the baristas competency as the coffee they use. That would immediately level the playing field out more fairly. Then, set a real cap on how many competitors can be from any given company, so there are more spots available for more stories like Mike’s. A competition where the same people win every time is nice to watch for a while, then gets old. We want to see the little guy come out and win. The guy from Greenville, SC or Missoula, MT. I am starting to ramble of lots of different thoughts on this subject, so let me finish up.

    I see good points from competition. I see it as a way to challenge all baristas to get better at what they do behind the bar. I see it as something that can push baristas to work with flavors, create great ways to pull espresso, and get shops excited about the craft of being a barista. That being said, if it becomes a show where only the “pay to play” types are there, it’s hard to get the majority of shops excited about watching it knowing it’s something they don’t feel they could achieve. And I want to see all have a chance to be Mike Phillips. I don’t know the solution to this philosophical idea of a barista competition, no more than others have every time this comes up. But, I want to see it become something that’s accessible to all, so that baristas all over the country get excited about being better, and seeing the possibility of being the best, at least for one year, as being achievable.

    (I sincerely hope my heart about this comes through. I love the craft of being a barista, the craft of taking something that has been cared for so greatly every step of the way, and finishing it’s life by making something as beautiful as espresso, or an espresso drink. I love the beauty of watching a barista watch a shot and stopping it at the right point, and the art of pouring a nice design on the top of a well done capp. And I love the comradery of a great, vibrant barista community. I just want to see more of it, and I want baristas all over to feel a part of something so much bigger than the hours they put behind the bar. I want them to feel the love of the bean from the farmer, and transfer that love and care to the customer, sharing with the same passion. And I heart Intelligenstia, and what they have accomplished and will continue to accomplish in our industry.)

  39. On cost…I understand that someone paying their own way may find the cost of competition a little high but I don’t think the costs are by any means crazy. And for a small business the amounts required are no burden (we budget 1000 pounds to get a competitor through regionals and UK finals). The only big cost is the grinder but if you’re working for a place that matches your passion they’ll have the great grinder you need.

    On coffee…With regards to access to great coffees I totally agree with Doug. As a first timer in the UK finals last year I found 3 top UK roasters keen to work with us and supply free coffee (even though I never asked for free)…they just wanted their coffee in the UK finals. There simply isn’t a secret supply of amazing coffees that are inaccessible to mortals (that I know of anyway!). If we’re awarding great baristas it’s a reasonable expectation that they can source great coffee. If you are a top barista you’ll spend a lot of your working time tasting and exploring different coffees anyway.

    Sorry if I appear dismissive of concerns but I can only speak from my personal experience which is that the competition is very accessible and winable to anyone with the skill and determination.

  40. I still contend that although access to resources is important, desire to do well is more so. This is a competition after all. Do you really want to win if the best folks don’t show up (and please, I am not trying to be self congratulatory here)? In a high level marathon would you want to be the winner if (multiple) runners from Kenya, considered to be the best in the world, were not allowed to enter (also note Kenya is clearly not a place of great economic resource-otherwise runners from say, Norway would always win). Thoughts?

    Respectfully yours,

    Doug Zell

  41. Really interesting topic and comments and not much I can add except…
    It may take a lot of cash to perfect table settings and ‘guarantee’ points for set up, visual appeal etc. it may therefore take more money to win than to enter but…

    many of us compete just to be involved in something further than our own day to day business, to make friends, taste some coffee, play and learn more about what we do and how we do it. I spent maybe 300 of my own (hard-earned/easily spent) cash and including travel, accomodation etc maybe 600 of my employers (which will in way or another be ‘paid back’ through time, loyalty etc.)

    For that spend I will get no tangible, financial return but my skills have improved (more work required!!!) I’ve made wonderful friends, I’ve tasted some lovely coffees and I’ve been able to sit down for three days and watch some of the finest baristas in my country demonstrate their skill.

    and to top it off I saw the competition validated by the most honest, humble and proficient barista of the day being celebrated by his peers

    for me costs have to be tied into profit and I feel that I have profited from the experience and I’ll be spending less but working twice as hard next year to make that top 6

  42. The elimination of vague rules certainly would be a boon to the competitions. And while they’ve eliminated the subjectivity of Appropriate Attire by making it a Y or N question and specifying that “appropriate attire” is the presence of an apron, it removes all the vagaries and subjectivity from that category.

    Yet, other problematic areas remain such as the tablecloth “rule.” What tablecloth rule, you ask? That’s exactly the same question I had as well for my judges who wrote comments about not having a tablecloth. Uh, there’s nothing in the rules that specifies “tablecloth” yet it evidently impacted scores negatively.

    As I enquired, the comments I received were that not having a tablecloth goes back to attention to detail – as though you’re not paying attention to the details by not putting down a creased and wrinkled tablecloth. Never mind that I even had Marcus scrubbing the judges table down to remove any and every blemish from the table surface so that for formica shined with Windex.

    One judge mentioned that not having a tablecloth wasn’t “classy” enough. Are we not in the progressive age of hospitality where some of the top and most expensive restaurants in the world do not use something so archaic as a tablecloth (Alinea, anyone?).

    Now, I’m willing to utilize a tablecloth if it’s specified in the rules. But without that specification, I’m short on understanding how a judge can impact your score by holding you to a standard that isn’t standardized.

  43. While I don’t have numbers (I’m still on the road), a thousand dollars in expenses for a barista to capture the national title seems a bit optimistic to me.

    And did someone say they “budget” ONE THOUSAND POUNDS of coffee for one competitor to win a championship? Good Lord, does one need that much coffee to pursue the crown? Even at a very conservative five dollars per pound, you’re still talking Five Thousand Dollars. Heck, even at the C-Market price it’s a considerable investment. Never mind the “regular” company fielding a barista and paying nine dollars a pound…

    Whenever I go to a barista competition, I’m always amazed at how much coffee we throw away. Literally hundreds of pounds are being tossed into the garbage. And only people like myself are actually combing through the trash for these bags of coffee (that only a day before were supposedly “amazing” enough to use in a competition). Then there’s the side conversation about which of the four lots of the same coffee is the better one: “get the 62.2 Agtron and not the 59.8.”

    Then there’s the shopping opportunities. Grinders, whip chargers, coffee, small wares, pitchers and more can be found lying around the competitors room after the competitors have left for home. It’s truly amazing how much coffee and supplies are simply discarded without thought after a competition.

  44. 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.

  45. 5 years and you have championed last 2007? That must be great not just by feeling but also with your esteem. I wish you more luck and more blessings Mr. James.

  46. Hmmm, tuning in to this really, really late…

    Intelligentsia is a great company to work for when it comes to competition, all I have to say is, all who work for the company, worked their guts out (and still are) at their talent for years prior and in some cases traveled great distances to get the opportunity to work for a company like Intelligentsia. So if the reward for their hard work and commitment over the years is a trip here and there plus the chance to get to work with fantastic coffees, then they bloody deserve it.

    Way to go all who competed!

  47. This was my first year of competing so I had quite a lot of initial start-up costs, I would estimate somewhere in the order of £500ish plus travel and accommodation on top, plus travel to other competitions, plus god knows how much spent in supermarkets buying ingredients to experiment with etc….. I’m stopping there because the figure is getting quite frightening!

    However next year I will have most things wont I? Yes and no, this year I used the grinder supplied by the sponsors because my work grinders are looking somewhat tired. Big mistake, I would very much doubt anyone is going to score big unless they use their own grinder. So I’m already going to have to budget for a new grinder, which will be £500+. I don’t really need a new grinder but I suppose I can substantiate buying a new grinder every four years – sound reasonable?

    But, then the other night I was dumb enough to watch Heston on television and found inspiration from him for my new sig drink for next year which means that I will need to go out and buy a new glass reactor and vacuum pump, plus other bits of lab equipment – don’t worry I used to be a chemist in a previous life I sort of know what I’m doing!

    Once again I’m going to spend far too much money. Indeed this year I bought four shiny new rattleware jugs, only to decide I don’t like them and will never use them again. How much of next years investment will gather dust in a cupboard?

    So to conclude, my view is there should be a limit put on expenditure, maybe with espresso cups and cap cups provided, water and milk jugs provided. Maybe even with everyone using the same sponsors grinder?

    I can’t think of a better way of making it more of a level playing field.

  48. Hello, I just saw that the german Barista Champion Nana Holthaus-Vehse will not attend in Atlanta because she had not enough sponsores to cover the costs.
    The information is from here website and there is a thread at the german home barsita forum.

  49. People think that taking part in any competitions requires only skills but it’s not true. For example my friend is a powerlifter. He’s representing his university on a national level. He gets 50$ every month. That’s it. He needs to pay for gym membership, supplements and travel and accomodation costs from his own pocket. It’s riddiculous! Unless you’re sponsored by someone it’s really hard to take part in any competition on a serious level (higher than state)

  50. 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*

  51. 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.

  52. 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?

  53. 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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