Looking for a new challenge

Limited edition tampers

I have a rather embarrassing confession.  Despite being the fact that I am never going to compete in barista competitions again I still have most of a new routine written in my head.  The soundtrack, the intro, most of what I would say and talk about, even down to tiny details about milk – decided, mentally rehearsed. 1  I’m quite proud of some of it but it is, of course, completely useless to me.

When you win the WBC there is no doubt that there is a pleasure in never having to, or being able to, compete again.  Training for competition is a long, laborious, draining and brutal time.  Having been involved in competition for the last 5 years running, all the way to WBC level, I am very glad to have a year off this year.  We made the decision not to get involved with training anyone, or roasting coffee for anyone because with the WBC in London we’ll have enough on our plates and we really just want to be able to go to the competition and just enjoy it.

This doesn’t stop my brain though.  I am sure most winners of the WBC have thought about what they do if they had to compete again.  I have no doubt they’ve all thought about what they would have done better in their original routines.  So I figure that if my brain still wants to compete on some level then there was something about competition that was incredibly rewarding that I still want.  Perhaps then I should look for a different competition to enter.  Should I take up competitive barbeque?  Should I join some sort of debating society?  I am extremely jealous of Bob Blumer, as just about all of the things he competed in sound interesting.  Except the chili eating, not so interested in that to be honest.

I am sure I’ve spoken before about one of the main frustrations of barista competitions being how rarely you get to compete.  There is so little you can do to prepare for the experience of being on stage, without actually going ahead and just competing.  I’ve performed in barista competitions maybe 10 times. 10 performances.  I only just began to feel comfortable with the experience by the time I finished by final performance in Tokyo. 2

I am sure there are people out there thinking that I should probably focus on the business, devote my energies to that, and I agree to a point.  However, it is extremely easy to lose ones life to a startup and I think I am about ready to hunt out a new challenge.  I’ve enjoyed coffee competitions (I will probably have another go at the cupping comp this year – though I am very satisfied with my 5th place from Copenhagen, never again on the latte art one though! 3) but it is time for something new.  No idea what though, be curious as to people’s thoughts – a little inspiration to get me started.

Don’t worry – this will always be a coffee blog, it won’t suddenly be filled with posts about the philosophy of oyster shucking tool selections.  Or obsessing about eggs.

  1. I should add that I am not advertising or trying to sell it or anything weird!  ↩︎
  2. One of my hopes for the UBF is that it goes some way towards getting people used to performing and competing so that when it comes to official competition they can focus more on the coffee and less on the weird feeling of being on stage  ↩︎
  3. David Makin’s heckling still keeps me up at night…  ↩︎

36 Comments

  1. That is actually quite tempting, until I think about how hard the life of a chef is!

  2. Can you win at that?

    I’d love to write a book, and I hope I will. I just haven’t worked out how to combine all the bits that I would want to write about – going from varieties to customer service is a long way for one book to jump.

  3. There needs to be a senior series where all the former WBC-champions could compete against each others. :)

  4. Invest in a coffee plantation…grow your very own coffee..now that would be challenging or start competing in tea! (is that possible?)

  5. You could expand your business into mainland Europe! Holland is just a couple of miles away and is sorely lacking in great roasters. There are a few, but not nearly enough. We drink 3 times as much coffee as the British. Plenty of coffee to be sold I guess.

  6. I think there should be a champion of champions event where they call back the winners for the past so many years and have them compete for UBC. Universe Barista Champion! (aliens welcome).

  7. I’d think a competition with previous WBC:ers would be very interesting, the question remains though if it should be just for the fun of it or even more serious than the WBC, the latter would probably fail quite miserably though as former competitors wouldn’t be interested, and it would take some of the focus of the WBC.

    Have you thought about opening a café in co-op with your roastery, that would surely be challenging enough in London. :D

  8. James, you will always be “my WBC Champion,” no matter who really is the current champion. You’ve taught me so much through your blog and your time!

    Thanks from your Eastern North Carolina fan!

  9. That’s why it would be THE BOOK.

    More Ukers/Sivetz, less Schomer/Rao.

    I hereby place the first preorder, and give you an imaginary £1 deposit.

  10. I know you’re running scared so your forcing me to call you out.

    Egg championship; 4 poached, 4 scrambled and four signature eggs. I believe Mr. Owens would also like a slice of this.

    We’re talking origin specific freshly laid eggs, hen varietals, tech judges, PID’d pots, the works. Your move.

  11. Poached & Scrambled? Nah…. Fried and Boiled.
    Much more technically demanding and easier to stuff up royally in front of judges…. I’m sick of badly fried quails eggs on my borrowers breakfast and have you any idea how hard it is to boil an ostrich egg for egg & soldiers?

  12. I’d love to learn more about producing coffee, though it isn’t something you can really do part time while working in the UK. Still deciding where in the world I would like to go to do it…

  13. It really isn’t about winning again. I’d be much happier performing for performance’s sake and rewards than if I were entering the competition, with all that goes with it – coupled with what would go with it if a past champion entered again. I hope at some point a past champion does go again.

    Maybe the pain of competing fades with time, leaving just the happy memories. I do know, however, that Anette would probably disown me if I went again – she’s been through enough I think!

  14. Can I bring a sous vide machine? Cos then I’d totally kick your ass. I’ve been reading bits and pieces on egg cookery recently, though have been very amused to see the clingfilm method of poaching gain such prominence amongst the lazy lovers of Eggs Benedict.

  15. You could give me your new performance? Then you would gain satisfaction of me winning?

    Ps. Sleep easier knowing I heckled David Makin when he head judged our state comp…

  16. James,

    For me, as a barista competitor I have found that the most rewarding aspect of competition isn’t what happens on stage, but rather the months of preparation that take place before. The process is far more gratifying then the result. Perhaps I say this because I’ve never won a competition, though I feel I’ve done well. I think the fact that I haven’t won has kept me focused on becoming better, instead of just being content. I guess what I’m getting at is the competition is what is important but rather the determination and passion of reaching a goal, any goal. I think this is a fundamental question of how we make things better, make ourselves better; we don’t need stages to achieve this.

  17. I’ve looked into this and, actually, you wouldn’t.

    Lazier still is the method of poaching then placing in an ice bath for re-heating later. An old trick even the best kitchens employ.

    A sous vide would be fine, would you use it for your sig or employ it else where? You may get more consistency that way but I’m sure you’d lose points in the “overall impression” category….

    Poaching seems to be your fort but I would kill you in scrambled. Kill you to death.

    Col

  18. Your obviously not scrambling your eggs properly, and as for boiling….its just learning to use a stopwatch really.

    You can of course incorporate said methods into the sig egg.

    Yours in egg,

    Colin

    p.s. I’m entrigued by the borrowers breakfast

  19. can I be the official egg sponsor – i can supply eggs a few hours late for preperation and then drop off 6-7 times the required amount????

    seriously good hand washed eggs without lions all over them

  20. James- I feel for you. I really do. Though I have to disagree with the other commenter who finds the preparation for competition the best part. I find the actual presentation to be the best part. I mean, what better opportunity does one have to share their vision of coffee (and perhaps cuisine) with an audience of potentially similar-minded people?

    I’ve never competed to win. Certainly, the egotistical side of me would like to win the WBC, but then what? Forced retirement? That’s terrible – especially if you feel that there’s more you want to share. For myself, I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with different ingredients and approaches. Some good, some bad. Never winning or intending to win has always freed me from the constraints set by my peers. I can give tobacco a try, or try grape gelatin PBJs or go off the deep end and use lobster.

    This past USBC in Portland was fun and I had the unique opportunity to discuss and share my vision of craft and coffee with audience after the preliminary rounds. That in itself was an amazing experience. But the truly rewarding moment of that experience wasn’t then or even when people said they liked that drink but rather the next day when I ran into the grandfather of another barista competitor who said that he had been sitting high up in the bleachers and felt as though we were having a personal conversation as I stood on the stage discussing my vision. That was humbling, rewarding and an honor.

    Based on your writings to this blog, it’s obvious you’ve got more you want to share and experiment with in a competition setting. It’s a shame the rules exclude you from doing so. My suggestion is to share those thoughts. Write them down here and publish your plan and vision for this next routine. Let others learn from your experience and maybe even co-opt those ideas, incorporate them into their routines and see where it takes them.

    I’m in Nicaragua at the moment where I had a discussion yesterday with another judge about how I think the WBC/USBC should publish the scoresheets of the finalists. Not just the total scores, but scan the scoresheets and publish them for all to see. Let those competitors with less financial and other resources glean information from those deemed “the best.” Let them take their own scoresheets and compare. See where they could improve on scores. I think it could do wonders for improving the competitor ranks.

    Will this kind of “openness” and “transparency” happen? I don’t know, but I won’t hold my breath. I’ve been competing in the USBC since 2004 and I’ve never seen the videos the SCAA supposedly archives. So much for helping the rank and file improve…

    Otherwise, my suggestion to you is to get out of coffee in your off-hours. I hope you have friends and interests outside of coffee, because that’s what makes life rewarding. Coffee is how I make my living, but it’s not my life.

    You mentioned competitive BBQ- as a certified judge for the Kansas City Barbeque Society and one who’s both owned a BBQ company and organized a BBQ competition, I can tell you that it’s a lot of fun. Craziness, but fun. And, if the UK scene is like the USA, you could tour the BBQ circuit nearly non-stop year round.

    Years ago, I used to race and oversee outrigger canoe racing on the East Coast. Chris Tacy is off going crazy in outrigger as we speak. And I’m pretty sure there’s a club in London that races on the Thames. Or you could always get into sailboat racing. Skippers are always looking for crew and it should be relatively easy to find a boat in need at your local rec sailing center, or perhaps one of those Royal Yacht Squadrons you boys fancy there in the UK.

    But get out of the coffee world and do something different. Bring a fresh perspective back to your coffee work from your outside interests.

  21. My friend and coach Charles B and I are thinking full on about the world Ibrik cezve competition. This little bit of the rules here says enough to get any mind reeling with ideas…

    “In this competition the atmosphere and the visual effects are as important as the taste of the beverage. The competitor is therefore allowed to bring an assistant on to the stage. The assistants will do the decorations, serve the coffees and help the competitor in any way.”

    The kind of fun and holy calamity that could ensue is limitless…

  22. The Ibrik competition is amazing. I finished 11th this year, although it must be said that there were only 11 competitors*. There were belly dancers, bongo drums, Fez’s and all sorts of wonderful costumes.

    I on the other hand was woeful, struggled with my Ibrik but had an amazing time.

    *I got disqualified for going over time

  23. What about local friendlies? Organised by people who are UKBC/WBC experianced, and give a soft training on baristas both sides of the table, it would a softer step up to the ‘real’ competitions and give feedback to people with which they could build on.
    Have it fully open to previous champions so people could see how far things can go, as you say you’ve got a routine you would like to run.
    Small prizes if any atall, the experiance and feedback would be a nice prize.

    Just my idea…

  24. I scramble according to a very old Roux brothers method…. very, very slowly over a bain marie with yups of double cream at the end…. but because it’s very, very slow it’s very controllable and very easy, too easy for competition.

    I’ll disagree with the boiling thing. Like espresso it’s all very easy on your own machine (have you got a real one yet?) and grinder, but vary the altitude, the room temp, the egg starting temp, the water…. it becomes much more than just a stopwatch job.

    Borrowers Breakfast: a breakfast of small stuff so it looks like a normal breakfast from further away. Quails eggs on croutons, grilled cherry tomatoes, ickle mushrooms, tiny rosti…

    Hope life’s getting exciting for you…

    Hugo
    Hugo

  25. James,
    Two ideas occur to me… not THE BOOK, but a competition training manual. This way you can teach without necessarily having to meet the person you’re teaching.

    Then how about a demonstration event/ competition. You know the way retired sportsmen do demonstration events, maybe you could do something similar at coffee events & tradeshows. Maybe someone could expand on this?

    Mike

  26. As much as I will regret the hours of you talking at me about your ideas if anyone should take me seriously, you should put all your crazy thoughts into one uber-performance, and do it as a warm-up before the finals round at the next WBC. The three guinea pig baristas we had before rounds in Iceland were great, it allows the judges to get into the swing of things without making the first proper competitor the ‘benchmark’ performance.

  27. That’s an awesome idea, it would probably also raise the bar for the WBC a bit as well. :)

  28. I quite like the idea of writing a training manual.

    As for demonstrations – they only real downside is all the equipment you inevitably need. I’ve done a couple of impromptu demos in the past, and always struggled to get things to go well because 80% of what I needed was missing. It does make for a fun challenge!

  29. I’ve written a training manual for my own coffee shop. Talk about challenge! It’s never finished! I’ve been “done” with it for about 6 months, yet it seems to get longer and more detailed every time I look at it. Don’t pick this problem up unless you’re prepared to have it stare you in the face, mockingly.

  30. Hi, sorry that I’m not refering to your post. I’m interested how you managed to paste this picture over the whole site. I looked it up on the “sugar Cane” website but I didn’t understand the instructions. How did you do it?

  31. You need to wrap the image in a div class. So where you want the image to go you would insert it like this, making sure the image was wide enough (751px in this case)

    [div class="wide"][img src="image.url"][/div]

    Sorry I can’t post the code with proper brackets, seems to break the comments, despite using the code tags.

  32. MasterChef… Thats perfect. or Start brewing Gin .. haha

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