A few quick thoughts on barista competition

I’ve been around a few barista competitions recently, and I’ve watched bits and pieces of different routines.  If I am honest, I am struggling to engage with it as much as I used to.  Rather than have a moan about how boring I now think they are I thought I’d throw a couple of ideas into the ring.

I remain a big advocate for competition – the experience can be incredibly beneficial to those who enter, and they provide a strong value to the industry.  In its current format the competition is in its 13th year.  (By current format I mean espresso, cappuccinos and signature drinks assessed by sensory judges along with a technical assessment too.)  I would estimate that there have been well over 10,000 performances within these current restrictions.  I’m not saying that everything has been done, but watching it at the moment I’m hesitant about the direction baristas are forced to take if they’re looking to innovate.

I’d enjoy seeing a few changes that would refresh things so here are a few ideas.

THE MILK DRINK

Let’s get rid of the milk drink.  I’d call it a cappuccino but barely any cafes serve the drink we call a cappuccino in the competitions (a shame btw).  It is a difficult drink to judge, because judges tend to have an unrealistic expectation for just how strong the coffee taste can be under the demanded ratios.  In order to score better we often end up compromising our coffee – be it ingredient, roast or extraction.  This is a shame.  Also – we have another competition now for the milk patterns, and while WBC has a decreasing focus on latte art I don’t think any of us would mind if we couldn’t make capps onstage any more.

Replacing it with brewed coffee would be the obvious choice – though there is now a separate competition for that also.  I also accept that espresso preparation is more universal than brewed coffee, especially single cup brewing.  Just an idea….

THE SIGNATURE DRINK

I like the signature drink.  It is hard, it is interesting and a clear point of difference.  I’m all for treating coffee as a viable culinary ingredient.  What I’d love to see here is the restriction lifted on it having to contain a single espresso, and have its flavour dominated by that coffee.  I’d love to see any coffee extraction method allowed, and the drink rated for balance, and the use of coffee as an ingredient rather than pushing us towards unbalanced drinks using a difficult extract.  I’d also be interested in changing the ruling on alcohol to allow extracts to be used, perhaps a rule suggesting that the overall alcoholic percentage of the drink must be below 1%.  (i.e. the alcohol should not be clearly detectable when drinking it).

LIVE SCORING

This one really comes down to a choice of what people want the competition to be.  If we want it to be for ourselves, then we can skip this part.  If we want to engage the wider public then we have to do something to actually engage them.  I’ve been active in barista competitions for 7 years now, at every level.  The problem is that I can stand onstage as an MC, watch a group of six finalists compete up close, and have absolutely no idea who has won.  None.  This makes it very difficult to engage with, when watching.  If nothing I am seeing is useful information then why should I watch at all?  Other sports (and yes, barista competition is a sport) that involve individual performances usually show times/scores as they go.  It makes them exciting and engaging.  It requires more transparency of judging, and certainly puts pressure on judges – but that’s no bad thing.

A BIGGER CHANGE

What if we got rid of the current format and asked people to present a menu of three drinks.  These drinks are pretty much open house – whatever you want.  From all espresso to all signature drinks, to all brewed coffee, to all milk drinks, to everything in between. This could be so interesting – many facets of judging would carry over (consistency, waste, technique all apply from technical judging and balance, flavour accuracy and general quality apply to any and all coffee drinks).  I’d be so much more compelled and engaged if I didn’t know what each barista was going to present.  It would be fun!  It would allow greater experimentation and allow us to embrace coffee’s wider potential.  You may well hate this idea – that’s ok, it is just an idea.  While these may just be typed up and posted for fun – it does beg the question:  will the WBC format be the same forever? If it is going to change, how would we want it to?