What’s the point of Barista Championships?

What’s the point of Barista Championships?

I know what you’re thinking: this title seems a bit rich coming from someone who has benefitted from being a barista champion. There’s been a good amount of conversation spurred on by Pete Licata’s excellent blog post on the subject. Listening to Baca and Truby chat about it on the latest Cat & Cloud podcast spurred me to write up a few thoughts, that all centre on the idea: what are we trying to achieve with barista competition?

The early era of barista competition

In the past a large part of barista competition was about professionalising the industry, setting standards, and building a central point for a global community. While some would come to be frustrated by the era of the barista in speciality coffee, it was broadly agreed that the most common point in the coffee chain that quality is lost is in the brewing. The competition was, in many ways, about getting baristas to brew better coffee. This was not the only effort made in that regard, but it is hard to argue that standards haven’t improved dramatically in recent years.

Standards are a key part of things too. There was, a few years ago, some discussion about getting rid of the technical scoresheet. In the WBC many competitors would score pretty much the same on the tech sheets, making them somewhat moot in that competition. However, there was significant pushback, because the competition helped promote basic technical standards in the industry – especially in countries with less developed or nascent speciality coffee cultures. Flushing groupheads is a completely standard practice, and competition really helped spread that and elevate the importance of these sort of techniques in better brewing.

Now, though, it is worth looking at the competition and trying to decide what kind of outcome we’re looking for.

Ambassadors

When I was competing, the idea of looking for an ambassador for coffee was something that was often discussed. I think a large part of that lingers in the format today. What terrifies people about competition is that it has become a public speaking engagement (terrifying in itself) with the added distraction of trying to make coffee under intense scrutiny. It makes sense to look for someone comfortable being the centre of attention if the end goal is an ambassador for the industry.

However, I think many aspects of this are flawed. If knowledge is prized, it is never truly examined or tested. Competitors are expected to display “coffee knowledge” about what they’re serving, that has become the tedious and rote trotting out of facts and statistics about the coffee. These can be learned easily, and are often inconsequential but ultimately never checked. I’ve heard people say things that weren’t true in competition a number of times, though more often than not I would argue they were given bad information rather than were knowingly looking to mislead. I would have thought adding in a 5 minute Q&A with the judges (on or off stage) would be vastly superior to assessing knowledge than listening to an unchecked short presentation. Understanding is a difference between trivia and knowledge, and understanding is never tested.

The best barista

There is a repeated, and merited claim, that the competition does not find the best “barista”, in as much as the competition does not reflect the real life skills necessary for excellence in a cafe. There is no test of service, no real test of workflows, of relevant culinary creativity, or of speed.

Creating a format that does test these things would also likely be susceptible to the criticism that a single barista does not make a cafe great and really it is about an effective and excellent team. Team competitions (like NBC) haven’t really touched on this because testing it outside of a real world cafe isn’t really effective or interesting. I suspect better cafe awards would be an interesting and perhaps useful step in the right direction.

There have been a number of calls, over the years, for a compulsory round. I can’t really argue against it if you’re looking to test an individual’s skills. You can still complain that standardising equipment favours competitors with better budgets (i.e. they’re more likely to be able to practice on a competition setup, and better understand the equipment’s effect on the coffee).

It’s a coffee sourcing competition

There’s no denying the complaints that a large part of barista competition has become a sourcing competition. The weighting for the coffee, over the preparation (as if they’re easily separable), means that what gets served at a competition is a long way from real world coffee service. There’s no question that the format is driving competitors to use certain styles of coffee, and it is worth questioning whether or not this is a desirable outcome? I don’t think it is, but there are some who may disagree. It could be argued that creating a larger market for geisha, a variety that detaches price paid from the actual cost of production, is a good thing for producers. However, the number of producers that benefit is inconsequentially small.

I don’t think forcing only a compulsory coffee on competitors is good for the industry, for reflecting diversity, or for retaining interest and investment in the competition. However, I think there should be some consideration about what kinds of cup qualities the competition really wants to promote.

Barista Competition isn’t Entertaining

Barista competition is not compelling to watch. There’s a pretty simple reason: you have no idea who is really doing well. I’ve commentated from the stage, tasted all six competitors coffees with them after the routine, and had no idea who would win.

We prize taste above all, and skill above all. If taste is to be the most important factor (which it probably should be) then the key parts of the competition will always be hidden from view. Unless judges discuss, onstage, what they’re tasting and how they feel about it (common in TV with shows like MasterChef etc) then the audience will always be removed.

Entertaining barista competitions often lack credibility because they’re not as focused on taste. There’s no real way around this, without following in TV’s footsteps. (Which I’d actually like to try, but this does have the negative effects of further raising the profile and influence of the judges above that of the competitors.)

The ROI is bad

Barista competitions are expensive. They require a lot of humans, energy, equipment and time. There’s no getting around this. It has been argued that an event with 30 competitors sees 1 person benefit massively and 29 have a bit of a bad day. While I believe any competitor can approach the competition in a way that guarantees a successful outcome, regardless of placing, it still doesn’t feel particularly fair. When compared to events like Barista Camps – where 100 people attend, and 100 people have a good time – it can be hard to retain enthusiasm for competitions when it comes to seeking a solid Return on Investment.

Now is a point of inflexion

I believe that the next couple of years of barista competition are an opportunity for it to consider what it wants to achieve and to change the format to reflect that direction. Baristas aren’t chefs. Baristas aren’t bartenders. Both chefs and bartenders have their own competitions, with their own issues. I think we can learn/steal/appropriate from both industries, but this must be done proactively and with direction.

I still believe there is value in finding an ambassador, but I also believe that the competition could be improved if that is the outcome. I still believe there is value in professionalising the image of the barista further, but then we have to be thoughtful about what qualities we’re promoting. The trope of the barista boring their customer to death with unasked- for information about the coffee is a direct descendant of what we’ve promoted with barista competition.

So, we’re left with the simple question: What do we want to achieve with barista competition?

I don’t think we have the answer, but I’m also not sure we’ve really been thinking from this principle and hopefully that will change and help provide some direction for the future.