Welcome to day 16 of 30. Today I am on flights to Tokyo for the SCAJ show and a special store opening for Maruyama Coffee. We have had a few US barista competition preliminaries already this year, and while I am in Japan we will have another this coming weekend. It seems like there have been a lot of changes, some of which might be because of my previous blog post about how competitions need a refresh.
So in the spirit of competitive coffee events, and since I already talked about latte art throwdowns the other day, I would like to explore some alternative coffee competition ideas I have had rolling around in my head for a while.
Currently we have all manner of official competitions that cover various skills, such as latte art, manual filter brewing, roasting, triangulation cupping, coffee and alcohol, and overall barista skills. I don't think we have a problem covering a variety of skills with competitive events, but rather that the specific tests of skill are becoming stagnant. This is partially because of rule changes over time as well as an unwillingness to make truly big changes to the formats. There need to be major changes in some of these because they really weren't perfect when they were conceived (as few things rarely are).
But I digress. This post isn't about what is wrong with competitions (I've already put my thoughts on barista competition out there), and the implementation of the "preliminary" competitions we can see that the SCA is trying to implement some new concepts in the form of a compulsory coffee skills round. While this initial version may not be perfect since it is not connected to the actual qualifier, national, and world events, it is a great start and essentially a proof of concept that could get adopted with future rule changes.
So let's talk alternative ideas. I personally think that the more types of competition we have the better for baristas of all interests and skill specializations.
My first idea is something that can reproduce an active cafe environment in action. This would require a small team of staff to compete and serve specific set drinks. We saw this concept implemented in the form of "America's Best Coffeehouse" competition a few years ago. I was a part of getting that one going with Chris Deferio and Jesse Harriot, and let me tell you, it really showcased teamwork and real barista skills in action. A few things I would change would be streamlining prep and cleaning time, standardizing the drink requirements for a fair competition format, and make it more about creating the correct drinks properly in the time allowed. There would have to be a taste panel to evaluate one of each type of drink, but there could be so much room for innovation and creative service. Think of this one as a combination of speed drills and active service, with a tasting expectation to boot.
The next idea, speaking of speed drills, would be exactly that. We see these in bartending competitions all the time and I always wonder why we don't have them in coffee. This would consist of a barista in a small bar setup, perhaps a few simultaneously, with a predetermined list of drinks and a set amount of time. You could implement penalty points for spills or incorrect drinks served, etc. This would be strictly a speed and execution based win. The fastest person to make all drinks (or say, 10 lattes) with the proper criteria (latte art, full cup, no spills, etc) wins that round. It's a speed competition so it makes sense to keep it fast paced and exciting. I think this could both be pulled off pretty easily, and be interesting for an audience at a trade show to watch. Live scoring is a must, and perhaps a vocal emcee as well.
The last idea I want to put out there today is a sensory based cup tasting event. This one is a bit of my own brain child, at least I'm pretty sure it's not copying anyone. The competition would be a coffee professional test with a line of cups of coffee (say 6-8). In this concept I would have 3 rounds. The goal of each round is to correctly identify each cup for specific characteristics. The most correct and fastest times move on, and the characteristics to be identified get harder each round. For example, the first round would be to identify the processing method, second round identify the origin country, and third round varietals or regions of one specific country. I could see this as a real test of coffee professionals' ability.
So there you have just a few of the many competition (or even throwdown) ideas I have floating around. There are so many great possibilities we could pursue to make events that are not only a competitive format, but also a way to push the boundaries of what is expected of the professional barista. Most of these would also help eliminate any real or perceived bias in judging. Any time we can make a competition where the scoring is primarily based on objective goals like correct identification and/or execution as well as time, we can make more fair and approachable events for both professionals and viewers
While competitive coffee is certainly not for everyone, these types of events give a lot to the industry. It is because of barista competition that we have such high standards in equipment these days, as well as high expectations of flavor. There has been some innovation which has been positive, if for no other reason than identifying problems in either equipment or standards. Of course there is another unfortunate side to competitions, which is the proliferation of "pocket science" as Gwylim Davies likes to call it.
This unfortunate side will be my topic for my next post, so stay tuned!
If you would like to work with me in implementing some of these or other competition ideas, you can reach me via email.