Have you ever thought you wanted to start competing in barista championships, but been intimidated by what is required? Maybe you think it's too much to worry about, or that it is too unlike working a bar, or it's really just geared toward a certain type of person. This post will hopefully be enlightening for you in demystifying what competition really takes.
First of all, once again I am mainly focused on the "Barista" competition which follows the World Barista Championship rules. We have the Brewer's Cup, Cup Taster's, Latte Art, Coffee in Good Spirits, and Roasting Championships as well, but they are usually a bit of a different conversation.
There have been discussions about equality and bias in competition, and I only want to say one thing about this topic before we get started. EVERY person, gender, orientation, ethnicity, or whatever label you may want to create for a human, has the power to excel in these competitions. I will not claim that there has not been bias in the past, but I do think the judges try their best to be fair and accurate in what they do.
Last month the US Barista Championship was held during the SCA expo in Seattle, with the top two competitors coming from our training. Cole McBride took first (competing independently!), and while we had worked with him extensively in past years, this year he took the lead and we gave feedback at select points. In second place was T. Ben Fischer (representing Elixr Coffee in Philadelphia), who we worked with quite extensively leading up to the finals.
If you are unfamiliar with the WBC format, our friend Chris Baca made an excellent video outlining it and talking about T Ben's presentation this year. You can check it out below.
Nothing says barista competition like dry ice!
I can gush to no end about how proud I am of these two, but their successes stem from hard work, sacrifice, humility, and support from others. Let's look at each of these factors in regard to competing because I believe it will help you understand what it takes.
May as well start with the big one. No one who ever won a competition will tell you it was easy. This particular competition has so many moving parts and places to focus on, and every one of them needs to be as perfect as possible. Coffee quality, extraction consistency, technical mechanics, work flow, latte art, and even water pouring are practiced as much as possible to make sure it will all work the way it is intended on stage.
There is always a version of Murphy's law in barista competition I like to say: "If it can go wrong, it will happen on stage in front of everyone you are trying to impress."
For this reason practice is hugely important. This takes time and serious thought. Is that lovely serving tray so smooth that your espresso cups will slide right off onto the floor while you are walking? You may not find out until you use it a few times. You might not realize that your sig drink is a giant drippy brown mess until you practice. Doing every detail in the environment it will be served in can tell you many things. Maybe it means you don't want a stark white tablecloth. Maybe a different pouring vessel is needed. Maybe the whole thing sucks and needs to be rethought!
In addition to hard work, there is the element of learning. You have to push your own boundaries every time you compete, and that takes physical and mental energy. You might need to cup endless coffees, learn new ways to think about coffee, tap your relationship with ceramic maker, explore information from other sectors of the coffee industry, memorize endless revisions of your speech, or learn how to polish your glasses to a perfect shine. It all adds up, and it's HARD to achieve a flawless execution on stage!
Right up there with hard work is sacrifice. The biggest sacrifice to point out is time. Since you will need to spend tons of time working hard, it means you may not have the time to do your normal life activities. Like having days off to relax and socialize? Guess what happens to those?
When I started competing I would spend every weekend driving an hour each way to the roasting plant at PT's Coffee in order to practice. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday became competition practice days. My evenings during the week became brainstorm sessions. My car drive to work each morning became a speech run through. My life was consumed. Now, I'm all for work/life balance, and don't recommend your world becoming as consumed as mine was, but it did get results in terms of competitions. Of course, it made placing lower sting all that much more.
Another thing to think about is cash. Contrary to some common beliefs, even long time, high placing competitors don't get paid for their time practicing. It does happen, especially when preparing for the world championships, but it is not as common as you might think. So not only do you sacrifice your time, if you had a second job you might actually be missing out on income! Additionally, it is very common for competitors to need to buy their own small wares. Some companies will invest in their competitors, provided their tools, cups, and equipment becomes part of the company's resource. I couldn't even add up all of the random things I bought for barista competitions over the years, but it is easily in the thousands of dollars.
Resources, sponsorship, and financial help are becoming more common for baristas, but there is every possibility that you will need to pay for a number of things from your own pocket even if you work for a roasting company that is willing to pay for a lot of it.
Lastly, you should remember one of the most important sacrifices about competitions. Relationships. Your friends, family, significant other, pets, and other social connections will most likely be seeing a whole lot less of you. These loved ones usually are supportive of you pursuing your dreams, but it can especially put a strain on romantic relationships. If you have children and value spending time with them, then you need to weigh what works for you. It is not a small challenge, and one that is very often overlooked when deciding to compete. Even a loving partner can get to the limits when your whole life shifts to a singular focus. Do not forget this part!
Here is a part of competition that I find highly valuable, though a little tough to assign a tangible value to.
Humility is all about letting go of your ego (enough) to realize that you can be wrong, and that you can be better. It means stepping outside of yourself from time to time in order to grow. One of the biggest pitfalls we have in the coffee industry is gaining knowledge and then believing we don't need to do more.
This is manifested in competitions very often after the final round, when we don't win to top placement. It is easy for us to take technical feedback and say "Ok, I just didn't do it as well as I wanted", but it can be very very difficult to hear that we just didn't have the voice, or cutting edge concept, that we thought we had. It takes humility to listen, self analyze, and change ourselves.
It even can go to the point where a competitor feels like the judges did their job improperly. Sometimes a competitor (myself included) realizes the judges didn't hear what was said, or some other thing was not understood properly. This of course is problematic, and this is hopefully never something you yourself need to encounter, but what do you do??? The rules allow you to contest scores, but in the end you may just need to be humble, understanding, and calm.
When I have run into issues like this, the solution was to realize that I had to take the opportunities for misunderstanding out of my presentations. For example, if I told the judges to stir their signature drink before drinking, some questions pop up. How many times to stir? How deep do the judges place the spoon? Are they integrating the drink exactly the same? Is there a better way to present the drink so there is no room for error?
This touches back on the hard work and practice, but the reason I bring it up here is that these lessons are often learned after the fact. You need to have enough humility and presence of mind to take the feedback, not lash out irresponsibly, and make it better in the future. That is all part of being a truly refined professional. Lashing out shows massive disrespect for others and undermines your professionalism.
Remember that you are fighting for the role of a coffee representative, and a bad attitude will not help convey your ability to fill that role.
Support from others
Lastly, we have support from others. This is also part of your relationships, where your loved ones and friends can support you as you practice. This also refers to help from the company you work for, or other opportunities that may arise.
One thing that I have learned over the years is that if you need help, you need to ask. We often want to prove we can do it all ourselves, but the reality is that part of what makes a competitor great is the people who they surround themselves with.
For example, Cole McBride 2018 US Barista Champion, competed independently this year, but he had support from others. His long standing relationship with Velton Ross and Cafe Imports allowed him to get a great coffee to use in the competition. His partner designed his table cards. He even had an anonymous donation from someone who believed in him so that he could get our training and feedback.
T. Ben Fischer had support from his company to source amazing coffee, his friends and loved ones helped him refine his ideas, create great table cards, and gave a massive amount of support emotionally and mentally. His mother even got him the best cat spoons ever created.
Obviously some people have more resources than others when it comes to competition support. That does not mean you should be discouraged if you have less however! For one thing, that's kind of the way the world works. Beyond that though it means that you may have to try hard, ask people or companies for help, work your connections, or even make something even more impressive because you don't have as much support. You can do it. You might call it being an underdog, or beating the odds, or just being such a badass that no one can beat you.
After all of these things you still have to remember it is up to you to become the next great barista. There is no barrier you can't overcome, there is nothing that can stop you if you truly believe you are capable and worthy of winning.
Competing is tough. It tests everything you thought you knew. But it can be a catalyst to drive you to the highest levels you ever imagined and make you a professional better than you may ever have thought.
Good luck in your journey,