As I was in the process of writing a blog post about barista competition I quickly realized that I have far too much to say about it. Therefore I will be creating a few posts focusing on specific aspects within this broad topic. I am starting with Benefits for the Industry because this is ultimately where I wanted to finish.
While the majority of this post will be focused on USBC/WBC format barista competitions, I want to also recognize the variety of other events out there. When I began in the coffee industry the only competitive coffee events I really knew about were these USBC/WBC competitions. Since that time so many other events have come around, including:
There are plenty of other events out there, including CoffeeFest's new “Best Coffeehouse Competition” which I will be judging later this week in Seattle. Additionally there are tons of unofficial throwdown and casual events that still bring out the best of the coffee community. While some of these events hold more clout than others, I feel that the specialty coffee industry can benefit from any of these competition formats so long as their integrity and purpose is kept in high regard over time.
Now that there are indeed a whole lot of competitions out there, I want to talk about where they have taken this coffee world of ours.
Benefiting the Specialty Coffee Industry
In pointing out how specific competitive events help the industry I also want to be clear that these events are not the only reason for improvement, but they have advanced more people and companies around the world far more quickly than would otherwise be possible.
Expectations of barista skill and knowledge
This is likely a controversial thing to say, as there are still plenty of under-skilled and under-educated baristas out there. The fact remains however that because of barista competitions like WBC and Brewer's Cup the standard for a person representing the “ideal” or upper level of realized potential (at a given time) is considerably higher than it has been in the past. Even as a concept, crowning a champion gives other baristas inspiration and motivation to work harder in their skills and even attempt to surpass previous champs. As time passes the level of expectation rises all around, and these expectations and standards are quickly translated to daily cafe work if for no other reason than to prepare for the next competition.
This is exactly what has happened over the past few years.
Now more and more employers expect their barista staff to not only learn proper coffee preparation techniques, but to also gain a wealth of knowledge about coffee production, growing conditions, varietal/cultivar characteristics, and various processing methods. It is easy to see how WBC format barista competitions have impacted the professionalism of the barista in this way since so much focus has been placed on coffee knowledge and traceability in the past few years.
Unlike improvements in skill and knowledge, equipment technology would likely have made strides forward over time even without the influence of competition events. My argument for including equipment here is the speed at which improvements have been made as well as the specific purposes for which they have been done. Espresso machine and grinder manufacturers are commonly working with barista competitors in order to make improvements in the functionality of their products.
Many new espresso grinders are made with direct dosing, timed grind technology, and these grinders are the new standard in competitions as well as cafes worldwide. Doserless grinders are typically more accurate and clean when used properly, which adds a huge amount of functionality to cafes. Simply being more functional is not the only thing we want from our equipment though.
Because of the level of scrutiny we put into espresso now, espresso machines are being produced with controllable water temperature (which seems almost standard at this point), grouphead pressure, and water flow rates. These advances in technology allow us to play with and customize almost any variable we like, which means we can learn more about how individual aspects can affect the flavor outcome of espresso. Unfortunately the more variables are allowed to be changed, the more complicated the preparation becomes.
Espresso is already incredibly complicated.
The way that we present coffee to customers has drastically changed for the better recently. While some will likely debate the usage of blends and less traceable coffees, the overall integrity of what we present is on the rise. Whether it is a drip or an espresso drink the focus is given to the coffee more and more.
Drink sizes have commonly become much more reasonable in the U.S. allowing the espresso to be much more of a highlight. A barista can now present drinks based on the coffee being used, giving relevance to their expertise as well as focusing on flavor. Some cafes are preparing their own sauces and flavorings in house, giving them control over the quality of the ingredients and the balance of the drink.
Single origin espresso offerings have given us unique ways to showcase the coffee for customers. The story of the farmer and origin production is compelling us to take pride in what we serve. We have empowered the barista to become representatives for the farmers, and the customers see the pride of that representation every day they come in. At the same time, our increased emphasis on the coffee itself means that we must deliver the integrity and quality we are selling.
What to do with it all
I could go on for quite some time pointing out small details about how competitions have benefited the specialty industry, and I could also go on about aspects where competitions have their flaws. The latter subject is one which I plan to address in a future post.
Since we have gained so much from competitions up to this point, keeping the level of excellence moving forward is what we need to do. This can come from innovation, new discoveries, and/or experimentation. The path of growth is often difficult, but one of the most important things I believe is to keep an open mind and embrace new ideas. As an industry reaching around the globe, keeping everyone on the same path can be extremely difficult but the presence of standardized competitive events makes that task more manageable. I find these events to be a way we can bring our coffee community closer together as well as draw the consuming public closer to an understanding of why we are so passionate about coffee.