How do you take your coffee?
If your answer isn’t “very seriously,” barista competitions are not for you.
If, on the other hand, you can taste the difference between beans harvested in Colombia and Guatemala… Or if you can detect the changes to the grind settings merely by looking at the grounds… Or if you’re interested in the irrigation systems used to create a “sparkling citrus acidity” in your espresso… You may be ready for these barista battles royal.
In a serious barista competition, the audience is composed of coffee professionals and obsessives — people committed enough to coffee to follow arcane details and processes. Hardcore coffee pros believe eschewing flavors, gimmicks and tricks puts the focus on the core essentials of coffee and becomes a true test of a barista’s skill.
“It definitely does not appeal to consumers, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” said Cole McBride. He placed second in the 2015 U.S. Barista championship. “We’re not looking for a reality TV show competition.”
But with barista competitions slowly filtering into the mainstream, disagreements over the contests are brewing. The format that’s been followed since the competition’s starts are too restrictive, some say, and are keeping the world of gourmet coffee too small to survive.
At the Unites States Barista Competition events, baristas have 15 minutes to make 12 drinks — a mix of espressos, cappuccinos and a signature sipper of the contestants’ choice. The rules specify technical details like espresso machine temperature (between 90.5 and 96 degrees Celsius) and pump pressure (between 8.5 and 9.5 bars).
Choosing the right coffee is critical. Additives, flavorings, colorings, perfumes, aromatic substances, liquids and powders are prohibited. A seven-judge panel rates drinks for flavor and factors like “consistency and persistence” of foam.
“Success in these competitions comes from a quite a few things,” two-time U.S. barista champion and U.S. Coffee Championship board member Heather Perry said. “One…is the coffee you are working with. You have to make sure you have a good source of coffee, whether you work for a roaster or have a good relationship with your roaster.”
More than just proving they can make coffee, top competitors must also know coffee. The events are heavy on presentation and public speaking, requiring competitors to narrate their coffee’s journey from farm to cup, holding court on the source of their shot’s citrus undertones and chocolate-like richness.
Gale Boetticher, the ill-fated Breaking Bad meth chemist who dabbled in elaborate coffee making, would be an ideal competitive barista — not just for his careful attention to temperature and chemical interaction, but for his eagerness to explain the intricate process behind his brew.
For baristas, roasters and coffee house owners, the presentations are brimming over with fascinating trivia. But the average Starbucks customer would probably need multiple Frappés to remain alert during them.
“That’s something we struggle with,” said Perry. This is no place for K-cup fans and Dunkin’ drive-thru’ers.
Barista competitions first percolated in Scandinavian countries in the late 90s. The first worldwide competition was held in Monte Carlo in 2000. Today, the world championship is supplemented by national and regional contests. In addition to the Barista Championship, the U.S. Coffee Championships include contests for latte art, coffee roasting and cup tasting, where contestants must recognize and memorize coffees from different cups.
The WBC All Stars showcase past champions in a gauntlet of coffee tests like mystery drink challenges and pop quizzes.
Seeing the buzz, rival organizations have emerged. Some are playing with the classic formats, much to the old-timers’ dismay. At their inaugural events in London and Manhattan, for example, the Coffee Masters tried to speed up the contests’ tempo to match the demands placed on real baristas. Competitors still had to demonstrate deep knowledge in cup tastings and brewing, but they also had to prepare large amounts of drinks with jittery speed in an ordering challenge.
In its two contests, Coffee Masters offered $5,000 prizes, a tenth of what the 2015 Australian competition the Richest Barista boasted for its grand prize of $50,000 prize. The cash won in U.S competitions is in the low thousands, but other prizes include elite grinding and brewing gear and even trips to Colombia.
But the investment in time and equipment necessary to build the skills to earn prize is daunting. For one, to practice on your own VA388 Black Eagle — the espresso machine used the U.S. Barista competitions — will set you back more than $20,000.
According to Perry, the contests offer career opportunities for contestants, ranging from work as a private trainer or corporate sponsorship and events. Winners have parlayed coffee competition success into mainstream visibility. 2014 WBC champion Laila Ghambari was featured in a Microsoft marketing campaign and multi-year champion Michael Philips led a TED Conference talk in 2011. Pulling a winning espresso might even be a good career move: Starbucks launched an in-house barista contest in 2013.
For 2014 U.S. champ Charles Babinski, it’s about building professional and social ties between baristas, not prizes. Babinski praised the camaraderie between most competitors, saying that, while a few outlier contestants are cutthroat, most are there to learn and improve.
“The prize only goes to the winner,” Babinski said, explaining that attaining the prize isn’t the true value of the competition. “It’s a chance to engage with a larger community.”
But are they fiddling while espresso beans burn? Is an emphasis on community-building in a niche community short-sighted? Somebody has to pay for all those expertly prepared espressos, after all. Perry, for ones, worries that failing to find wider appeal could be an existential threat to the gourmet coffee community.
“If we do something that’s so inward looking that nobody cares about it and makes us irrelevant to the consumers, than there’s no point in us existing,” said Perry.