What exactly is the point of a barista competition? Is it a positive force that motivates us to better our craft and ourselves, or is it perhaps a distraction from the practical experience of cafe work? Having competed in the SCAA’s United States Barista Championship circuit for the past four years, I believe they’re a little bit of both: though barista competitions are in many ways artificial, they can also be a force for individual career and craft growth, and one that encourages the competitor to bring those skills and ideas back to the real-world cafe or roastery.
This year’s regional competition in Durham, NC was titled the Big Eastern; for the first time, it united the Northeast and Southeast regions. Over thirty competitors, as well as dozens of judges, volunteers, coaches, and supporters journeyed from Maine to Miami to attend. For me, it’s the act of gathering that makes these programs unmissable. These three or four days are a time to connect, to taste the cutting edge of specialty coffee, and to be inspired by a group of talented and highly motivated coffee professionals.
There are two events that take place at a regional. The Barista Competition is a single-round, fifteen minute, twelve drink presentation of a barista’s ability to make four high-quality espressos, cappuccinos, and signature beverages, all the while guiding the four-person judging panel through a positive sensory experience. What are the flavors? How does the coffee’s journey influence what you will smell and taste? Why does any of this matter? If a barista can efficiently craft harmoniously balanced drinks and guide the judges through a positive, cohesive, and inspiring experience, then that competitor should score high marks. This is easier said than done, as it takes a high degree of control, hospitality, and knowledge. Becoming effective in competition can’t help but make you a better barista: if I can quickly guide you to the correct coffee or dial-in my espresso more consistently in less time, I am doing my workaday barista job that much better.
The somewhat newer competition is the Brewers Cup, which requires the barista to produce three cups of drip-strength coffee using only manual brew methods, like the Beehouse dripper or press pot. There are two different rounds. In the first, each barista receives a bag of the same coffee, which levels the playing field. They have a period of time to practice with this coffee before they must step up to the stage to anonymously brew three cups for three judges in seven minutes. The top six brewers make it through to the ten minute final round, where the competitor brews three cups of a coffee they brought with them. Typically, the barista spends several weeks or months dialing-in this coffee with their brewing device. These six finalists must also verbally present their coffee in much the same way the barista competitor does. And clearly, learning to speak about a coffee knowledgeably and being able to produce multiple craft brews efficiently and consistently are crucial to the successful operation of a cafe.
At the end of the long weekend, only one barista from each region is crowned champion, but I’ve found that developing yourself as a competitor is the primary reward, win or lose. By putting yourself through the ringer of competition, through hours of practice and study, not only will you be a better barista, but you’ll often find yourself a more informed, well-rounded person as well. I’ll admit that getting up in front of a large group of peers and being scored isn’t my cup of tea (or coffee), but competing has pushed me to understand everything I do on bar at a much higher level. Being judged by an experienced panel of supportive judges taught me great lessons about customer service, efficiency, tidiness, how to be verbally succinct and informative, and how to dial-in for a harmonious balance of sweet, acidic, and bitter.
I bombed my first year of competing, but hearing what the judges had to say about their experience helped me more than just about anything I’ve done in coffee. It was uncomfortable to receive truly terrible scores that year, but they showed me exactly how I needed to improve in order to become the best competitor I could be. And the best part was coming back to the cafe and putting those heightened skills to good use. Whether it’s knowing how to execute a milk share so that I can make two cappuccinos more quickly, or understanding how to be a guide rather than a gatekeeper of coffee knowledge, competing helped me grow into the coffee professional I wanted to become. I’m also pretty sure my customers didn’t mind that I was nicer and better at what I did, either!
At this year’s Big Eastern, I sat on the other side of the table for the first time. As a new sensory judge, I experienced nerves that I hadn’t expected. When you screw up as a competitor, it’s mostly on you. When you screw up as a judge, you’re messing with someone else’s hard work. I felt this acutely as a former competitor, so I did my best to stay attentive, provide detailed notes, and to assess the coffees in an unbiased, objectively-as-humanly-possible way. Although the barista is serving drinks to four sensory judges, a head judge tastes each drink, and is there to help calibrate the sensory panel to what is true. This deliberation session after each performance gave me great faith in the judging process. There was no room for, “I like..” It was all, “This is what I tasted and smelled. This is what they said.” During my time judging, I was privileged to score both first-timers and seasoned pros alike. Both groups taught me something about our craft and service, both through positive and negative points. I also learned some valuable quality control protocols for evaluating espressos and cappuccinos. I hope you’ll join me in an Espresso or Milk Class to see these protocols in action.
Competition is far from the only path to growth, but James Hoffmann put it best at a Barista Guild of America Camp when he said one of the most important things he ever did was to venture outside of his bubble. Only then did the future World Barista Champion realize how much there was he didn’t know. So whether it’s an SCAA competition, BGA Barista Camp, Roasters Guild Retreat, an informal latte art throwdown, or just a random industry meetup, we as coffee professionals should be excited to be there, because we know there’s still so much to learn.
Until next time, when I might be back in the competition ring and feeling like these guys below. Gulp!