There certainly seem to be an over-supply or articles in coffee magazines that are dedicated to barista competitions. These competitions seem to have captured people’s imaginations. “Can you really have a competition to make a simple cup of coffee and is it interesting to watch?” people ask. The answer to the first part of their question is undoubtedly “yes” as the making of a great finished cup of coffee is not an easy task. However the second part of the question raises a valid point. Are competitions really that interesting to watch?
Don’t get me wrong. I think that barista competitions have their place. Where they seem to me to be relevant is within a franchise group or chain environment where, quite frankly without them, life would be incredibly, well….um…boring. Competitions give baristas something to talk about at work and something to work towards. They lift the bar in espresso preparation and presentation. Where I don’t think they work so well is in an isolated environment like a coffee trade fair. When eclectic people come together in a sterile environment and are judged by a panel of experts, the result is about as interesting as watching televised lawn bowling.
I’ve tried to watch competitions time and time again to see why these aforementioned coffee mags devote so much page space to them. I’ve been to coffee industry trade fairs in the US and Asia and local public coffee fairs that include them and I just can’t get into them. Nor can the average punter, it seems.
With no MC to keep the crowd informed of what is going on and often no TV screens or clever camerawork to show the crowd close-ups of exactly what the barista is doing, the competitions become interesting only for those actually in it (and perhaps their barista entourage who come and support them). Competition baristas are usually mic’ed up but how many are engaging or even mildly entertaining? This is in my view where competitions need to improve.
Competitions need to also take a leaf out of the reality shows’ books (think Australian or American Idol, Big Brother or So You Think You Can Dance) and get the viewers involved. There needs to be some element of public input into the outcomes of these competitions. In other words, the viewers should be given a chance to vote. This could be done by way of SMS or secret ballot on-site.
What would they vote on, I hear you ask? Surely they can’t taste the coffee, so what else would they be qualified to judge?
Quite clearly, they would be able to vote on the entertainment factor. Yes, the smaller competitions may suffer from crowd-stacking, but this is an unavoidable side-effect and a small offset to the public engagement that crowd-voting would promote. The more entertaining a competitor is, the more likely it would be that they win. I would not employ a barista in one of my cafés if they lacked personality. Personality brings business, it makes life pleasurable for co-workers and most importantly, it brings in customers. It is an integral part of being a barista, yet current competitions ignore it.
The problem with having three or four judges sitting at a table focusing primarily on taste is that this is highly subjective and narrows the judging capability to just those judges’ tastes which are in turn defined by their own narrow experiences. If you open up the judging to members of the gallery, the idea is that you spread the risk and increase the chance of ending up with the most well-rounded barista.
I am not for one minute advocating that we do away with the judges sitting behind their tables at these competitions. These judges are necessary in the same way that professional judges on Idol and SYTYCD are necessary. Judges can award marks on the more technical aspects of the routine such as espresso knowledge, grinder adjustment, extraction and pouring techniques. And because there are only a few coffees on offer to actually taste, they are necessary to taste the coffees as well.
But taste and technical stuff is in my view only one a few of the criteria that should be included in the judging. Competitions should also focus on barista appearance, cleanliness of workplace, wider general knowledge, correct procedures at every step of the way, flair and entertainment factor.
Contestants should also be given a randomly selected range of coffees to make in their time-frame and not the same standard list that gets dragged out in the current competitions. Keep baristas on their toes, I say! Throw them 6 coffees to make and let them make up their mind as to which ones they make first. Inject a mix of take-away coffees in there as well to see them pour into all styles of drinking vessels.
Do away with the “signature” drink that current competitions make baristas make. I’m done with layered macchiatos with a twist of tequila. When was the last time that your local barista surprised you with a signature drink as you sat waiting for your medium skim caffé latte?
Make it more realistic – after all a barista is someone who works in a real-world café, not someone who stands in a rarified atmosphere making the same old boring coffees every time they compete.
In conclusion, what I am proposing is to inject life into the whole system, make it more realistic so that we can truly find the world’s most well-rounded barista.
Keep it real people!
© Barista Brothers 2009. All rights reserved. No unauthorised use without the express permission of the author.
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