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Barista Competitions; Who Gives a Sh** - Page 6

Postby OlywaDave on Thu Sep 28, 2006 1:27 pm

Nick wrote:My frustration with Ken's original post is that it was completely based on assumptions and his own limited experience and perspective. It's not very different from the classic coffee-forum post, complaining about an online vendor, without the poster actually contacting the vendor personally to try to resolve the problem. Ken, I'm sorry if you felt attacked, but words have consequence, and I still believe that you can't complain when your thread subject is what you made it to be. I, and others have responded with facts and actual experience, but you still hold to your "irrefutable opinions."

The competitions were never meant to be the end-all/be-all for coffee quality improvement. They are merely one endeavor among the many that both professionals and enthusiasts partake in. I've said many times that even among high-achieving baristas, competitions aren't for everyone. David Schomer's baristas are as detail-oriented and skilled as any out there, but do not participate in competitions. As much as I'd love to see Vivace baristas compete, nobody bemoans their non-participation... it's not for everyone. However limited in their scope as one might opine them to be, the competitions have become pivotal road-to-Damascus moments in hundreds of baristas' lives, here and abroad.


Eloquently put... Nice.

FYI: Far be it for me to claim it as my own or anything but we've been slinging the "Nice" around the Northwest since 2000. Always trend setters in our little corner I guess ;)
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Postby another_jim on Thu Sep 28, 2006 3:27 pm

Nick wrote:Being more acculturated and familiar with the competitions and the surrounding environment, I have other ideas that aren't ever brought up. Here's one relevant example:
Question: When will the regionals directly feed the national competition? Right now, you can compete at the USBC without needing to compete at a regional, with (frankly) a theoretical advantage of being able to compete in the preliminary round. We've had a competitor who gave up their semi-finals bye for this very reason. The "open round" is how most enter "the system" of the USBC. If, say, the top six from each region are the one who exclusively feed the entire competitor roster, the regionals would be more important than their current more localized scope.
Answer: Perhaps that's what we're working towards, but it simply isn't feasible right now with 4 out of the 10 regions yet without competitions. There are two new regionals for the "in the works": North East and South Central, with the latter being planned for AFTER Long Beach (to lead up to 2008 Minneapolis).


I have no idea of the planning or resources involved in staging these events. It seems the way it is done now, each event requires a good deal of sponsorship for renting a hall and setting up of three stations. It also involves travel expenses for the participants. The structure I was talking about is of more informal events, but presided over by a certified judge. These could be held at roasteries or in cafes, using existing equipment, and requiring very few resources. The other sports have point systems. Higher level events require that competitors have accumulated points at lower level ones to compete at all (ratings system in bridge or chess, and number of win criteria in golf tournaments work like this), or to avoid the gruelling prelim rounds (as in the US tennis open). Such local events could be held monthly in every city that has an interested cafe or roaster, and people who win a few of these can go on to the higher levels. This would also allow a wider circle of friends, acquaintances, and customers of each barista to watch.

My frustration with Ken's original post is that it was completely based on assumptions and his own limited experience and perspective. It's not very different from the classic coffee-forum post, complaining about an online vendor, without the poster actually contacting the vendor personally to try to resolve the problem. Ken, I'm sorry if you felt attacked, but words have consequence, and I still believe that you can't complain when your thread subject is what you made it to be. I, and others have responded with facts and actual experience, but you still hold to your "irrefutable opinions."


Actually, I don't think Ken was trying to give you and the competitors grief; rather the grief is aimed at those of us HBers who follow the competitions. He's asking why we are doing it, and thinks it a waste of time in terms of us improving our espresso practice. The rest of us seem to take a more warm and fuzzy view on how knowledge spreads.
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Postby Marshall on Thu Sep 28, 2006 6:24 pm

Barista competitions have several actual benefits and a few potential benefits. Some of the actual (proven) benefits have already been described in this thread:

1. Providing role models to other baristas.
2. Spreading the use of good technique.
3. Spurring ambitious, quality-oriented shops to higher goals.
4. Providing good publicity for the winners and finalists.
5. Creating an event to which many baristas and owners will travel and exchange ideas, even if they do not compete.

The particular benefit Ken wants to see, good espresso being widely available throughout the U.S., will take a lot more time and might, in fact, never happen. When you are talking about public relations and promotions, it is often difficult to measure the direct benefits (the line of customers you see the day after a great newspaper review being a major exception). The effects often take a long time to show and can't always be attributed to one particular effort.

But, I see an espresso renaissance spreading from the Northwest to some major cities that had little to brag about a couple of years ago. I'm thinking of New York, the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Like it or not, these are the tastemaker cities, because they are the media centers. Other cities and smaller towns tend to follow a few years later. Did the barista championships do this directly? Frankly, I don't know. But, I think there is a good chance they helped it happen by expanding the community of espresso enthusiasts, both professional and amateur.

Can the championships be improved? Yes. There is endless discussion about this, and some alternative formats have already started. But, I think they have been good for the industry and will be good for an ever-expanding number of consumers.
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Postby timo888 on Thu Sep 28, 2006 7:36 pm

Ken Fox wrote:Are these people doing stuff on the stage that is in anyway unique AND useful, and hence transferable? Or are we just being groupies, with the satisfaction being to hang out at the BG booth at an upcoming SCAA convention?


I don't know firsthand, Ken, but a barista champ is said to have had some input on the design of a dual-boiler (dual thermoblock) machine being marketed Down Under by Sunbeam. If that's true, and the design reflects the input of the barista, great. If it's merely an analogue of a tennis star wearing some logo on his shirt, then it's part of the hype machine. But everybody's gotta make a buck, no?

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Postby Ken Fox on Thu Sep 28, 2006 9:39 pm

another_jim wrote:Actually, I don't think Ken was trying to give you and the competitors grief; rather the grief is aimed at those of us HBers who follow the competitions. He's asking why we are doing it, and thinks it a waste of time in terms of us improving our espresso practice. The rest of us seem to take a more warm and fuzzy view on how knowledge spreads.


I made the original post in the context of this being a home consumer board with (fortunately) some professional participation. There are certainly many things us home users can learn from professional baristas, so I'm certainly not challenging that, although I'm not sure that these competitions are a particularly good way to do that. And, significant parts of these competitions have no applicability at all to home users, such as fancy specialty drinks and rapid fire preparation, something few of us ever do and if we tried we'd find it both humiliating and next to impossible to replicate after even a short period of our normal slow production routines.

In any hobby or interest, which is basically what home espresso preparation is for most home users who participate in online forums, there is a tendency to become groupies when the enthusiast level is reached. This is not my first enthusiast level interest, followed online, and I see the same thing with coffee that I've seen with other interests. Now we all like meeting pros and we all like to think we are being appreciated, and we all want to think that our enthusiast level of interest is getting us special treatment. I think this approach needs to be tempered with the realization that sometimes our interests will diverge from those of professionals and others in the industry, and we need to maintain a little bit of distance because we don't want to become shills. Those who are capable of independent thought will also realize that pros and people in the industry will have us around, or curry favor with us, as long as they sense they get value out of the relationship and not a moment longer. This is the nature of business, any business, and the way that any business that interacts with an enthusiast community will act towards the enthusiasts.

Like many here, I have received very kind treatment from a number of people in the coffee business, and I truly appreciate it. I have also tried to reciprocate, as best I can. I and they realize that the relationships will go on for as long as it suits us, collectively, and probably not a minute longer.

This is not to say that we haven't made friendships across the professional-enthusiast divide, and that these friendships can't be real friendships. But the basis of the whole thing is a relationship between businesspeople who value their relationships with enthusiasts because they think that these relationships will benefit THEM and their businesses. Period. And if any enthusiastic ("real home barista") reading this feels differently, you are deluding yourself.

The title of this thread has turned out to be, shall we say, "unfortunate." I was looking for something that would attract attention to my post, which was clearly (at least to me) in a very different vein than the title even though there was the odd element thrown in for comic value, such as the example of a signature drink made with Brylecream :P I guess people have different senses of humor and it was certainly not my intention to offend professional baristas or the BG with the post, but rather to getting people thinking about whether the process is improving espresso in general. It might well be doing good in some metro areas, but I think if you were to go around the country you would find that the impact is limited for a relatively few metropolitan areas. And those of us not living in those metro areas, or not travelling to them, are experiencing the same dreck in the cup when we go to a cafe than we experienced before the competitions began.

I'm not looking to demean anyone's accomplishment, anyone who has succeeded in a barista competition (this includes you, Nick, and I hadn't really been following the recent one so I didn't realize you had won it--belated congratulations).

Internet forums and newsgroups are written media without the other normal aspects of communication that one would get were one having a real conversation. I think we all need to realize that, myself included, in that stuff one writes can and likely will be misinterpreted if it is at all controversial. The downside of avoiding controversial posts is that posts and threads become bland and boring, which makes people less likely to read them.

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Postby Compass Coffee on Fri Sep 29, 2006 10:26 am

Ken Fox wrote:[I made the original post in the context of this being a home consumer board with (fortunately) some professional participation. There are certainly many things us home users can learn from professional baristas, so I'm certainly not challenging that, although I'm not sure that these competitions are a particularly good way to do that. And, significant parts of these competitions have no applicability at all to home users, such as fancy specialty drinks and rapid fire preparation, something few of us ever do and if we tried we'd find it both humiliating and next to impossible to replicate after even a short period of our normal slow production routines.
ken

I disagree, signature drinks can be part of any barista's repertoire home or professional. Some may never yet some often do. Just last night I was entertaining friends visiting from Michigan. (Friends I'd never met in person but rather online home roast and espresso forums, I'd helped him in his recent decision process leading to his Vetrano) After dinner I made 5 rapid fire Indonesian White Rose signature drinks of my creation. Double shot cappuccinos of Sumatra Blue Batak Peaberry with a rounded teaspoon of powdered Ghirardelli White chocolate and a touch of Indonesian white pepper added to the shot, fresh rosemary infused milk. This sig drink of mine was directly inspired by SCAA Barista competitions, specifically Phuong Tran's 2005 USBC winning signature drink that utilized sage infused milk. Prior to that I'd never thought of herb infusing milk or using pepper. I'd never thought of using 50/50 coconut milk/cow milk prior to her 2006 competiton sig drink either yet now do for my Kona Sunset dessert cappuccino. So the barista competition signature drinks have in fact directly impacted and expanded my home espresso skills and enjoyment. And now have expanded another home barista's awareness through me. They loved them, his wife actually licked the sides of her empty cup!
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Postby e61brewski on Fri Sep 29, 2006 11:08 am

Now we all like meeting pros and we all like to think we are being appreciated, and we all want to think that our enthusiast level of interest is getting us special treatment. I think this approach needs to be tempered with the realization that sometimes our interests will diverge from those of professionals and others in the industry, and we need to maintain a little bit of distance because we don't want to become shills.


on this one point, ken reads my mind. i love watching a good competition show. but the temptation to become groupies or wannabe insiders, i think, can be poisonous. i feel many HBs have devolved into clubby hangers-on, and it bothers me. it's one reason i tend to skulk around the fringes when i go to a competition or convention. i don't mind meeting people, but the prospect of being neutered of one's perspective is enough to dissuade me from the more overt glad-handing.

that's not a diss on anybody. i just think home junkies have value to offer that gets diluted/co-opted when we become rock-star groupies. that said, i enjoy the benefits of many friendly relationships with pros.
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Postby Nick on Fri Sep 29, 2006 11:28 am

Mike, you rock.

Just goes to show, if you sit back and want something to be relevant to you, chances are, it won't. If you actively seek to engage it, be it barista competitions or in your case, signature drinks, and try to discover something great in it, chances are, you'll be rewarded.

I posted something like this somewhere, but I'll restate it here... it's most certainly a bit melodramatic, but I still believe it very much...

You have to approach coffee the way you approach God: from below, not from above. If you sit back and want coffee (and its various iterations, permutations, and representations) to impress you, then you're going to miss out. You can't grasp anything with your arms folded. Come with open arms, an open mind, and an open heart, and there's some amazing stuff out there that will wow you.

I did say "melodramatic." 8)
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Postby Nick on Fri Sep 29, 2006 11:39 am

e61brewski wrote:that's not a diss on anybody. i just think home junkies have value to offer that gets diluted/co-opted when we become rock-star groupies. that said, i enjoy the benefits of many friendly relationships with pros.

...and I know very, very few pro's that are interested in being treated like rock-stars... me most definitely included.

It always sorta pisses me off when coffee-enthusiasts come by the shop and express some surprise that I'd spend an hour talking coffee with them. I'm in this business and this craft for the relationships... for the opportunity to connect with people. Sure, I might come across as a little stand-off-ish if someone comes to me when I'm in turn preoccupied with something more urgent, but that's anybody.

Some people have told me that I'm some sort of "specialty coffee celebrity," which totally makes me want to throw up. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. If I or one of my baristas makes you an amazing drink, then accompanying words of appreciation are appreciated. However, just because part of my job or my volunteer work involves standing in front of people and emceeing a competition, or giving a talk about coffee, or blabbering into a microphone, means nothing beyond an unintentionally manufactured circumstance. Respect comes not from circumstance or by demanding it.

You know the saying "Don't kill the messenger..." well, don't get excited about them either.

Ken Fox wrote:Now we all like meeting pros and we all like to think we are being appreciated, and we all want to think that our enthusiast level of interest is getting us special treatment. I think this approach needs to be tempered with the realization that sometimes our interests will diverge from those of professionals and others in the industry, and we need to maintain a little bit of distance because we don't want to become shills.

I agree with everything except the last part about needing to maintain distance. It's not about distance, it's about understanding the relationship and acting accordingly.

On a side-note, I hate the SCAA C-Member program. Not because I think that consumer-enthusiasts are irrelevant, but because I don't think that the C-Member program does anything to serve them. In my future volunteer work with the SCAA, I hope to help kill the C-Member program and create something that actually provides value to those consumer-enthusiasts, as well as the coffee community at large.
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Postby Ken Fox on Fri Sep 29, 2006 12:00 pm

Nick wrote:...and I know very, very few pro's that are interested in being treated like rock-stars... me most definitely included.

It always sorta pisses me off when coffee-enthusiasts come by the shop and express some surprise that I'd spend an hour talking coffee with them. I'm in this business and this craft for the relationships... for the opportunity to connect with people. Sure, I might come across as a little stand-off-ish if someone comes to me when I'm in turn preoccupied with something more urgent, but that's anybody.

Some people have told me that I'm some sort of "specialty coffee celebrity," which totally makes me want to throw up. That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard of. If I or one of my baristas makes you an amazing drink, then accompanying words of appreciation are appreciated. However, just because part of my job or my volunteer work involves standing in front of people and emceeing a competition, or giving a talk about coffee, or blabbering into a microphone, means nothing beyond an unintentionally manufactured circumstance. Respect comes not from circumstance or by demanding it.

You know the saying "Don't kill the messenger..." well, don't get excited about them either.


I'm not concerned about the pros acting like rock stars (which seldom happens) but I am concerned about the enthusiast home coffee movement being co-opted into basically being promotors of the business of specialty coffee. When this happens, people start becoming so careful about what they say that they become facilitators of the industry and lose their objectivity. Pros are businesspeople and consumers are consumers. In this as in many other fields, the upper end/avant garde consumers tend to get into cozy relationships with the businesspeople.

Business people do this because they realize that for every one of us, there are 50, 100, maybe a 1000 readers/lurkers out there who will or might take their cues from us, buying equipment and supplies (including coffee) from them, or patronizing their cafes. If we allow ourselves to become co-opted, then we become, merely, a part of the advertising and promotional campaign for the industry.

Granted, not all of these consumer-businessperson relationships are based on this. Some pros in any field will become disillusioned with the fact that their skill level and knowledge base far exceeds what they actually use in their day to day work (the example of a champion barista spending their time primarily making vanilla lattes would be a good example as would Barry's observation that one time when they were in the mall the espresso machine broke and no one seemed to care that their beverages were being made with brewed coffee rather than espresso). In this case it is like the Internist who trained at a famous institution who ends up treating mostly colds; one can become bored and seek out intellectual stimulation that allows one to use his skills and knowledge, and in this case some of the enthusiasts can perhaps provide some of that stimulation.

Nonetheless, the basic point stands; the more involved consumers will interact in a "privileged" way with some pros because the relationship suits both the pro and the consumer. Each has something they want from the relationship and each, in a real sense, is "using" the other. When the relationship no longer benefits both, it will end.

If this "hobby" is like others I've observed, as the number of online enthusiast users expands, there is likely going to be a time when the professional community is much less welcoming, and they will feel they have less need of us, and the relationships may very well cease.

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