Barista Competition: why we should give a sh**

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another_jim
Team HB

#1: Post by another_jim »

Real miracles are easy to miss. Like a change in the weather, they happen slowly and all around you. You have to step back to take notice.

We're currently having an espresso miracle; and one of its key components is barista competitions. The value of these competitions has been challenged, mainly in terms of its lack of mass audience appeal, and its inability to raise the overall level of espresso in the run of the mill cafe. But this criticism misses the very simple essence of what is going on: the best baristas using the best coffees win. And anybody wanting to improve their espresso, who has the least bit of a clue, is looking at the winners to see what they are doing and what coffees and prep equipment they are using.

So what's so special about the best baristas? HB has recently been privileged to get two extraordinary documents, James Hoffman taking about his winning performance at the WBC and Michael Perry talking about Heather's runner up finish. You can also see excellent video of their performances. James and Heather are not like the superb Italian professional baristas of the past. These, having done it for a career, could pull flawless shots in their sleep. Compared to them, Heather and James are inexperienced. But they are something no classic italian barista ever was: complete coffee people. They know how to cup, they've travelled to producing countries, they are the key players in selecting, roasting and blending the coffees they will use.

How has this affected espresso in general? If you are looking at the corner cafe, you won't see it ... yet. But take a look at who's scoring high on Ken David's coffee review, take a look at what blends the hobbyists are using and talking about, take a look at what single origin coffees are getting the buzz, and you'll see them being used at the barista competitions, These have become the proving ground for great coffee. I only know the US scene, here small and medium roasters like Terroir, Paradise, Klatch, PT's, Intelligentsia, Counter Culture, Zoka, and apologies to any I've left out have hugely raised the level and variety of espresso. It is no accident that all of them are heavily involved in these competitions.

The effect on equipment is slower, but I think you'll see it happening there too. Baristas can choose their own grinders, and we'll probably see more and more that are designed for both single dosing and superb grind quality. If people see the competitors choosing to use the same small group of grinders, market acceptance will follow. Under the current format, machines will be the slowest to change. Without LM's support, these competitions would have never gotten off the ground; so they are deservedly the major machine sponsor. But even there, Greg Scace's and others work is making the requirements more transparent, and other companies eager to sponsor are also producing machines to the mandated standard.

That's the miracle: The best baristas using the best coffees on the best equipment win. Everybody who wants great espresso is looking and imitating. And first at the top flight operations, then in general, espresso improves. It's so simple, it's easy to miss.
Jim Schulman

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HB
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#2: Post by HB »

I'm not sure I agree with your premise. It may be that barista competitions are benefiting from roasters/baristas response to discerning and outspoken consumers, not vice versa.
Dan Kehn

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jesawdy

#3: Post by jesawdy »

I'm not sure that he was asserting that competitions were driving the change, but that we should care because the competitions may be becoming a better forum to affect change to the mass market cafe, consumer or home espresso scene. My take away is that there was a shift upwards in the quality of the barista competition, the barista's knowledge and skillset, and the quality of the coffees used (the best baristas using the best coffees win).

Personally, I doubt the shift upwards was directly a result of only the competitions themselves. I also don't think it is only because of a shift in the quality of roasters/baristas/enthusiasts/consumers and their knowledge base. I like to think it is a reciprocal relationship, the competitions created a reason to discuss, share, experiment and further coffee in the coffee community, on-line and otherwise, which led to better competition performances, espresso coffees and baristas.

Certainly, James Hoffmann's win this year is unique, using all SO coffees. What was also unique is that James' is pretty much an independent.... sure he had help, but he wasn't backed by some powerhouse roaster or equipment sponsor (of course Coffee Klatch and Heather Perry seem to be a pretty "mom and pop operation" to me, kudos to them as well). I like to think of James as a "home-barista" that went nuts. It is certainly nice knowing that the current WBC Champ has been an HB member, follower and contributor for quite sometime. Also, James seems to be very accessible, with his on-line presence at his blog (jimseven.com) and elsewhere. He was likened to being "open-source" on another blog (link), I like that analogy.
Jeff Sawdy

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another_jim (original poster)
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#4: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

I think the Barista competitions prove state of the art practices and tastes. Basically, I thought that Terroir didn't know anything about espresso when they came out with the North Italians Daterra, and that it was undrinkable. I started working with it after it won the WBC 3 years ago. I think this, in microcosm, is what the competition does.
Jim Schulman

412Rich

#5: Post by 412Rich »

HB wrote:I'm not sure I agree with your premise. It may be that barista competitions are benefiting from roasters/baristas response to discerning and outspoken consumers, not vice versa.
Maybe - just maybe - there's a kernel of truth to that in the PNW and a few other regional pockets as with an operation like Stumptown which are operating in something resembling a cafe culture. But I can tell you first hand that is not the case here in between the coasts.

1) There simply aren't enough outspoken consumers to influence what any given coffeehouse serves or what a given roaster creates
2) There are plenty of places that continue to serve crud that regularly post improving year-to-year sales - and not just the chains
3) Too few people actually understand what a coffee's potential might be

The pursuit of quality espresso from a commercial standpoint comes from a passion on the part of the roaster that involves quite a bit of faith that working at origin to create better beans will end up as a sustainable business. Nobody is getting rich on this at the moment as even when there are profits, those monies are immediately reinvested to bring other regions up to snuff. It's passion driven from the top down.

Which is not to discount there's competition between the roasters themselves for bragging rights.

Once a roaster has invested the time, money and energy to improve the quality of beans and processing, they've got to find coffeehouse owners, supermarkets and restaurants willing to buy. For the restaurant or supermarket it's not that big a deal - it's simply a question of cost of goods vs. margin vs. inventory turnover.

Not that simple for the coffeehouse owner as it's not just the beans - which are 2x-3x as expensive as what can be procured from the local roaster using C-grade beans. It's also the expense of lots of training and better equipment to properly showcase the quality of those beans.

It's been regularly proven that consumers are reluctant to pay more than a dime above Starbucks even though the costs of producing a superior brew are much greater than that. Which is why few coffeehouse owners bother to improve.

One chef might choose to use only great ingredients while another uses lesser ingredients but because it has a trendier bar it can outlast the quality-focused establishment. Achieving financial success in foodservice is almost always simply the ability to sell more volume at a higher margin.

Lots of quality-focused places with passionate owners go under every year because consumers either don't get the difference or don't think it's worth paying extra for. Doesn't matter if its food or coffee.

Go spend some time on Chowhound and visit the "Chains" forum. And remember that these are people who consider themselves foodies. It's heartbreaking.

Just like with a restaurant, one coffeehouse may use a good roaster and train appropriately for quality while another uses crap beans, pulls 9 second poorly dosed shots from broken grinders, but employs a few PBTCs with "physical assets" and huge MySpace followings and does twice as much business despite the suckiness of the actual product.

No. Quality espresso is not yet a consumer-driven business, at least not in the United States. The way better shops make it through the first couple of years is by education and word-of-mouth. You almost have to drag people up with you, they don't often come voluntarily until you connect the wiring to the light bulb in their head. And so few consumers drink straight espresso that you can make a strong case that your milk supplier is as important as your roaster.

The closest thing I can think of is artisanal pizza. All of a sudden woodburning ovens are popping up all over because people are actually either a) paying attention to crust, or b) falling in love with the romance of oven-baked pie. Either way there's a story to tell and you can develop regular customers and good word of mouth. At the same time, for each consumer who converts to the church of woodfired pizzas despite paying an extra $2 for the privilege, 50 consumers will convert to cheese filled crusts at a chain or some new hideous combo 2-for-1 coupon deal at their local delivery shop.

That's just who we are in North America. You can make it as a quality operation, but you have to be a bit insane to do so because it's a much more difficult climb.

It's not the 0.0005% of consumers who enjoy good espresso who are influencing anything. It's the passionate people at the top who keep asking, "what if" who are making a difference.

Sorry to have taken 1000 words to reply to a one sentence assumption on your part, but as a shop that encourages its baristas to compete, we have a pretty strong opinion on this.
Crazy Mocha
Pittsburgh, PA

Ken Fox

#6: Post by Ken Fox »

HB wrote:I'm not sure I agree with your premise. It may be that barista competitions are benefiting from roasters/baristas response to discerning and outspoken consumers, not vice versa.
412Rich wrote:No. Quality espresso is not yet a consumer-driven business, at least not in the United States.
Those few of us on the consumer end who are passionate about good coffee benefit from the rapidly improving availabilty of fine coffees to home roast or otherwise use in our homes. Since many of us do not live anywhere near a good cafe, this is what we are able to do, to source good beans, for use in our homes.

Certainly there is the odd barista (James being a notable example) who has had an effect, at least in drawing attention to which beans they are using, which of course, were discovered and brought to market by someone else (e.g. a roaster or bean importer). One could give credit to several American barista contestants, when in fact this credit is misplaced, and should really be given to people like Miguel Meza of Paradise Roasters, importer, master blender and roaster, whose gifted hand is behind the coffees used by several of these baristas.

On the whole, however, I think baristas and barista competitions have had very little overall impact on what we home baristas are doing in our homes. Having wasted untold hours of my life reading this and other coffee boards over the last decade, most of what is new and novel and useful in my own home espresso preparation and bean sourcing, has not come from baristas.

Rather, it has come from other passionate home users and in some cases from industry professionals who maintain contact with the home enthusiast community. Barista competitions and baristas have contributed at most, 1%, to my own personal coffee adventure. Maybe these baristas have given the coffees a little higher profile, but in all honesty, 99.9999% of people who drink coffee have never heard of barista competitions, baristas who participate in them, their cafes, or the coffees they use.

Undoubtedly, barista competitions are useful, however the usefulness accrues largely to the high end cafes themselves, by providing staff motivation and also a leg up on marketing.

ken
What, me worry?

Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

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another_jim (original poster)
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#7: Post by another_jim (original poster) »

It's true that you can find the great coffees without ever hearing about barista competitions; but that doesn't mean they aren't related.

There's a story going round that all the top roasters of these "super-specialty" coffees are asking whether anyone is actually making any money yet doing this. So far the answer seems to be "Not me, how about you." If you look at the alliances buying auction coffees, where the players are a lot more apparent than in relationship coffees, then look at who's heavily involved in the competitions, it turns out to be the same group of people. In many ways, this is a group of coffee people with well established businesses doing it for the love of coffee and the glory of bragging rights. But they need to also make money, or at least not take too heavy a loss, for this niche to grow.

I'm being an optimist. I'm hoping the PR that events like the Barista competition or record auction prices is creating enough PR to widen awareness and sustain this market. I'd hate it if, in three years time, we were all saying that these were the good old days, because not enough people now are buying these better coffees. I'm hoping that lots of people are lining up right now to buy the coffees and blends featured on at the WBC.
Jim Schulman

Espresso Vision: the perfect cup of coffee starts with understanding your roast
Sponsored by Espresso Vision
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Psyd
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#8: Post by Psyd »

412Rich wrote:one coffeehouse may use a good roaster and train appropriately for quality while another uses crap beans, pulls 9 second poorly dosed shots from broken grinders, but employs a few PBTCs with "physical assets" and huge MySpace followings and does twice as much business despite the suckiness of the actual product.
And strip clubs will always make their money selling six dollar beers and four dollar sodas. Some of them are doing it selling a four dollar coffee. I'm not sure that this is an equitable comparison, but I do know what you're getting at.

In the argument that no one is getting rich, that can't be too awful true, someone is making more money off coffee, especially with these $100+ per pound and $50 per pound coffees. I can't believe that it costs ten to thirty times as much to produce, so that means a good-sized chink of profit somewhere. I'm guessing it's happening somewhere between the grower and the roaster, but I'm not inside enough to even pose a guess as to where. Usually, the cost of doing something different and better is expensive, and only the 'upper' consumers participate. Eventually, everyone wants in and the costs begin to drop, and it becomes somewhat ubiquitous. This always happens with electronics, will it happen with coffee? Is there any point in the future where we will see a decent coffee drop below the two dollar range? Of course there are examples, I mean the average. Say, a double capp.
Espresso Sniper
One Shot, One Kill

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Ken Fox

#9: Post by Ken Fox »

another_jim wrote:It's true that you can find the great coffees without ever hearing about barista competitions; but that doesn't mean they aren't related.

There's a story going round that all the top roasters of these "super-specialty" coffees are asking whether anyone is actually making any money yet doing this. So far the answer seems to be "Not me, how about you." If you look at the alliances buying auction coffees, where the players are a lot more apparent than in relationship coffees, then look at who's heavily involved in the competitions, it turns out to be the same group of people. In many ways, this is a group of coffee people with well established businesses doing it for the love of coffee and the glory of bragging rights. But they need to also make money, or at least not take too heavy a loss, for this niche to grow.

I'm being an optimist. I'm hoping the PR that events like the Barista competition or record auction prices is creating enough PR to widen awareness and sustain this market. I'd hate it if, in three years time, we were all saying that these were the good old days, because not enough people now are buying these better coffees. I'm hoping that lots of people are lining up right now to buy the coffees and blends featured on at the WBC.
Jim,

I'm not disagreeing with you. I have no problem with importers, roasters, or cafe owners using barista competitions as a way to motivate their staffs, market their coffees, or promote their coffee houses. If this helps us to improve the selection of great coffees available, then everyone benefits.

What I do have a problem with is ascribing the improvements in fine varietal coffee availability primarily or even marginally to baristas or barista competitions. The improvements in coffee that you reference are occurring higher up on the heirarchical chain than at the barista level. The baristas may well be part of the promotional apparatus, but they are not the cause of it. They are analogous to the actor you saw in a movie who crops up later as the TV spokesman for a product being advertised. Hopefully, that pitchman actually likes the product that he is promoting, but in any event, it was the idea or production of someone else, his boss or the owner of the company that is importing, producing, or selling it.

ken
What, me worry?

Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

King Seven

#10: Post by King Seven »

jesawdy wrote: I like to think of James as a "home-barista" that went nuts.
Haha!

Sadly I think there are a fair few people who know me that would probably agree.

I think in the UK the benefits of competition have been in exposing a lot of cafes and coffee houses to the idea of genuine speciality coffee. And whilst it seems terrible to say I think a few people have had a shock to the system when it has come down to an independent evaluation of their coffee in a competition setting. Now they are looking for better, now they are tasting their own coffee with a more critical eye and little by little the good stuff is spreading.