Barista Competitions; Who Gives a Sh**

Want to talk espresso but not sure which forum? If so, this is the right one.
Ken Fox

Postby Ken Fox » Sep 27, 2006, 1:55 am

Guess the title got your attention :mrgreen:

Count me as a skeptic on this whole process. What's the point of it, and if there is a point with a measurable endpoint, are these things really getting us any closer to it?

As I understand it, the reasons for doing these competitions are to (1) Elevate the level of specialty coffee as it pertains to espresso, by creating a rising tide lifting all boats; (2) Improve the standing of the "profession" of Barista, giving these folks recognition and hence increasing the numbers of such talented individuals and improving the talent base within those who are baristas.

We can perfunctorily dispense with #2. No one in their right mind is going to consider the job of "barista" as leading to some sort of career that will produce acceptable financial rewards and will lead to retirement with a gold watch 25 or 30 years later. There is no way that this job is going to produce a large enough paycheck over time that will enable the employee barista to support a family and own a home in a desireable place to live. The reason why most barista championship competitors (as noted by Nick in an earlier thread) have only a few months or year's experience is that ultimately people grow up and have other responsibilities that can't be supported on any employee barista's wages.

OK, so then what about the cafe owners who also work as baristas, who compete? They can make enough money to live on. TRUE, but then why should they compete? If they win, what they get are bragging rights and something to note in advertisements. Is this worth the interest of the "espresso enthusiast community" to support? Not in my opinion.

Moving back to #1, what is the evidence that barista competitions have had any impact, whatsoever, on the quality of espresso beverages being offered for sale across the country, the continent, or the world? I travel more than most who will read this and I have seen no evidence, either from what I have experienced or from what I have read, that the likelihood of getting a decent espresso beverage from a randomly selected cafe is noticeably better than before these competitions began. I see no reason to believe that these competitions will have more impact than they have had five years from now, either, because we are dealing with a small clique of cafes that participate in these competitions. Being interested in these events means that your cafe is not representative of the huge installed base of cafes in the country and in the world. So, whatever you do will impact only the Intellys and the Stumptowns and a (relative) handful of other like minded places.

Is it supposed to be news to anyone that if you go to Intelligentsia you are likely to get a decent drink? Did we need last year's USBC to establish that fact? Who cares if some barista in a cafe you will never visit has a "signature drink" composed of espresso and aloe vera lotion on ice, garnished with Brylecream? :P

I don't see any evidence personally of any improvement in the broader espresso experience from this process. Maybe instead of glorifying the "craft" of being a barista, coming from people who will almost certainly not be working as baristas a few years hence, we should put the same amount of effort into improving the quality of espresso one might randomly find in a randomly selected independent cafe? It isn't like the most obvious things that could be improved haven't been known for years; they have.

ken
What, me worry?

Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

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another_jim
Team HB

Postby another_jim » Sep 27, 2006, 2:54 am

I'm no big fan of watching the competitions; although this aspect is improving. In general, quality based competitions have to be a lot more brutal and less polite than barista competitions are now:
-- scores are always given in real time, not be told a half hour later
-- the audience has to be able to judge for themselves, this will require somewhat improved camera work (pf cam?)

However, these competitions are not meant for an audience; they are meant for the baristas themselves.

Nobody is going to be retiring to Florida as a Meister (B.Ing)* Barista emeritus; but more and more of the baristas active in these competitions are finding it a stepping stone to careers in specialty coffee in general. Competing leads to an interest in roasting, in machine design, in food science, etc, etc. Nobody makes a career as a waiter or sous-chef; but being one at a top flight restaurant is certainly a stepping stone to a career in food; whereas being one at McD is a stepping stone to nowhere.

That leads to the second point. The roasters and cafes who support these competitions and who employ these baristas signal that they are serious about the coffee. It's one of the things they use to distinguish themselves from all the cafes that are not about coffee. In essence, it lets people interested in coffee, either to drink or as a field to work in, know where to go.

The competition itself is having an effect too. While the regular store and roaster blends are used in regional competition; winning at the national or world level requires one uses the best espresso coffees available that year. This highlights those coffees and creates a demand for them.

Finally and most importantly. It seems very likely to me that working as a coffee maven barista even at the best place, and spending 90% of ones time slinging flavored lattes is, to say the least, demoralizing. I'm told that at the top cafes, the percentage of straight espresso and small milk drinks being served is on the rise; but even so, a few celebrations of coffee each year has to do a lot to make the job more fun.

So it may be more appropriate to have titled it "Barista Competition: why should I give a sh**" and say that in your splendid Idaho coffee isolation, you don't. But for the Baristas, the cafes and their regulars, I would think it is a fairly big deal.

* B.Ing, German for Brief Ingeneur, basically a PhD in shop, earned on the job through a long advancement in a skilled trade, one step above Meister. For instance, white collar engineers design the Mercedes, blue collar engineers design the machines and production lines that build the Mercedes.
Jim Schulman

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Worldman

Postby Worldman » Sep 27, 2006, 8:19 am

I think I go along more with Ken on this one (though I would have phrased it more gently), but then, I am in "coffee isolation" right here in Pittsburgh with the exception of a very few places and even at these only when certain barista are barista-ing. The reality is that at nearly every coffee bar here in Pittsburgh, the beverages are too big (by a factor of >2:1 for mild based drinks and ~1.25:1 for espresso shots). DA__ YOU, *$s!!!

The "signature drink" aspect of the Barista Championships does seem to be just one big bunch of silliness that has little or no application to what one would get (or even want) in a coffee bar.

Len

Ken Fox

Postby Ken Fox » Sep 27, 2006, 10:57 am

another_jim wrote:I'm no big fan of watching the competitions; although this aspect is improving. In general, quality based competitions have to be a lot more brutal and less polite than barista competitions are now:
-- scores are always given in real time, not be told a half hour later
-- the audience has to be able to judge for themselves, this will require somewhat improved camera work (pf cam?)

However, these competitions are not meant for an audience; they are meant for the baristas themselves.

Nobody is going to be retiring to Florida as a Meister (B.Ing)* Barista emeritus; but more and more of the baristas active in these competitions are finding it a stepping stone to careers in specialty coffee in general. Competing leads to an interest in roasting, in machine design, in food science, etc, etc. Nobody makes a career as a waiter or sous-chef; but being one at a top flight restaurant is certainly a stepping stone to a career in food; whereas being one at McD is a stepping stone to nowhere.

That leads to the second point. The roasters and cafes who support these competitions and who employ these baristas signal that they are serious about the coffee. It's one of the things they use to distinguish themselves from all the cafes that are not about coffee. In essence, it lets people interested in coffee, either to drink or as a field to work in, know where to go.

The competition itself is having an effect too. While the regular store and roaster blends are used in regional competition; winning at the national or world level requires one uses the best espresso coffees available that year. This highlights those coffees and creates a demand for them.

Finally and most importantly. It seems very likely to me that working as a coffee maven barista even at the best place, and spending 90% of ones time slinging flavored lattes is, to say the least, demoralizing. I'm told that at the top cafes, the percentage of straight espresso and small milk drinks being served is on the rise; but even so, a few celebrations of coffee each year has to do a lot to make the job more fun.

So it may be more appropriate to have titled it "Barista Competition: why should I give a sh**" and say that in your splendid Idaho coffee isolation, you don't. But for the Baristas, the cafes and their regulars, I would think it is a fairly big deal.

* B.Ing, German for Brief Ingeneur, basically a PhD in shop, earned on the job through a long advancement in a skilled trade, one step above Meister. For instance, white collar engineers design the Mercedes, blue collar engineers design the machines and production lines that build the Mercedes.



OK, then why should we, the online coffee community, devote anything like the verbiage we have to this topic of barista competitions? 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 have no doubt that what you say is true about the great majority of drinks served, even in signature cafes, being flavored lattes and the like. In order to tolerate and even enjoy such a work environment, the barista needs to enjoy working with the public and being a showman. This makes the barista competitions even less useful in the real world as they are not emphasizing the skills that would make a successful real life barista. In support of this one could note that the current USBC is in fact a web designer for Intelly, not a regular shift barista. Others finalists include a trainer, who presumably does not spent too much of her time serving line drinks to the public.

If you were running a cafe and you wanted to hire someone to work as barista, would you rather have someone who could do well in a competition, a very unnatural and other-world situation, or would you rather have someone who smiles a lot and likes to banter with customers, who remembers their favorite drinks, and makes them feel welcome? Those skills are the skills that will be most transferable for these people to other jobs in the real world, that will make them successful people in the long run. The fact that 90% of the drinks they actually make don't even allow one to "taste" the espresso inside is in further support of my position.

ken
What, me worry?



Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

mikep

Postby mikep » Sep 27, 2006, 12:16 pm

Ken Fox wrote:Maybe ... we should put the same amount of effort into improving the quality of espresso one might randomly find in a randomly selected independent cafe?



How exactly could this be accomplished?

Nick

Postby Nick » Sep 27, 2006, 1:26 pm

I love the arrogance reflected in your o.p. Ken. I don't mean that facetiously. These online pseudo-communities of ours feed off of said arrogance, my own included. Speaking of which:

Do you think that you have indeed gathered enough evidence out there to confidently report that barista competitions haven't made a difference in quality of coffee served out there at all? Do you believe that you've travelled more than I have? I can tell you with full-confidence that I can name at least 25 coffeebars off the top of my head (and more with some time) that would point to barista competitions as being a major influencer in their improved quality in-shop.

I'm sorry that we aren't accomplishing our stated purposes quickly enough for your Ken-Foxian timetable. The fact is, love takes time. True and significant change takes time. Barista competitions are merely one part of a diverse and multi-faceted coffee-cultural shift, and nobody is claiming that competitions are the end-all that you would have us be.

The good news is, you don't have to give a sh*t. Nobody is asking for your approval. The barista competitions, in their current iteration, are indeed about the professional community. You, as a consumer, are engaged in the community only for your own whims, so it is entirely appropriate that you should pick and choose what ways you "consume." However, do realize that you choose to besmirch the efforts and endeavors of the very people, baristas, companies and organizations who you are apparently looking to for things to suit your fancy. You chose to post this thread for a certain reason, and it is certainly within your rights to do so. But I can fathom no such reason beyond those that tend toward the masturbatory.

I've appreciated immensely the contributions of enthusiast consumers, notably Mark Prince, Dan Kehn, Andy Schecter, Greg Scace, Jim Schulman, Abe Carmelli, and others who have chosen to engage the professional community as a resource and asset. Please note that I am not lumping all enthusiast-consumers together.
Nick
wreckingballcoffee.com
nickcho.com

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Compass Coffee
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Postby Compass Coffee » Sep 27, 2006, 1:48 pm

Well said Nick! And for the record I'm another home enthusiast who applauds the efforts of barista like you.

And greatly appreciated former USBC Champion Phuong Tran opening up her shop for a private visit of home enthusiasts Labor Day. Personally I gained a lot from her Signature drink milk infusion ideas, things I can and have applied entertaining at home.
Mike McGinness, Head Bean (Owner/Roast Master)
http://www.CompassCoffeeRoasting.com

Ken Fox

Postby Ken Fox » Sep 27, 2006, 2:28 pm

Nick wrote:I love the arrogance reflected in your o.p. Ken. I don't mean that facetiously. These online pseudo-communities of ours feed off of said arrogance, my own included. Speaking of which:

Do you think that you have indeed gathered enough evidence out there to confidently report that barista competitions haven't made a difference in quality of coffee served out there at all? Do you believe that you've travelled more than I have? I can tell you with full-confidence that I can name at least 25 coffeebars off the top of my head (and more with some time) that would point to barista competitions as being a major influencer in their improved quality in-shop.

I'm sorry that we aren't accomplishing our stated purposes quickly enough for your Ken-Foxian timetable. The fact is, love takes time. True and significant change takes time. Barista competitions are merely one part of a diverse and multi-faceted coffee-cultural shift, and nobody is claiming that competitions are the end-all that you would have us be.

The good news is, you don't have to give a sh*t. Nobody is asking for your approval. The barista competitions, in their current iteration, are indeed about the professional community. You, as a consumer, are engaged in the community only for your own whims, so it is entirely appropriate that you should pick and choose what ways you "consume." However, do realize that you choose to besmirch the efforts and endeavors of the very people, baristas, companies and organizations who you are apparently looking to for things to suit your fancy. You chose to post this thread for a certain reason, and it is certainly within your rights to do so. But I can fathom no such reason beyond those that tend toward the masturbatory.

I've appreciated immensely the contributions of enthusiast consumers, notably Mark Prince, Dan Kehn, Andy Schecter, Greg Scace, Jim Schulman, Abe Carmelli, and others who have chosen to engage the professional community as a resource and asset. Please note that I am not lumping all enthusiast-consumers together.



25 decent cafes don't amount to squat. There is one decent cafe within 160 miles of me, one that Bogie-san (and no, you are not long in this enough yourself to remember HIM, are you) told me about. It is in Boise and was good years ago and remains so. There has been zero impact of the Barista competitions on that place. They knew how to make espresso then, and they know it now.

Sure, if you go to a handful of cities with decent cafes, you can get good espresso. And maybe a handful of them have gained something from these competitions. We are not talking brain surgery here, we are talking about attention to detail with espresso making skills that any of thousands of Italian baristas have known for decades. We have the advantage of arguably better blends over here in N. America, and we SHOULD, with those same skills, make even better drinks, but we don't.

The problem is not that people don't make good enough signature drinks or can't perform on some stage to suit the "judges." The problem is basic training in espressomaking skills, like grinding, distribution, using fresh coffee, packing, tamping, a modicum of attention to temperature control, stuff like that.

Your beloved competitions, in which you presumably compete for the benefits they would offer you in advertising your own business, are completely transparent and self-serving.

As to your definition of the list of people who's posts you have found useful, intentionally leaving out my name (obviously) I can say that you have yet to post anything that I have found useful, either.

Respectfully,

ken
What, me worry?



Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

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another_jim
Team HB

Postby another_jim » Sep 27, 2006, 2:41 pm

Ken Fox wrote:OK, then why should we, the online coffee community, devote anything like the verbiage we have to this topic of barista competitions? 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?



You never had the espresso at the SCAA conventions before there was a BGA booth? Drop around $750, go to the biggest coffee convention on earth, and nothing but wretched shots. Drop another $500, attend the espresso training workshops, and get taught how to produce 15 second gushers with mounds of stiff foam.

The BGA and barista competitions have had one simple effect on my everyday shot making. Four years ago, the coffee world, as I knew it, was a simple place. If you wanted the best espresso on the planet (BEP), you came to my place, or the homes of a few other amateurs. All of a sudden, there's there's these barista competitions and the BGA. At first I'm thinking, "yeah whatever, the bush leagues' world series." Then I taste some of these guys' shots, and I'm scrambling to keep up.

And what was the BEP four years ago? The on-line community had reached a plateau and wasn't going anywhere: Rockies and Silvias, home roast of DIY blends from SM, usually with way too much Monsooned Malabar, and the only cafe anyone talked about was Vivace. Our BEP wasn't bad; but even the Haikus About Cherry-Blossoms Society could boast of more variety.

That complacency was shared by the SCAA espresso people, hence the abysmal shots and training courses.

I'm not one to talk about causes. But things started to change very rapidly after Doug Zell and then other roasters and cafes reached out to the on-line community, and we responded. The pros were shocked, and complained very loudly, at the contempt in which they were held by us. Those of us who were in on it were equally shocked at how varied the specialty coffee world was, and what pains the top people were taking. The upshot is that the top quality rung of the SCAA has found that they could be successful by emphasizing and competing on quality. The on-line community isn't their only market by a long way, and they were doing quality long before they met us, but we are the vocal part providing most of the customer feedback. This odd sum is more than its parts. The lines of influence are hard to trace; but I'm convinced they exist. My coffee practice, and even more my standards, have improved dramatically since all this hit; and so have the standards at the top roasters and cafes.

The last four years have seen a "race for the top" when it comes to coffee quality. The BGA and barista competition are a part of this new landscape.
Jim Schulman

PeterG

Postby PeterG » Sep 27, 2006, 3:06 pm

While I hesitate to post to this thread for some reason....

Ken, to rephrase Nick's point, you can't possibly believe that Bogie-san's cafe being good independent of Barista Competitions is any evidence of anything. It is one cafe, in isolation. That is like saying that New York City is insignificant because some guy from Tulsa has never been there.

In the previous breath, you describe 25 cafes as being "squat". It's not squat, man, it's 25 cafes.

Of course, though, it is far more significant than that. As a vendor of quality coffee and an advocate of good technique, I know that the competitions are significant. We Americans are competitors by nature, and the existence of a contest is enough to spur some baristas towards self-improvement. Over the course of the year, we have been able to train saying "Lem Butler won the SERBC using this technique"; it carries more weight when training baristas.

And you're forgetting about the baristas that choose to watch rather than participate. You can bet that they are incorporating techniques and standards that they learn by watching into their daily routine.

And you're forgetting that for the 3 days of the competition, I get to stand up there and, between competitors, preach the "gospel" of quality coffee to the friends, relatives, and curious observers that came to see the show.

And you're forgetting that the existence of these competitions have led to increased penetration of quality espresso equipment in the marketplace, and has perhaps driven some quality improvement, too. (I expect some argument on this point, after all you're Ken Fox)

And you're forgetting that the existence of these competitions has driven standards development in espresso.

And you're forgetting that the drive to compete has significantly changed the understanding of how green coffee farming and selection impact espresso. (we had 2 coffee farmers at the SERBC, paying close attention)

Of course, the most significant thing to me is that the competitions made it so that people treat a barista like Lem Butler like the skilled culinary professional he is, rather than a PBTC. You can bet that the shots are better at his shop then before the competitions. In fact, when I moved here, there was only one shop where you could get a great shot. Now there are perhaps 5. THAT IS A FIVEFOLD INCREASE!! Is it because of the barista comps? Is it because of better availabilty of training? Is it because passionate coffee people decided to open shops in this region? Is it because of a general rising tide of coffee awareness? Is it perhaps all of these things, acting in synergy??? I get that you travel, but you are just plain wrong that there are not more, better shops now then there were 5 years ago. And, although it is probably impossible to prove without a sophisticated economic analysis, it seems to me that the comps have played a part in this change for the better.

You say that a barista will never amount to anything, career-wise. Speaking as someone who began as a barista, and still considers himself a barista, I consider myself one of the many who prove you wrong. Furthermore, I would challenge you to look some of these baristas in the eye when they are listening to the applause before you claim that the comps don't improve the standing of the professional barista.

You don't care about the comps, that's fine. I don't care that you don't care. But we're having a great time being immersed in this cool corner of coffee culture, and someday I hope you'll join us.

Peter G
counter culture coffee