Suggestions for a new barista competition format

Mark@CoffeeGeek
8 min readJun 25, 2015

As you may or may not know, the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has ended all regional barista competitions in the United States, keeping only the profitable (or at least sustaining) United States Barista Championship, the national championship that sends its victor to the World Barista Championships.

Now if you don’t care one iota about barista competitions, or don’t know anything about them, you should stop reading right here. Well, let me change that — if you don’t know anything about them but want to know more, continue reading.

I’ve long been critical of the way formal, national barista championships have been run, both in Canada and the US. I was involved early on — I was the first Canadian to fully qualify as a World Barista Championship judge, passing the sensory skills test; I was one of the earliest Canadians involved in judging in the USBC and US regional competitions, and I was involved, albeit slightly, in the founding of the Canadian Barista Championship. But I quit judging national competitions in 2007, and I quit judging regional competitions in 2008 because the SCAA was in the process of taking them over.

My main criticism always surrounded the fact that barista competitions did not meet one of their highest mission statement goals: that is, to increase awareness and appreciation for the craft of the barista and specialty coffee in the general public. The competitions were always kind of a big circle jerk (sorry for the phrase, but when it's a competition that mainly is preaching to the choir with little to no public outreach, that’s how I see it). The focus was much on the judges (7 of them and in 2006 and 2007 weren't even sitting down, but crowding around the sole barista, blocking the audience / public’s view) and as the rules changed, I felt it was no longer about actually finding the best skilled barista with the best coffees, but the barista who was best at accurately describing simplified espresso shots that were entirely repeatable and flavour-accessible.

Anyways, I digress. Along with all the drama yesterday on twitter and other social media, about SCAA playing favoritism, secret memos and the like, there were calls from people asking how would you change and update barista competitions? How would you engage the public, bring new sponsors in, revitalise it?

Here are some of my suggestions — some ideas I've shared for years, some I've never put pen to paper for yet. The key involves bringing new coffee oriented bodies into the competition: roasters, grinder manufacturers, and even cup makers.

A Competition Coffee Blend (or Single Origin)

I’m getting ahead of myself here, but I think one way to really revitalise the barista competitions and create a brand new way to celebrate fantastic roasters is to have an official coffee that must be used for the espresso and cappuccino rounds in competitions.

I know… I know what you must be thinking. WTF. This doesn’t celebrate the barista, their cafe / roastery, their sourcing of coffees, their ability to hone their craft on coffees they love! And what, some roaster’s just going to buy their way to a lot of PR in competitions?

No, no, no, no, and no. As I said, I got ahead of myself. And you’ll have to read along to get the full picture, which I’ll recap at the bottom of this article.

I am a huge fan of “sprodowns”. Not latte art throwdowns, but sprodowns. What is a sprodown? These happen at local barista jams and the like, where there’s one coffee in the grinder, one espresso machine, and visiting baristas, most of them (if not all) unfamiliar with said coffee, grinder, and machine, step up, get some practice shots, attempt to dial in everything, and do their best to pull a shot.

This to me, is a real and honest test of someone’s skills with coffee. You really have to know and understand the espresso process to win something like this. You really need to know how to taste and evaluate a shot, then make adjustments to fix problems, to win this kind of contest. You have to be a capital B Barista to do well in a sprodown. It’s the epitome of a Barista Creed I proposed over a decade ago.

Translating this all to barista competitions, I thought a great way to revitalise them and move back to literally trying to find the best skilled barista would be to standardize to one coffee (or blend), one grinder, one espresso machine. Give each competitor 5 or 10lbs of coffee to practice with on the day leading up to their competition time, and just make sure the grinders on the competition floor are full of said coffee (or blend) for every competitor’s round. Competitors would have to use the same coffee. The same grinder. The same espresso machine. Judges could be calibrated by a past-champion barista pulling said coffee, but give that calibration barista much more time to get to know said coffee and only serve the shots he or she is happy with, so the judges can set a baseline.

And do this for both the espresso round, and the cappuccino round (heck, standardize the milk used too, and get sponsorship for that!).

“Oh, this takes away from….” yada yada. But I’ve got more. I don’t know how the current judging forms are weighted for espresso / cappuccino / signature drink rounds, but with my proposed new format, at most, espresso and cappuccino would have 20% weight each (okay, maybe up to 25%). Leaving 50–60% weight for the (former) signature round. Which I’ll get to.

How to Pick the Coffee Used

Here’s where we introduce the real new element to barista competitions. A roaster competition precedes them. Organise a brand new, Cup of Excellence style competition for regional (and national) competition coffees. Have it a month before the barista competition, with lots of rules and regs (one rule — roasters cannot enter competitors into the barista comp, nor can they let any competing baristas get prior knowledge of the coffee or roast). Roasters would also have to commit to supplying 5 or 10lb of coffee per competitor, plus the competition coffee (so call it up to 500lbs? Maybe a lot less) that meets the quality and taste of the coffee they submitted for the roasting competition. Other commitments (time, money, people) from the winning roaster would also have to be decided, within reason.

How to judge such a thing? Engage past barista champions and finalists (pay them for cripes sakes, or at least cover their travel expenses) to be judges in the competition. Let these baristas pull shots themselves, or have a calibration barista do it. Or do both. Make this competition a big deal too, since it is a big deal — finding the best espresso-purposed coffee (or blend) in a region, or the country! — I can think of dozens and dozens of quality driven roasters who would be up for this kind of thing. There’s not much cost or outlay for the competition itself, a bigger cost if they win (because they have to supply coffee for the forthcoming barista competition) but the promotion, the gold seal of approval this would have for their marketing? Everyone would want to buy their coffee! I certainly would want to buy it!

You could do these kinds of competitions for regional barista championships, then let each regional roaster winner submit their coffees for the national competition. It could be awesome, and would really engage roasters into barista championships.

Last, but not least in this segment, there’s another benefit to having an “official coffee” used in barista competitions. It allows the public relatively easy access to tasting the coffees used in competition. Want to taste one of the best espressos in the country, one used in the whatever championship? You can order it here!

But it’s Supposed to be About the Baristas!

So if we introduce roasters into a more prominent role in barista competitions, are we diminishing the baristas? Not by my view. And one way to really boost up the “art of the barista” is the third round in the competition — the aforementioned, possibly former “signature drink” round.

I put forth that round would be completely overhauled. Baristas can use their own coffee choices. Can use their own grinder. Can use their own filter baskets if they want. Can use anything they want different, save the espresso machine. They no longer have to do an espresso based drink; if they want to serve siphon coffee for this round, let them do it. If they want pourover, ditto. Want cold brew? Sure why not. Want to just serve a single shot of espresso showing their own skill, mastery, savvy with the bean? Go for it. Want a complex signature drink like the olden days? Sure why not.

With this round having 50% of the “weight” in the judging score sheets, it become even more important, more crucial for a competitor to showcase their own ability to cut the edge as it were. The espresso and cappuccino rounds with standardized coffee, grinders and milk (and cups — I’ll get to that) showcase their base strengths and problem solving, evaluating, skilled baristas. The signature round (or whatever it would be called) instead would showcase their creativity and cutting edge knowledge of coffee.

Well there you have it — those are my biggest suggested changes to barista competitions. Open up a brand new roasters’ competition to find the best espresso-purposed coffee (or blend — go blends!) in a region or a country. Standardize the espresso and cappuccino rounds to give judges a better and easier way to evaluate a barista’s strengths and skills, and open up the sig round to new possibilities and big creativity.

Other Suggestions

I haven't really talked about how to engage the public more, or other ways to revitalise and invigorate barista competitions, but this article is getting so long, I'll just point form them here. I do have a lot more to say, but I’ll keep these brief.

  • New sponsor: Cup Manufacturers / Cup Sponsors. Use standardized cups in the capp / espresso rounds; brand them for the competition; make them exclusive to that competition (so all competitors get to take their set of cups home); Allow sponsor exclusive rights to sell a modified branded competition cup at event. Take the money and run.
  • Sit the Fuck Down. My longest standing “suggestion”: sensory judges should be seated in chairs (not stools) at a half-moon shaped or long rectangle, normal seating height table, backs to the audience; audience can see barista serving the judges head on, from elevated position, can see all they’re doing. Take focus away from judges. Make it seem like the barista is also addressing audience as well as judges.
  • Make it a requirement for all competing baristas to do a 2hr shift at a public-accessible espresso bar. They can pick their time in the schedule, 1st come, 1st served, but must do it at some point during the live competition. So the public can actually taste the coffee being served.
  • Hold these events in publicly accessible locations. I’ve seen other competitions in things (food, drink prep, fashion, music, etc) held in places like big shopping mall rotundas. Hold a barista competition in places like that with high public traffic!
  • Have a proper grinder sponsor who’s grinder will be used in capp / espresso rounds. Have a proper selection process to get a world class grinder in the role. I’m sure if grinder use is mandatory, it’ll be easier to get better sponsors.
  • Jim Hoffmann suggested this, and I like it — have judges do a short Q&A at the end of a barista’s round, and that Q&A would be scored as well.

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Mark@CoffeeGeek

Hello there. I like espresso. And coffee. And photography. And cocktails. And topical news. And espresso.