In the year 2000, the beautiful mind of Mr. Alf Kramer decided to create a world championship for baristi. Based on the format of the Norwegian barista competition, I believe the main idea was to create a marketing tool for speciality coffee. Another goal was to create an event where coffee people could meet and have some fun, yet in the 2005 World Barista Championship (WBC) finals in Seattle enjoyment was not what I found.
After travelling to many countries to participate as a judge in various national barista competitions I have experienced many things that indicate a decrease of interest in the barista competitions.
First of all the press is not showing up any more. Barista competitions are yesterday's news in many countries. In Norway where the whole competition format started in 1998, we faced another problem in 2006, we barely managed to arrange the competition due to lack of sponsors and volunteers. Even the audience is getting smaller and by looking at their faces I can tell they are not having much fun.
While I was in Moscow in March, watching the Russian barista competition, something came to my mind; I couldn't see the barista. There were 7 judges, 1 camera man, a speaker, a time keeper and a runner on stage and they were all running around and hiding the poor barista who tried to perform at her best. I said to myself "No wonder this is not a very audience friendly barista competition, I can't see the barista at all"
In some countries like Russia, the sponsors are more willing to support the more audience friendly latte art competitions than the main event, which should be the barista competition. Is this what we want? Is the future of espresso and speciality coffee going to be simple drawings and milk patterns in a cappuccino? Then what about the taste and quality of the coffee?
I believe that something needs to be done. But where do we start? What do we want the WBC to be? What is wrong with today's format and to whom do we address these issues?
Rules and regulations
If you read the WBC judges' rules and regulations there are many things that makes sense, but there are numerous rules that seems to have nothing to do with the WBC mission statement at all. Still there are reasons for the rules to be there. It all started as an idea that the WBC could be a training tool.
In fact one of the WBC's objectives is "to grow the Barista's knowledge of and expertise in, the preparation and serving of specialty, espresso coffee through competitions." In many countries that are arranging the barista competition for the first time, the average competitor does not have a clue what the competition or what espresso is all about. The level can be as bad as serving cappuccinos with whipped cream instead of steamed milk, or even to serve 50 ml. espresso shots extracted in 2 seconds.
While most will agree that these baristi needs some basic training and that starting with introducing the WBC standards is a good idea, I am not certain that creating narrow standards is the best idea for the future of espresso culture and speciality coffee. How can the baristi be creative when the rules and regulations are so comprehensive?
In my opinion, the fact that there are so many different ways of serving and preparing espresso based drinks is what makes the espresso culture interesting. Preparing and serving espresso is a craft. If we set too many standards for this craft, the baristi will end up becoming a super automatic machine instead of being a creative, knowledgeable and passionate barista.
The WBC standards are so excessive that there are rules and regulations not only about the shape and the colour of the cups used, but also what the barista should do at the start of his or her presentation: Quote : "At the start of the competitors competition time, he/she will introduce him/herself and make eye contact with each of the four Sensory Judges and the Head judge...."
Talk about being open to cultural differences and to foster creativity. If all competitors in the WBC end up doing the same performance with the same glassware and the only thing they can be creative about is the signature drink and what coffees they use, well I think I might zap and watch the latte art channel instead.
Take the technical score sheet for instance. Do we really need to judge the baristi technically? What do technical qualities matter if the espresso tastes excellent anyway. Does the customer care about the technique of the barista? And is it not so that bad technique will give you a less appreciated result in the cup? I realize that there is a certain need for specific guidelines for the barista to follow in order to get consistency in his / her technique and therefore more easily gain knowledge of the espresso craft. It is also a great training tool for both new and experienced baristi. Still there are so many different techniques practiced that in the end, judging what is right or wrong seems like an impossible job.
More rules and regulations
The words "cultural differences" is often used in the WBC rules and regulations. Still the technical score sheet for the 2006 WBC has the criteria of "correct dosing and tamping". In my opinion this is impossible to judge as "correct" because there are so many ways of dosing practiced throughout the world and I prefer to use different ones depending on the coffee I use and the flavour I want to create.
It is even written in the judge's rules and regulations that "the technical judge must understand how to evaluate each type of roast in relation to taste and correctness in the basket e.g. - this area of judging requires extensive knowledge of coffee roast profiling." Is it just me or does this sound out of this world. Does this mean that the judge has to have expert knowledge in profile roasting, cupping and preparing espresso?
In my opinion the technical judge cannot possibly evaluate this, as he or she will never taste the beverages prepared. Even if they did taste the espresso, how can they be able to say it is correct or not? If a barista wanted to use 3 different coffees for the 3 different drinks prepared and practice different dosing on the different blends to create various flavour profiles, he will more likely be punished by the judges for his inconsistent dosing than rewarded for his insight in different dosing techniques and for his conscious dosing and in depth coffee knowledge. (Unfortunately, according to the rules, the barista is restricted to use only 2 grinders during the presentation, making it quite difficult for the competitor who wants to treat the judges with 3 different coffee flavours. Is restrictions like these a great way of promoting speciality coffees grown throughout the world?)
What if a barista is able to pull the best espresso ever made on planet earth in a 19 second extraction? He / she will loose 1 point per judge because of the required 20 to 30 second extraction time. Does this mean that he / she has to compromise the espresso quality to be able to meet the WBC standards and have a chance to become the world champion? The answer is definitely, yes.
I remember when I created my espresso blend for the WBC in Trieste, I actually had a recipe for (in my opinion) a much better tasting espresso blend than the blend I competed with. The reason I did not use the superior one was because the blend's poor persistence of the crema. The delicate crema tended to break up within 30 seconds after brewing. This means I would have lost a lot of points in the competition because of the following reasons; the judges are judging the crema and want it to last as long as a 100% robusta blend and have the colour of a 100% arabica blend.
This means that consistency, persistence and colour of crema is almost as important as the taste of the espresso. But isn't taste the most important criteria? I could of course have served the espresso immediately after brewing but this means I had to serve only 2 espressos at the time and not 4 as the rules require. How did this rule ever come up? Isn't the meaning of the word espresso, to serve and prepare the coffee "exprès pour vous" ? It is even written in the competitor rules and regulations that "Espressos should be prepared specifically for the judges, and immediately served." So why do the barista have to serve the drinks 4 by 4 and let two of them wait as he / she prepares the other two?
Just one more rule
The best example of how these rules are created is to look at the rule that came up in Seattle 2005. It suddenly said "There should be no "pucks" or "cakes" left in the portafilter at the start of the competitors' competition time." There were many baristi and judges that did not like this rule, and I am one of them.
After testing this for a long time I am convinced that leaving the puck inside the filter is better for the quality of the espresso. Mainly because of better preservation of the heat in the filter basket and also to prevent metallic flavours in the espresso. I realize that leaving the puck in the filter for a long period of time is not good for the espresso quality, as the oils in the filter will become rancid. This was the main argument by the people responsible for the judge's certification too.
I remember they said "As customers in a cofeeshop we don't know how long that puck has stayed in the filter." Well, one thing is for sure. In the WBC, that puck has not stayed there for more than a maximum of 15 minutes during the preparation time. Do we really need to imagine every possible "everyday scenario" in order to create more rules for the competitors so that they will have a harder time gaining points in the competitions? Is creating more rules the right focus in order to fulfill the WBC statement; "to promote the growth, excellence & recognition in the Barista profession."?
If you watch a barista competition you might start to wonder if it really is a barista competition. It sometimes appears more like a judge competition. I do not disagree. (There are 7 of them on stage and only 1 barista.) After judging for some time in various competitions it sometimes looks like the judges are competing in giving the lowest score or to be recognized as the strictest judge on the planet.
Even in the WBC finals you rarely see the judges putting down the score 6 and 5. I have even seen judges put the score 1 on a signature drink in the finals, because they did not listen to what the barista had to say about the flavour profile of the drink. How can a world-class barista get 1 on the taste criteria of the signature drink in the WBC finals? I have even seen working stations that seems untouched at the competitors competition start time where the judges will put down a 4 on the clean working area score.
Even if you dress in a tuxedo and have the most pleasant appearance in the universe, you barely see a score better than 5 in the appropriate apparel category. Is this the way to encourage the competitors? If the judges are not willing to give the score 6 in a WBC final, then when or where else should the score 6 be given?
What is even more provoking is that during the debriefing that took place after the 2005 WBC finals, where the competitors got a chance to have a look at their score sheets for 5 minutes with a judge present, most of the judges did not show up. I believe that giving feedback to the competitors is one of the most important tasks for the judges. So why did they not show up? Are they too embarrassed to show the competitors the score they gave them?
After competing in the WBC 3 times, I have yet to see my score sheets, even if I have asked for them several times. Why all the secrecy? Doesn't it say in the WBC mission statement "to grow the Barista's knowledge of and expertise in, the preparation and serving of specialty espresso coffee through competitions."? It should be compulsory for a WBC judge to participate in these debriefings and why not give the competitors their score sheets right after the competition. Maybe the WBC could hand out a copy of the full length video tape of the barista's performance so that they could have a good memory on tape to show their grandchildren once they get older.
During a discussion I had with Mr. Alf Kramer, he suggested to create an open scoring system for the WBC where the judges have to show their scores to the audience right after the competitor has finished his / her presentation. It is already practiced and working in sporting events such as ski jumping and even in the latte art world championship. I believe it would be even more exciting for the audience to watch and the scoring will be totally transparent. By introducing an open scoring system, the judges really have to answer for what scores they are giving and this will make it more difficult for a corrupt judge to give scores in favour of his or her own interest. Imagine if we changed the barista competition's scoring format in to the one used in ski jumping competitions. The finalists would keep their scores from the semi-finals and the first competitor out would be the one with the lowest score and the last man competing is the one with the highest score. Perhaps that would add some excitement to it.
Are you experienced?
The speciality coffee business is getting more and more in to various certifications. For example you can buy bird friendly, fair trade and organic certified coffees, yet there are no guarantees for this certified coffee to be a good tasting one. In other words, certification is not the answer to everything, and it is definitely not synonymous with quality.
The reason why I am bringing this up is that I believe we are facing the same problem with the certification of the WBC judges. Up until this day, there are no other quality assurance of the judges except a written test and a sensory skills test. But what does this have anything to do with judging the quality of an espresso and a barista? I remember taking the sensory skills test in Seattle during the 2005 WBC, and I did not pass the criteria of 70% correct on the last test. This means I am not a WBC certified judge.
After talking to my friends who were at the same test, many of them simply guessed the answers because the test was quite difficult. (Even Mark Prince, king of coffeegeek.com, claims he guessed at least half the test, and passed.) Some of them passed and others did not. However, many people doubt that this test is relevant to be able to judge in the WBC? Why do we have to recognize different levels of salt sweet and sour in order to differentiate a good espresso from a bad one? Why was bitter, one of the most important tastes for evaluation of the quality of espresso coffee, left out?
How can a person that is still (after the judges workshop) unable to separate an over extracted espresso from a well prepared espresso get certified as a judge by guessing on a sensory skills test and answer some questions in a written test. How can a person that has judged in only 1 competition in their entire life get certified while other persons who have judged hundreds of competitors, and even competed them selves, not get certified? Is it only me that believe there is something wrong with this picture?
I believe we need more experienced baristas to judge in the WBC, just like there are only experienced chefs judging in the Bocuse d'Or
"Knock knock! Who's there? The Future."
Many people might be comfortable with the WBC the way it is today. In my opinion the format needs to be changed dramatically in order for the WBC fulfill the goal "to become globally recognised as the premier World Barista Event in the coffee calendar." If the trend in Norway and Russia is an indication of what is to come for the WBC, then I am afraid that we need to do something, and fast. Changing the WBC over night is impossible, but changes will not happen if someone does not push things forward. So where do we start?
Finance is important for the competition to grow and survive. How can we possibly make the competition even more interesting for sponsors to support the WBC? One option might be to let grinder manufacturers sponsor the competition with grinders and funding. Of course if this shall be interesting for a grinder manufacturer then we need to force the competing baristi to use the sponsored grinders in the competition, just like with the espresso machines. I know many baristi will object to this suggestion, but in my opinion, if you are a world-class barista, then shouldn't you be able to use any espresso grinder on the market? The baristi are even given a great amount of practice time in order to test the equipment provided, etc.
Another idea might be to open for use of alcohol in the signature drink. That is if we want to continue serving the signature drink. Personally I am not a great fan of signature drinks, mainly because I rarely taste something that is fantastic and secondly because I do not think it is relevant to the craft we are practicing behind the espresso machine in our coffee shops every day. How often do you see a professional barista make a signature drink to a customer in a coffee shop?
I know that being a barista is much more than just serving espresso drinks. So, maybe we should create a whole different segment in the competition. What if we asked the competing the baristi to create "the ultimate coffee experience" where all senses should be stimulated. One of the primary goals of the WBC is "to promote the knowledge and consumption of specialty coffee to the consumer through the Barista."
Creating "the ultimate coffee experience" would be a great way of doing this and it would also be a great way to challenge the barista's creative and communicative skills. They could use whatever brewing method they liked as long as they stayed within a certain timeframe. In my opinion this would be much more relevant for a professional barista compared to the working situation he / she has on a daily basis.
Another possible task could be to make the barista source the best possible coffee from a specific producing country. Let's imagine that India was the coffee sponsor for the WBC one year. Then all competitors would have to source the best Indian coffee they could get their hands on and prepare the ultimate espresso or other type of coffee beverage by using this coffee. This way it might be easier to get sponsorships from the various associations representing the producing countries.
The WBC committee could decide who to sponsor the next event by making a draw where all interested producing countries would be possible candidates. I am sure the Coffee Board of India would be happy to promote their coffees through an event like the WBC. Maybe they would even sponsor a field trip for the new world champion and use him / her as an inspiration for baristi in their home country?
Today the world champion gets a trophy and some glory by winning the WBC, but when the party is over he is on his own and it is up to himself to get something out of his newly achieved title. I have heard people suggesting that the WBC could create a marketing plan that involved using the champion for what he / she is worth up until the next competition. There could for example be arranged trainings with the champion during the next WBC event, or even better, arrange workshops and trainings in countries that did not have a competing barista. Worst-case scenario is that someone would get inspired and actually learn something from it.
A lot of work has been done since Monte Carlo 2000 and we are all grateful for the time and effort that has been put down in the WBC by numerous persons and volunteers. The WBC has been a fantastic adventure so far and I believe the speciality coffee industry has changed a lot because of it and the WBC movement. So where do we go from here? Do we create more rules and regulations in order to create a manifest for espresso culture or do we need changes? Maybe there should be more guidelines instead of definite rules. Are we willing to change format or is it perfect the way it is today?
In this article I have addressed some of the many issues that I feel can be done differently in the future in the WBC. I am sure there must be many other good ideas and point of views out there too, and it would be great to discuss them all. But where can we discuss these ideas? Why isn't there a forum for the WBC at the WBC web page? Who do we contact in order to influence the future of the WBC?
There will be a general discussion among the different WBC committee members during the championships in Berne, but most of us are unable to go there and speak our minds because everything happens behind closed doors. Why isn't there more transparency in the WBC?
If you have any suggestions or ideas regarding the future of the WBC, I invite you to please leave feedback on this article, but also you can e-mail WBC board member Tone Elin Liavaag at firstname.lastname@example.org or me as a candidate for the next WBC board at email@example.com . Get up stand up!
This article is a reprint form VivaBarista with permission. Matt Miletto is currently featuring this article at the same time, but we felt it was such an important message, we wanted to get it out to as many people as possible before this year's WBC in Berne.