I want to start off by stating that what is about to follow comes from someone who cares for the World Barista Championship (WBC) and that first of all, I believe there is a lot that is right with the WBC. It is providing an avenue for baristas globally to aspire to do a better job. It is improving the awareness of the complexity of espresso coffee. The WBC is making baristas aware of the need to know more and of the need to become coffee professionals who understand all aspects of the coffee business including growing, and cupping and roasting.
The WBC also provides an avenue for coffee companies that usually provide the finance behind a competing barista, to build a culture of highly trained baristas within their organization. Should the coffee company's barista be lucky enough to win the WBC, then the promotional opportunities continue to expand for the company and the winning barista.
So the WBC is delivering on its mission statement:
- To promote the growth, excellence & recognition in the Barista profession.
- To grow the Barista's knowledge of and expertise in, the preparation and serving of specialty, espresso coffee through competitions.
- To promote the knowledge and consumption of specialty coffee to the consumer through the Barista.
- To become globally recognised as the premier World Barista Event in the coffee calendar.
Some people would disagree with the idea that the knowledge of specialty coffee is being passed onto the consumer through competitions as they are mainly targeted at the trade. Certainly the competition format is not very consumer friendly and is pretty boring for most outsiders.
Yet there is some incidental promotion of specialty coffee knowledge via publicity of the events and better informed baristas. But there are some more worrying aspects to the WBC apart from this.
For those who aren't aware of why I may be qualified to offer constructive criticism of the WBC, I have been the one and only formally appointed Executive Director of the WBC and have been involved, with the exception of Tokyo in every World Championship since the start at Monte Carlo in 2000.
One of the reasons I resigned as Executive Director was because of legal advice I received that my position was commercially unfair. To put it in more plain terms, I would have been taking a lot of risk with no guarantee of any financial return ever, at any point. The board - and more disturbingly anyone who wanted to manipulate the board - could intervene and change a decision that could result in honest undertakings given to potential sponsors not being delivered. This is an untenable way to operate.
One of the issues here is a boring sounding topic, but a highly important one - corporate governance: Let me provide some examples in the form of questions: How are directors appointed and for what reasons? How long are they appointed for? What skill sets are required for the Board members? What about international legal qualifications, marketing, finance, administration, IT and the rest?
This spring, one half of the entire WBC board resigned on mass. Four directors resigning together is serious cause for concern for any organization. Yet barely anything has been said publicly about this en-masse resignation. And I know that these people had some good skill sets in international business.
When I was Executive Director of the WBC I was aware that something was not quite right with the way the position was being managed. As it turned out one of the board members at the time was subsequently put under criminal investigation for embezzlement of the SCAA. (ed note: this investigation is still underway, and the SCAA should have some public details available this fall once it is completed; at this time, there is no reason to believe the embezzlement case has any ties to the WBC).
That's pretty serious stuff. I hope there is nothing of this kind of nature involved in the resignation of the four board members. I am sure there is nothing wrong in the board members themselves as it seems they were taking a correct stand on principle, perhaps somewhat like the one I was forced to do when I resigned. But it is a concern that the people manipulating events behind the scenes have forced their hands into taking such a step. And because of the lack of public communication about these resignations, imaginations tend to run and speculate on their own.
If I can provide another example of where some faults lie within the WBC, I'm reminded of a recent event. At the recent SCAA Trade show in Minneapolis, one of the bidding sponsors for the WBC machine contract was bemoaning the fact of how the machine trial was conducted. He was talking to Don Holly who was one of the original, visionary people responsible for the inception of the WBC.
The machine vendor's words were a passionate cry about how the WBC can be improved. As a potential machine sponsor he couldn't believe that the coffee tasting part of the trial that they had been promised was simply abandoned mid-course. It wasn't because of the quality of baristas. There was a world champion and a couple of US barista champions pulling the shots. I believe it had to do with the narrow view of brewing temperature that has been adopted by the WBC. There is a more detailed discussion going on about this on the Espresso Quest website.
So how was the current WBC position on espresso brewing temperature decided and by whom and when? Willy Hansen a member of the technical committee agreed that there are other better tasting temperature profiles than the one being used now. But how are these kind of issues addressed and changed for the better?
The WBC can be improved in lots of other ways to build it as a valuable enterprise for the Specialty Coffee Associations who own it. For instance the fifteen minute time-frame for competition should be shortened to ten minutes or at least no more than twelve minutes as it was for the first Championship in Monte Carlo. This would make it more relevant and put the focus back on coffee rather than other superfluous distractions.
One of the other improvements to the WBC put forward in a detailed business plan I presented four years ago was to administer the world via three sections i.e. 1. The Americas; 2. Europe/Africa and 3. Asia Pacific. I still believe this would be a positive step to help instil a world-focused culture and manage the WBC better. Doing this would also have to carry through to every part of the organization including the board - and who sits on the board - to ensure there are no deadlocks as seems to have happened recently.
As the WBC continues to grow it will attract increasing amounts of money, and it will increasingly attract people wanting to get their hands on it. It is vital that corporate governance is addressed in a healthy and constructive way to ensure that large sums of money are protected and not mismanaged or - God forbid - even embezzled. It is just as important that the tiny details of espresso are addressed in the same constructive way so the full potential of the WBC can be realized.
What the resignation of these four good board members means is that there needs to be a radical overhaul of the management of the WBC to prevent potential mal-administration from occurring and to change the things that need to be improved in a cohesive positive way.
Certainly no-one who cares for the welfare of the coffee industry would want a repeat of the financial disaster that occurred with the SCAA in recent years to occur with the WBC. This is more important than ever now and if it is done decisively, the future of the WBC can be fantastic.
Instaurator is an author, coffee educator, and competition judge who has travelled the world because of coffee. He is a former Executive Director of the WBC, a WBC and CoE Judge, and works as a consultant and for Michele's Espresso and Patisserie in Australia. He can be reached at email@example.com
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