This post was meant to be posted on Thursday (I wrote myself an editorial calendar. Will probably take two months for me to actually transition to it). But it doesn’t matter, it’s still timely and the past weekend’s Big Central has only reinforced my opinion below.

Three years ago, I was embarrassed to admit that I streamed barista competitions on my computer.  Now, I proudly shout it out:




I’m in awe of anyone who competes. Have you seen the rulebook? It’s freakishly long and detailed. And have you watched any of the signature drink creations? People light things on fire, create the strangest mixes, drop glassware, lose ingredients, and even spill drinks. I don’t remember the industry paying that much attention to the competition three years ago, but maybe it’s because I wasn’t absorbed in it. Or maybe it’s because Twitter didn’t exist so the community commentary wasn’t as real-time and conversational. The first time I heard that barista competitions existed, I thought to myself, “That is the dumbest thing ever. What do they do, make coffee?” But there are many stranger kinds of competitions. If we start jumping rabbits while floor swimming & making coffee, then we should be concerned about the direction of our industry. I’ve since embraced the competitions and what they stand for.

Every industry, if they want to be taken seriously, has “levels.” In coffee, we have many different roles, none are “better” than the next, per se. One might be more attuned to the methodical nature of roaster while another is better geared toward the interactive, people-skill nature of a sales rep. For those who love being a barista, the “levels” may be barista, shift leader, barista trainer, cafe manager. Those who love educating and have a competitive streak may enter into barista competitions. From what I’ve gathered, the competitions are not competitive. Say what? The recurring theme for this weekend’s Big Central (north+south regional competition in Kansas City this year) was “community.” During the pre- and post-routine interviews, the baristas often gave thanks to coffee friends who traveled to watch them, others who trained them, the community for supporting them. Even if said coffee friend was competing, thanks was still given. I find this absolutely fascinating. How many industries out there support their own? I know the restaurant business is competitive. Modeling has got to be competitive. And sports thrive on being competitive. Coffee hasn’t become too elitist quite yet and you can sense the camaraderie, even from a live stream. This peer support works greatly in our favor.

We need competitions and their strict rules to help establish the barista as a professional career. Too often, we go through the pains of the below conversation:

Customer: “So what do you want to do after this?”

Barista: “I want to work in coffee.”

Customer: “No, really. What do you want to do?”

Hm. To Americans, the barista is a service job. It’s a mere handoff of frothy drinks and vessel for caffeine. But to career baristas, it’s their life and passion. How can we make customers understand this? I’d like to propose a few items, perhaps shops are already doing this (if so, very cool!):

  • Invite customers to a practice round
  • Feature a slow-bar. Dedicate a block of time to talking to customers on a topic you care about
  • Feature the competitor’s drink when they return and make signage about it
  • Organize additional prep competitions throughout the year and invite food-centric bloggers/reviewers to attend

More people drink coffee than craft beer (don’t quote me on this), so why is the idea of a craft beer competition more soundly acceptable than a coffee competition? Let’s close this gap between barista and customer. But first, we need to get everyone on board. We can’t have people who hate on competitions and can’t recognize that they exist for a reason: to give ourselves street cred. We need to keep supporting each other, collaborating and sharing tips. Realize that baristas take a lot of time and effort to compete. Share that realization with customers. Get them enthused and asking questions about coffee! Maybe you’ll turn someone into a competitor. After all, customer Katerina Babinski entered this year as a competitor. She’s my coffee hero!

This year, I watched two of the three competition days from my couch. Today, for the finals, I spent it with a few other coffee geeks, cheering on Chicago competitors. Next year, who knows? Maybe there will be a crowd watching remotely, none embarrassed to say that they watch barista competitions.

This post is for #blogchallengewk4