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The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
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Enkerli
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Posted Tue May 9, 2006, 7:45pm
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

nickcho Said:

And Mark, you seem to think that you have a lot of things figured out, including me.  You'd be wrong and wrong.  
. . .
And I'll see YOU in Bern too. :-)

Posted May 9, 2006 link

Will there be a broadcast of the fight? Or, better yet, a podcast/vidcast?
One Prince, One Cho, One Ring.

 
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Posted Tue May 9, 2006, 7:52pm
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

So, now that we're all feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside... ;-)

I guess this is one of the other topics that always comes up in relation to the comps: not everyone agrees on everything. I don't mean to sound patronising or anything, and I'd certainly defer to the greater expereince of others on this board, but we do need to remember that we're all in this for the same reason: we're trying to better our industry and the barista profession. I mean, sure, what we're doing is important but maybe take things with a pinch of salt and remeber that it's an evolving process....and then we all need to run skipping through a feild of daisies....

I kind of agree with Tim on the 'fun of competitions' issue here as well. Speaking only from my experience of the Australian Nationals: there were certainly a number of competitors who came along, ready to do their best but have fun with the competition as well. The majority of the competitors however were quite serious - the nerves and stress levels in the barista prep area were incredibly high. I'm not saying this as a slight to the competitors at all - I think that it's something to do with the culture of the competitions overall. We're seeing the nations best baristas put in significant time, energy and money into training themselves up for a 15min presentation. There can only be one winner from the comp. All other competitors seem devestated and their passion for coffee and being involved in events is highly diminished.

Unfortunately, I'm not insightful enough to have an answer to this issue right now except for everyone to chill and keep things in perspective. Any other thoughts on this area?

Just my 2c.

Cheers,
Ben
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Posted Tue May 9, 2006, 8:39pm
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

Again, a comment from an outsider. Never been a barista, never been to a barista comp, kept hearing about the USBC and WBC on the main podcasts, still not exactly sure about what they mean.
Tensions are part of competitions and they can be quite productive. But there's more to the current world of coffee than the number of points a barista can get in a competition. We all know that, but there seems to be a kind of tunnelling effect of a narrowing focus on making a barista something of a coffee gladiator.
Sorry, yet again, to be so blunt, but could somebody please explain to us laypeople what the real goals are?

Ok, we have the four parts of the WBC mission statement: professional promotion, expertise, consumer outreach, event:

  1. To promote the growth, excellence & recognition in the Barista profession.
  2. To grow the Barista’s knowledge of and expertise in, the preparation and serving of specialty, espresso coffee through competitions.
  3. To promote the knowledge and consumption of specialty coffee to the consumer through the Barista.
  4. To become globally recognised as the premier World Barista Event in the coffee calendar.

Nice. Now, what do these mean for the whole coffee industry?
  1. A barista isn't just an out-of-work actor who gets shots out of a machine.
  2. Documentation from the WBC and national competitions focuses on the preparation of espresso which will satisfy the demanding standards of real, true, authentic espresso drinkers.
  3. Café patrons can now feel good if they're part of the in-group.
  4. There are cool events to attend in the "coffee calendar."

Awesome. But, still...
  1. There are many other people involved in the coffee world and making a star of the barista isn't the only way to increase awareness of quality coffee. As long as sitcoms will stereotype the barista as a bitter pseudo-artist (e.g., Gunther in Friends) and as long as there will be figurines of the Starbucks barista, the comps won't help much, IMHO. IOW, a culture doesn't change from the mere will of some of its members. (Mark has probably read enough of the Culture and Personality literature to talk about this...)
  2. There does seem to be an "absolute standard of espresso perfection" in some people's heads. The (in)famous Godshot. As long as this standard is held, the diversity of coffee tastes will be secondary to the sense of achievement in pulling "the best possible shot." Do you see this in other "culinary items," as Mark likes to call them? "This is the perfect glass of wine." Erm, no. "This glass of Sauternes is the most appropriate accompaniement to this appetizer in which foie gras predominates." Coffee has diversity. The espresso standard is antithetical to the goal of making coffee a culinary item.
  3. Consumers, such as myself, may now feel at odds with the "Coffee Industry." One of the coolest things about cafés is that they are truly local and that patrons may develop personal rapport with people there. To me, the best barista isn't just the one who'll get perfect crema on top of my single-shot. It's someone who'll help me enjoy coffee to its fullest. It requires some knowledge of actual people and their tastes. Yes, some competitors are apparently doing this. But there's a lot of work to do on the ground level to get more people to understand the breadth of coffee.
  4. Events are cool when people mingle. These events sound a little bit more like trade shows than like festivals. And they're out of reach for the average coffee-lover. Again, local events to get people to enjoy the fullest coffee experience would possibly accomplish more than international underwater swimming contests.

None of this is meant to be disrespectful of the work done by members of the industry. But if coffee is to have an artistic dimension, it may need to be more than an industry or even a way of life for a select few people.

 
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Posted Tue May 9, 2006, 9:01pm
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

nickcho Said:

Umm... not to get all schoolyard here, but did you address my comment?  All you said was that you think that I'm not qualified to speak on this subject.

Posted May 9, 2006 link

Yep, that's where I was going cuz you made two rather forceful comments right off the top in response to Tim's post.

You disputed his statement that there wasn't much fun at the Seattle WBC. You said everyone enjoyed it. But that's not the case. Maybe everyone enjoyed the social events (heck, I know I sure did!), but I know in the training room and behind the scenes, there were plenty of issues. Several vets remarked last year that the back room, the behind the scenes stuff was much more stiff, less about comraderie and more about being freaked out about the rules. So that first statement of yours, I had an issue with. And I was pointing out that the former WBC champ, one who did kind of get around more with all the countries and all the groups at the event would probably have a better idea about whether it was "fun" or not.

Second, you kind of pushed aside Tim's arguments about things like attendance being down, interest being down, difficult to see the baristas, etc etc, and I wanted to make a very clear point to you that just seeing US regionals and the US national doesn't give you a fair perspective on what is happening globally.

Thanks to Sammy but also thanks to my friendships with national champions and finalists from a lot of countries, I count myself very fortunate that I've been able to see video of not only former WBCs, but of several national competitions, including the Italian, Australian, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and several others. Hell, I have seven DVDs with comps on them. But even then, I wouldn't dare put my opinion up against what Tim states - he's actually there, on scene. I thought it was pretty bold of you to challenge him on that point, so I singled it out and responded - and I stand by what I said. It's not my ideas or the ones I "like", it's about who is actually qualified to comment on things like lack of sponsors, lack of volunteers, diminishing audiences or that the participants are not enjoying it any longer. Maybe in the US, things are fine, but Tim wasn't talking about the US. He was talking about a global perspective.

Oh, and I did a one liner (with some additional text) because I was late to get to Sammy's practice round today. (btw, you called while I was in the middle of a judging flight).

nickcho Said:

You have yet to dispute any of the points that I made.  Instead of addressing the comments, you gotta act like a... you know what.

Posted May 9, 2006 link

see above.

nickcho Said:

And Mark, you seem to think that you have a lot of things figured out, including me.  You'd be wrong and wrong.

Posted May 9, 2006 link

I only go by what you tell me and what you write. If you have a hidden agenda, well, what can I say ;)

nickcho Said:

And creating this SCAA vs. The World thing is a bunch of crap.  You're trying to create this air of conflict and controversy where there is none.  Not to say that there aren't folks who agree with you, but you have a tendency to like to make things dramatic and black-and-white.

Posted May 9, 2006 link

LOL. I've rarely been accused of seeing things in black and white before.

You say I'm creating a "SCAA vs. the world" thing. Then you say "not to say there aren't folks who agree with you..."

I'm confused :)

Here's the facts Nick. Nothing's being created. Things are being slowly noticed. It wasn't me who first noticed a SCAA vs. the world thing with regards to the WBC - in fact I remember it quite well because of a very ironic coincidence.

On the same day I was driving Instaurator to a restaurant in Vancouver last summer, I got an interesting email from a scandinavian participant in the WBC. I'll mention Inny's name but not the Scandinavian, since his comments were private. I got an absolute earful from Inny about how he was fed up with the WBC and where he thought it was going, and who was involved in it, and that evening, checking email, I almost got a verbatim rant from the other person.

Piqued my interest, cuz you know I'm a big bad pundit. So all fall, I kept my mouth shut an my ears open. If you recall, I don't think I ever talked to you about this SCAA vs. the world thing until you brought up an issue that is central to that theme ("the SCAA owns the WBC dude!!").

I don't want to make assumptions about you because we havent' talked about this, but I do keep regular contact with the barista community outside the US and Canada. And since Seattle, I've heard a lot of disgruntlement. A lot of it has to do with a sense of stagnation. Some challenged the group put together to choose the show machine. Some felt that baristas, competiting ones should be more involved in various decisions in the direction of the WBC. The list goes on and on. I've talked to you about many of these things this 2006 year, so I won't rehash.

But please stop with this "Mark has created this scaa vs. the world thing". The perception existed long before I first talked to you about the subject, and what I've been doing lately is asking more direct questions about something that is a growing concern.

I could say to you that the Aussies really don't give two poops any longer about the WBC, save for just going and having fun, and you'd say "well, you're a big aussie fan, who cares" (just putting words in your mouth lol ;). I could say "the norweigan comp this year was a downer, and they're having issues" and you could say "well, that's not been my experience" (which is what you said to Tim :D). So I feel comfortable saying that your view of the WBC (not the USBC) is a bit insular. Please correct me if I'm wrong though. I don't recall you ever talking to me about other comps around the world - only USBC and regionals, but if you actually have studied tapes, had indepth phone calls and email exchanges with competitors around the world and base a lot of your discussion on that, I do apologise for making a wrong assumption.

I know you want to run for the SCAA board next year, and who knows, maybe you'll use that position to get involved more closely with the WBC down the road. Believe it or not, I still think you'd be a great addition. But I am worried that your scope and involvement right now is at least is too focused on the USBC and regionals. I would hope anyone who is on the board of the WBC takes every single competition around the world into their thinking when they're doing that job.

Cheers

Mark

 
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Posted Tue May 9, 2006, 10:18pm
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

OMG.

Fine, Mark.  "Fun" is a subjective assessment.  I didn't see people hanging upside down from the rafters and strippers and tequila, so you're right... I was wrong: there was no fun.

As far as ANYTHING else that I wrote in my comments on Tim's article, you haven't addressed them.  Nothing that I wrote is anything that a Tim Wendelboe or a Mark Prince or an Instaurator would have any more or less authority on.  There is a competition.  Tim wrote a commentary on them.  I wrote a commentary on his commentary.  I did not dispute any of what he experienced.  I shared my own perspective on them.  Tim is entitled to his opinion, and I believe I am entitled to mine.  I appreciate his article, and frankly, I'm going to guess that he'll appreciate my comments.  You apparently don't, and you've made it clear.

But aside from all of that, I'm really sorry that I've apparently offended your sensibilities.  You're coming across as much more of an elitist than I thought you were.

And to be totally frank, I'd be careful about going around speaking for other people.  You sometimes seem to think that you need to speak for the non-USA World.

Oh... and by the way... the US?  It exists in 'the World' too.

 
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Posted Tue May 9, 2006, 10:27pm
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

If we had a post of the week, I would nominate this one. It was great. What you made me do when I read it was sit back and take myself and my own thoughts completely out of the equation. Something I think that many of us debating verious competition issues rarely do.

Enkerli Said:

There are many other people involved in the coffee world and making a star of the barista isn't the only way to increase awareness of quality coffee. As long as sitcoms will stereotype the barista as a bitter pseudo-artist (e.g., Gunther in Friends) and as long as there will be figurines of the Starbucks barista, the comps won't help much, IMHO. IOW, a culture doesn't change from the mere will of some of its members. (Mark has probably read enough of the Culture and Personality literature to talk about this...)

Posted May 9, 2006 link

I did try to just sit back for about 10 minutes and think about what you wrote above. And you know, you're right. But it's even more than that.

I've said in the past "I'll always take the attitude if it's backed up in the cup".

But you know what? Most serious and top knotch chefs that I know personally (I can barely count them on two hands) have almost no attitude when crafting their creations.

However, I've seen a lot of 'tude in the wine world. Maybe my exposure to both these worlds is rather limited, but with almost no exceptions, I've not seen a single chef who doesn't simply delight in someone taking great pleasure from his or her creations.

What I'm saying is, there's an element in the barista world that helps purpetuate the sometimes myth, sometimes reality of what you say. And the media picks up on this and builds the stereotype. Now, in Barista comps, we rarely see any kind of 'tude, its very formal and such, but in the real world, in parts of US and Canada, and I'd hazard to say in other espresso hotspots around the world, there is a very "hey, I know the coffee, so shut up" kind of attitude. And I'm sad to say I've done this plenty of times in the past.

But this gets us off topic a bit... so back on:

Enkerli Said:

There does seem to be an "absolute standard of espresso perfection" in some people's heads. The (in)famous Godshot. As long as this standard is held, the diversity of coffee tastes will be secondary to the sense of achievement in pulling "the best possible shot." Do you see this in other "culinary items," as Mark likes to call them? "This is the perfect glass of wine." Erm, no. "This glass of Sauternes is the most appropriate accompaniement to this appetizer in which foie gras predominates." Coffee has diversity. The espresso standard is antithetical to the goal of making coffee a culinary item.

Posted May 9, 2006 link

Very good point. Again, I'm at fault over this as much as everyone else; however I have been making amends too. Is the goal to make a perfect shot, perfectly steamed milk, the perfect sig drink? I'd say yes, it is in comps.

Is it the proper goal? Perhaps not.... but I need time to digest this one.

Enkerli Said:

Consumers, such as myself, may now feel at odds with the "Coffee Industry." One of the coolest things about cafés is that they are truly local and that patrons may develop personal rapport with people there. To me, the best barista isn't just the one who'll get perfect crema on top of my single-shot. It's someone who'll help me enjoy coffee to its fullest. It requires some knowledge of actual people and their tastes. Yes, some competitors are apparently doing this. But there's a lot of work to do on the ground level to get more people to understand the breadth of coffee.

Events are cool when people mingle. These events sound a little bit more like trade shows than like festivals. And they're out of reach for the average coffee-lover. Again, local events to get people to enjoy the fullest coffee experience would possibly accomplish more than international underwater swimming contests.

Posted May 9, 2006 link

Now you're getting to the crux again, and this is where there is a big "at odds" in all this barista discussion. I wanted to keep "me" out of this response, but I can't do it on this one point.

The more I see and am involved with it, the more I really dislike the current stage setup for the WBC and USBC. There's precious little that resembles life in a cafe, save for the machine and grinder. Even the prep area is bigger than most Baristas have in their shops.

I put a design, a doodle if you like, out there a few weeks ago about how I thought the audience experience and the focus on the Barista could be improved - a revised stage setup. I drew it a few months ago for the Canadian comp this fall. At best I got "yeah, that looks good". On average I got "yeah it's different". But not once did I get "yeah, lets go with it" or "no, I don't like yours, but here's how I think we can get closer to the cafe experience and involve the crowd" (ie, another suggestion).

I'm starting to think that the powers that be and the people involved, at least on the judging, planning, organization side are just fine with the current stage setups. But I know that many competiting baristas are not, and I especially know most off-the-street interested parties find it boring as hell. It's a problem, and no one seems willing to address it.

Again, breaking what I want to do, and putting more "me" into this commentary: you said there's little of interest for the average coffee lover, and that these things are more like targetted trade shows than festivals. I agree wholeheartedly, and I've said before, the whole world around the USBC, regionals and other comps is like a "preaching to the converted" event instead of "let's introduce quality coffee, quality service, and the best drinks we can" to the masses. A lot of people seem happy with that status quo. I'm not.

There's a real danger of the barista comps becoming irrelevant. I think we're at a crucial time where we collectively can do some really exciting and different things with it, or just stay the steady safe course.

Mark, who a month ago was 95% sure he was retiring from judging and organiing these things. Now I'm only 80% sure....

 
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Posted Tue May 9, 2006, 10:35pm
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

That's all you got Nick? ;) Come on, I was hoping for more substance. :-P

But, I will ask again about one subject - how much discussion, review, observation do you give comps outside the US?

As for me speaking for the non-US world - well, those are your words, not mine. But after all, I am not an American, so at the very least I have that going for me when talking about events outside the US. ;)

Still giving big cheers

MArk

 
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Posted Tue May 9, 2006, 11:01pm
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

MarkPrince Said:

If we had a post of the week, I would nominate this one. It was great. What you made me do when I read it was sit back and take myself and my own thoughts completely out of the equation. Something I think that many of us debating verious competition issues rarely do.

Posted May 9, 2006 link

With all the teasing between people involved, it was hard to tell whether or not you were serious here. But thanks! ;-)

However, I've seen a lot of 'tude in the wine world.

It's somewhat the same in almost any world. Even music, beer, cuisine, academia...

I've not seen a single chef who doesn't simply delight in someone taking great pleasure from his or her creations.

True that. But some are more willing to collaborate than others.

Is the goal to make a perfect shot, perfectly steamed milk, the perfect sig drink? I'd say yes, it is in comps.
Is it the proper goal? Perhaps not....

It's all about context. Comps do sound fun. But they sound more like sport than art, to be frank.
In the beer world, at least in North America, there's a continuum between what we could call the "German Engineer" (clean, consistent, flawless brews with relatively little personality) and the "Belgian Artist" (complex, unique, evolutive brews full of character). As we all know, the best coffee experience in the world has to do with context.

The more I see and am involved with it, the more I really dislike the current stage setup for the WBC and USBC. There's precious little that resembles life in a cafe, save for the machine and grinder. Even the prep area is bigger than most Baristas have in their shops.

Here, again, it sounds like the comp is a "make-believe café interaction" between the ideal patrons (judges) and the star barista. Fair enough. But how does it connect to those four goals in the mission statement?

you said there's little of interest for the average coffee lover, and that these things are more like targetted trade shows than festivals.

Well, it's just an impression from the outside. Never been to one. But they don't sound approachable to us laypeople unless we know people.
So, silly question. Who are the members of the general public who attend the comps? Are they just people who happened upon the site? Did they know some of the competitors personally? Were they cheering for their home team? In discussions about comps, they sound like a relatively small and rather homogeneous crowd.

like a "preaching to the converted" event instead of "let's introduce quality coffee, quality service, and the best drinks we can" to the masses.

Of course, there's room for both. Most people involved are in fact doing the job of introducing quality coffee and service to the masses. Members of the coffee world need to get together and have fun. Like a big retreat. Or band camp. But why should it be a competition? Why not just a celebration? Isn't the Third Wave about doing things together? Isn't competition more between those in the quality coffee crowd and those in the mass-produced coffee business?

a crucial time where we collectively can do some really exciting and different things

That'd be great!
In fact, it's happening. Nick and Jay's podcast as well as your own. Multiple websites. Imbibe magazine. Coverage in local and national media. And, of course, dedicated people in cafés. It can be anyone, from the skilled and enthusiastic barista to the respectful and nurturing café owner, from the humble roaster to the bombastic importer... ;-)

 
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Posted Wed May 10, 2006, 3:50am
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

Hello.
I am amazed! I just went to bed yesterday and the moment I wake up there are 13 new comments on this board. WOW !

Thank you for detailed review of the article Nick. It is good to have various opinions on the discussion. This is one of the reasons for writing it.

However, my main idea with the article was not to discuss minor details about the competition. That is up to the committees to do. But constructive feedback is always good and I think more people should give feedback to the committees. (we just need their contact info, which I still have not found, but I might be blind though..)  

Although I address many issues in the article, my main message was supposed to be that maby we need to step back for a while and see things in more perspective. If you read the last "chapter" of the article under "What next ?" This was my main reason for writing the article. I want people to think about what we are doing. Maby we can change things before it is too late to change them? Maby we don't need to change things ? Remember that the competition format is based on a pilot project created in Norway in 1998. It has never been questioned wether it was the best one or not (as far as I know)

Don't misunderstand my point of view either. I love the barista competitions. I think the WBC is creating futures for more people than we realize. It is probably one of the best things that has hapened to the industry in a long time (but that I wouldn't know since I have only been in the business for 7 years). We don't want to play with the WBC as if it was a toy, we want to treat it like our baby, right ?

I also believe that open dicussions will be better for the WBC and the industry as a whole. Much like a democracy where you can practice freedom of speech. (although not everybody agrees with the values of democracy).

Keep up the good work !
See you in Berne.

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Posted Wed May 10, 2006, 8:41am
Subject: Re: The Future of the World Barista Championship, Professionally Speaking
 

Some of you know that I used to play semi-professional paintball in my younger years.  I used to tour on the National Professional Paintball League circuit and in 1994, our team: The Carter Machine Landsharks, won the Canadian National Stockgun Championship.

Since it's inception, paintball has been played on wooded fields with bunkers made from various materials.  One of the biggest challenges of competitive paintball was attracting media attention and hype.  The organizations tried all sorts of methods to make it more interesting and exciting to a viewing audience, but the basic game remained flawed: it was played on a field in the woods.  This meant poor visibility, poor coverage and, if you can't see what's going on, how can you get excited about it?

In the years since I've left the sport on a professional level, things have changed.  Pick up any paintball rag (magazine) and you'll find competitions being held on wide-open fields that use inflatables (think Moon Bounce) as barriers.  The spectator has virtually unlimited visibility and the smaller area means that the play is fast and furious, with lots of paint flying and lots of maneuvering to make it more interesting and exciting. Today, they have television deals and some have broken off into developing a true professional league with franchise ownership and full-time players.

What does this have to do with the barista comps?

Like paintball, the current stage of barista comps are relatively benign.  It's truly a bore to watch.  I mean, how exciting is it to watch a nice guy, in a nice outfit, with a nice voice and nice demeanor, serve nice drinks to nice judges for fifteen minutes?  It's unbelievably maddening.

Like paintball, barista comps need to step away from what they believe is tried and true.  Rethink the concept from the audience viewpoint.  Rethink the comps to make it fun, interesting and exciting for the audience.  Then go out and get media deals.

Some complain that the comps are not like cafe life.  So what?  That's a good thing.  Why would I want to spend thousands of dollars traveling just to do exactly what I do at home in my own shop where I could be making thousands instead of spending it? This is the big time.  This is the championship level.  This is The Show.  And some people want it to be like sitting at home eating oranges.

I spent a bit of time around the 2005 WBC competitors while doing tech work last year.  Many were serious.  Many were focused.  Is this a bad thing?  Let's keep in mind that the WBC is the World Championship. These people are the best on the planet and vying for the title of World Champion.  This isn't the myopic World Champion title that Major League Baseball awards.  This is truly a battle of baristas from nations all over Mother Earth - because of this, it should be a serious and stressful event.  

However, each individual has overcome great odds (and when coming to America, great obstacles) to become their own national champion.  This is no small endeavour and should never be forgotten.  The fact they were able to stand there is testament to their abilities.  Those who forget this and allow their passion to diminish because they did not win the World Title, well, what does that say about them?

When Tim talks about dwindling attendance and the lack of media presence, I think: ah, USBC.  Where was Food Network? Or Fine Living?  Or Travel Channel? The USBC should be able to attract their attention. This is the national championship - Food Network gives plenty of air time to candied sugar competitions, it should be interested in the US Barista Championship. This, to me, looks like a failure of the SCAA.  Especially when the MillRock LatteArt Competition trumps the USBC on Food Network.

Nick, of all the people in the industry, you are my tightest friend, compatriot, travel partner, podcast co-host and "my boy."  That said, I think you have become the SCAA's "Great Defender," which makes me chuckle because it was only a couple of years ago when the roles were reversed and you were the hold out.  It's a good thing because you take on the role of "Great Defender" and I take the counterpoint as the "Great Critic" of the SCAA.  Should make for more interesting podcasts because the last thing I want is for the Portafilter.net Podcast to become as inane as watching the USBC.

From my experience, attitude almost always denotes inexperience and a lack of knowledge in any craft or field.  Most baristas with attitude can barely tamp their puck using their super-automatic. And it's not limited to coffee. While I was still active in the movie business, it was always the lesser-known actors that were the most problematic. The true stars and superstars were usually easy to work with and professional.

If anyone is responsible for the "Godshot Theory" I think it's Mark. He's written so much about this elusive fable that it's become mystic lore, like the Holy Grail.  In reality, it's impossible to achieve because perfection is elusive.  Once you come close to attaining it, it changes and moves just out of reach.  Doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for it, just that we should accept that we can never truly achieve it because it's fleeting.

I saw Mark's illustration for the revised competition layout and think it's pretty good. Does that mean things will change?  Unlikely.  Change requires strong, visionary leadership and I don't think the USBC or WBC has that at this time.

It's been said before and I definitely agree, the Championship level competitions need to move away from the Coffee Conferences.  Sure, it's nice to have them there and it allows me to combine it all in one trip, but where's the exposure?  How about staging the USBC in Chicago at the National Restaurant Association show?  Or the New York Fancy Food Show? Get the craft in front of the UNinitiated.

I'm one who disagrees with the notion that explicit rules limits creativity. I think it helps encourage the competitor to "think outside the box."  As a competitor, I'm willing to work within the rules but I want those rules to be very explicit, concise and clear. Ambiguities need to be eliminated and there should be less latitude for the judges to determine what is and is not acceptable.

For example, the rule on alcohol is just absurd.  Not in the way that people like Tim think but on a more basic level.  While I would love to develop a drink that uses the flambe method a la Bananas Foster, the prohibition on alcohol forces me to think differently and that's a good thing.  However, the alcohol prohibition in ANY ingredient is just ridiculous.

During the USBC, as I was touring around with Bronwen Serna and Sandy Hon, the topic of vanilla extract came up and how the alcohol in vanilla extract would disqualify a competitor.  This is absolutely LUDICROUS!  Doesn't the USBC/WBC Committees realize that this Zero Tolerance for alcohol on any level just about disqualifies EACH and EVERY Competitor in the competitions today?  

Don't know how many of you have worked with a chromatograph, but I've had some rudimentary experiences with them and the chemical compositions of most foods is mind-boggling - there's alcohol in almost everything.  Does this mean we can force the disqualification of every competitor?  The rules seem to suggest that.

What does it matter to the competition if the barista wastes coffee or milk?  So what?  In our shop, we offer all our competition signature drinks on our daily menu, we're one of the very few who do.  For one macchiato sized drink, we're burning several ounces of half-half, it's not cheap and there's waste but to measure it out exactly would make it impossible to prepare correctly.  Because of this, there's acceptable waste according to our standards, not someone else's.

And who is to say what a "World Class Barista" does?  As a consumer, if the product quality is stellar and the barista can stand up to the best in the world, then it matters not to me what he wastes or how much.  However, as a business operator, waste is an important factor, but this isn't a "business operator" competition.

One of the flaws in Tim's argument is that the competitions are supposed to promote "specialty coffees grown throughout the world."  I think this is a misnomer.  While the coffee is an integral and important component, this is not a coffee competition like Cup of Excellence.  This is a Barista Competition, and much like a Chef competition (such as Iron Chef), it's up to the barista to make wonderful creations with an assortment of ingredients.

The question is:  do the competitions exist to promote coffees or to promote baristas, nee the rockstar barista?

Tim says he's "not a great fan of signature drinks" and I think that's just a myopic viewpoint because he "rarely taste something that is fantastic."  Perhaps he hasn't tasted anything "fantastic" because the level of baristas just hasn't developed to the point that we are producing anything "fantastic."  The notion that signature drinks are not relevant to what you do behind the bar is only because you have not made it relevant. Like I said, our shop is one of the very few shops (probably in the world) that actually offer competition signature drinks on a daily basis.

Further, it is the signature drink that allows the barista the most creativity and the most opportunity to capture the minds of the larger public.  For example, during the 2006 USBC, I prepared an excess of signature drinks which I kept in the competitor's room with the express purpose of offering them to anyone and everyone.  Once my competition time had concluded, I took a moment to invite anyone and everyone to come back to the competitor's room as my guest and have a taste of the signature drink.  It was a veritable rush of both fellow competitors, barista peers and audience members, about thirty drinks in all.

The impetus is on US, the baristas to make drinks that are important and relevant. Too many competitors make these wild (or not so wild) creations but they never see the light of day. Why? Because they're not thinking forward about the future and where we're going.  We have to be the ones to champion the cause. Because while it's fun for us to learn about the subtle nuances of coffee, it isn't exactly exciting to the majority of customers - and it's the majority who are our bread and butter.

I'm excited to say that, in June, our 2006 USBC Signature Drink, Coffee and a Cigarette, will join our menu - and will be restricted to patrons 18 and up only.
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