The Season is Upon Us for Coffee Competitions
Reiko Piekarski, Director of Coffee Programs | Fortuna Enterprises
A thunderous eruption of applause and cheers echoes through the activity hall. From a distance the voice of the master of ceremonies bellows from the speakers. For an unfamiliar bystander this excitement can seed curiosity for what is happening on the stage. This was my first experience with the US Coffee Championships at the Specialty Coffee Association Expo in Portland a decade ago. This time of year, most coffee consumers are gearing up for the cooler weather and the beloved pumpkin spice flavored everything. For me however, this marks the start of a new season of coffee competitions. After 2 years in a strange time warp, the coffee community is excited to kick off the 2023 competition cycle in full force.
What are coffee competitions?
The barista competition made its national debut in 2002 as the North American Barista Competition. Competitors prepare 3 courses of beverages within 15 minutes and present to a panel of judges. They are scored not just on drink quality but also their preparation and technical skills as they navigate the workstation. Competition interest grew, and it soon became known as the USBC, United States Barista Championships. This competition became so popular there was even a documentary made called Barista in 2015. The coffee world evolved over the years as did the competitions which now include other disciplines. Barista still draws the biggest attention but there is a growing interest with brewing, coffee in good spirits, cup tasters, latte art, and roasters
Now the US Coffee Championship competition cycle starts off with several preliminary hosts scattered across the country. The prelims are intended to be an accessible and approachable introduction to coffee competitions. As competitors advance, they enter the qualifiers where the stakes are raised in preparation for the national competition stage. Competitors who are crowned the national champions then go on to represent the United States on the world coffee stages.
How can you get involved?
One does not necessarily have to commit to competing to participate in these exciting events. Like many other baristas, I too considered competing until my boss at the time suggested volunteering to judge. I first started judging in 2015 for the last southeastern regional barista competition. What I learned from the experience was a more technical appreciation of how every movement in the workstation impacts consistency and flow. The judges panel includes 3 sensory judges who evaluate the beverages, 2 technical judges who dance around like ninjas recording every movement of the barista in the space, and 1 presiding head judge overseeing the whole presentation. Being introduced to technical judge helped me better understand the coffee competitions, but it also helped me be a better barista and coffee professional overall.
Before one can be certified to be a judge, however, there is a full day of training and calibration prior to the competition. This session usually involves copious amounts of coffee tasting, tasting other things to calibrate palates, and run throughs with a volunteer barista to help judges get familiar with scoresheets. Even the judges are evaluated and provided feedback from their presiding head judges to determine who will be invited to judging the national level. Judges can further pursue the path to being a presiding head judge or move on to get certified as a world coffee competition judge.
This year I will be shifting gears and bringing with me the experience from judging the barista competition to the latte art panel. Much of the judging format is still the same with the exception being the visual evaluation of designs poured and no tasting. The visual judges compare the pours to photographs of the design being attempted provided by the competitor in advance. Some of the elements the visual panel is scoring for include clarity of the design, definition, symmetry, and positioning. It was mesmerizing to see what these baristas could free hand pour intricate designs into the provided cups.
One does not need to have extensive coffee experience to volunteer time for these competitions. There are a lot of opportunities to help these events run as smoothly as possible even if you do not qualify to be a judge. The 2023 preliminaries just kicked off in mid-August in Hawaii with September being host to many others scattered across the country. Check out US Coffee Championships to find a location near you and sign up to compete, judge, or volunteer. If you just want to watch, you can do that too. Most of the competitions are live streamed on social media and available to watch on YouTube. Perhaps this sparks a new interest whether it is crafting signature coffee and cocktails or designing incredible latte art. Stay tuned to the new competitions season to see what new and exciting trends will take hold.