Why do World Barista Champions never defend their titles?
Since the WBC’s inception in 2000, not a single champion has defended their title. Jenna Gottlieb speaks with 2009’s winner, Gwilym Davies, to find out why.
Recognition of a barista’s talents and expertise doesn’t come much higher than the World Barista Championship.
Since 2000, the competition has brought together national barista champions from around the world, providing a global platform on which to showcase a range of skills and introduce the industry to the latest innovations in coffee.
As well as setting trends in the industry, the World Barista Championship – or WBC as it is known – often acts as a springboard for winners. Many have gone on to have immensely successful careers, from opening coffee shops and roasters to establishing YouTube channels and barista training academies.
Gwilym Davies won the WBC in 2009 and has been involved in various projects since, not least co-founding the pioneering London specialty coffee shop, Prufrock. He explains that the purpose of the WBC is not just about identifying the “world’s best barista”, but incorporates several key elements.
“To view the competition simply as a way to find the best barista is very restricted,” he says. “It is easy to focus on the competitors, but the competitions also influence the coffee scene via the judges and organisers of which there are often as many as there are competitors,”
But while this may be true, does it explain why, in the 22 years since launching, not a single WBC winner has attempted to defend their title?
‘Allow space for others’
In international sporting competitions, there is usually an expectation that the champion will attempt to retain their title the following year.
For example, since winning her first Wimbledon ladies’ singles championship in 2002, US tennis player Serena Williams has gone on to win a further six times. Similarly, in the Tour De France, Spanish cyclist Miguel Indurain finished first in the general classification for five consecutive years.
At the WBC, this has never been the case. And while some believe that winning automatically excludes the champion from competing again, Gwilym explains that there are other factors at play.
“WBC champions can defend their title,” he says. “There is no rule saying they cannot compete again. Champions have decided not to for various reasons – but one I have heard given a lot is to allow space for others. If one barista or country dominates for a period, then the opportunities for others to give different perspectives and ideas is reduced.”
In a competition where innovation and novelty are key, this makes sense.
Unlike tennis or cycling championships, WBC competitors must bring something new to the table each year, a fact made clear in the fourth point of the evaluation criteria: The judges are looking for a champion who may serve as a role model and a source of inspiration for others.
By stepping aside and allowing others to present their innovations, champions pave the way for innovation and ideas from new corners of the market.
Diluting the pool
That said, some also believe that producing a new champion every year can hold back the coffee industry.
The reason someone has become a world champion barista in the first place is because they have the right combination of technical skills, coffee knowledge, and the creativity to find something “new”.
It could be argued, therefore, that by giving way for others to claim the title, the “world barista champion” pool is becoming more and more diluted each year. In other words, the baristas with the perfect mix of skills are disappearing from a competition that seeks to reward talent.
A good example is 2015 WBC champion, Sasa Sestic. During his winning routine, Sestic introduced a fermentation technique borrowed from winemaking, called carbonic maceration. It involves putting ripe coffee cherries in stainless steel barrels and allowing them to ferment in a carbon-rich environment.
The technique caused a stir at the time and has gone on to become a widely used processing method on coffee farms the world over. However, the fact he was from subsequent championships raised the question of whether the WBC was missing out on other potential innovations.
Gwilym thinks not. Despite the international prestige of the competition, he believes that innovation can happen elsewhere – and winning doesn’t spell the end of a barista’s influence.
“From a personal perspective, I never entered to win,” he says. “I entered for other reasons and winning was an unintended consequence. In the Czech Republic, the WBC was very important up to five years ago. It gave focus to a growing specialty scene.
“But I would argue that although the competition is still important there, its influence is less about setting the local culture and more about keeping standards and giving companies an opportunity to market themselves.”