Why are barista competitions so popular in the US?
Melchior Antoine speaks with barista championship judge Patrick O’Malley about how American coffee professionals fell in love with competitions.
In the late 1990s, Alf Kramer came up with an idea that would go on to revolutionise the coffee industry.
Looking for a way to promote specialty coffee and elevate the barista profession, he, along with three others, set up the “Norwegian Barista Championship” – the first national barista championship which would serve as a precursor to the inaugural world edition two years later.
Kramer’s idea was a success and spawned similar editions in countries around the world. Today, there are more than 50 national barista championships held annually, each attracting hundreds of coffee professionals and drawing widespread publicity.
For competition judge and coach Patrick O’Malley, national barista championships serve an important role in the industry.
“I enjoy seeing the boundaries of coffee being pushed and experiments that are done by the competitors and these sometimes lend to new ideas and new ways of thinking about coffee,” he says. “Many of these innovations make changes in the day-to-day consuming and producing of coffee. There are so many wonderful new concepts and ideas born from them.”
However, while barista competitions have gained global notoriety in the 24 years since launching, few championships receive as much attention as they do in the US.
The popularity of barista competitions in the US
In most cases, barista competitions are closely tied to coffee-consuming cultures. In countries where there is a high level of coffee consumption and a particularly keen interest in specialty coffee, barista competitions will generally receive more recognition.
It should come as little surprise, then, that the national barista championships in the US have received widespread attention since the first edition in 2002.
According to the National Coffee Association (NCA), 70% of Americans drink coffee every week, while 62% drink it every day. More importantly, the majority of the coffee consumed in the US (60%) is considered “gourmet” – coffee brewed from premium beans.
Naturally, brands, sponsors, and national coffee organisations have a clear incentive to plough money into the championships. They have become behemoth events, held at large venues, such as the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which draw thousands of attendees.
The sponsors and organisations know the event will resonate with people across the country and help build on the existing coffee culture, while generating further sales. This makes the substantial investment in organising the events well worth the money.
Equally, the baristas themselves stand to benefit considerably from competing. One only has to look at the social media channels of the last two US winners – Andrea Allen and Morgan Eckroth – to see how significant it is for gaining a large fanbase. These followers can then be converted into customers for respective brands, whether a roasting business or a YouTube channel.
“It has helped us so much through the pandemic,” said Onyx Coffee Lab’s co-founder Andrea Allen in an interview last year. “Having that boost of notoriety and media publication and all of that stuff has been incredible.”
Helping competitions grow
Although most countries lag behind the US in terms of the size and scale of barista championships, many have seen considerable growth in recent years.
For example, countries with burgeoning coffee cultures, such as China and South Korea, run their own versions which have become important focal points for the domestic specialty coffee culture.
The growing success of these competitions is reflected in results on the international stage at the coveted World Barista Championship. In 2019, for instance, South Korean competitor Jooyeon Jeon won, while Indonesian barista Mikael Jasin finished fourth.
Meanwhile, Colombian competitor Diego Campos finished above Andrea Allen last year to become the first South American to win at the world event.
In these countries, the success of baristas at the WBC has inevitably helped draw more widespread attention to not only domestic championships, but specialty coffee and the barista profession in general. Coffee consumption in Indonesia alone has quadrupled since 1990, reaching the equivalent of 4.8 million 60-kilogram bags of coffee in 2019/2020.
However, while barista championships clearly help fuel interest in coffee, Patrick explains that in their current form, they discriminate against competitors from lower-income backgrounds.
“Barista competitions have unfortunately become more about fashion, trends, and how much the coffee costs,” he says. “For example, the judges and crowd learn that barista X used a Panama Geisha from this farm and it was so many dollars per kilogram.
“This sets expectations that are not real, not fair and not always relevant or honest; not to mention a barista who came up from a lower middle-class family without the financial resources to purchase a ‘trendy’ coffee. How is this making a level playing field? It’s not and we all know there is bias involved.”
Instead, he suggests that they should focus more on the skill and abilities of the barista, rather than the coffees they use.
“I honestly think the SCA needs to update the competitions to bring in some real, day-to-day skills and perhaps add customer service ideas as that is the number one part of our job description,” Patrick adds.