What would a revamped World Barista Championship look like?
The World Barista Championship has played an instrumental role in the coffee industry for over two decades. Matt Haw speaks with Jay Caragay to find out why it’s time for a revamp.
Since the turn of the century, the World Barista Championship (WBC) has had arguably more influence than any competition in the coffee industry. It has sparked industry-wide trends and propelled many exciting new developments into the public eye, from carbonic maceration to the impact of water on coffee.
For the owner of Baltimore-based Spro Coffee, Jay Caragay, the WBC has been instrumental in shaping the barista craft. During his experience – first as a WBC competitor, then as a judge – he has observed a number of changes ushered in thanks to the competition, as well as a growing appreciation for the barista role.
“A lot of the practices we now take for granted were actually things that were promoted by the WBC,” he says. “The competitions have helped to cement barista skills that are now de rigueur. This codifying of the barista craft has been a very positive thing in that respect.”
But, in the eyes of many, the WBC is far from perfect. Issues surrounding accessibility and transparency have increasingly been raised by those in the coffee industry who maintain that the competition is long overdue a revamp.
One of the prevailing grievances is that it favours those with access to funding, sponsorship deals and coaching support, while making it difficult for those without adequate resources to compete.
Elsewhere there have been calls to make the selection of judges and the scoring system more transparent and objective. For the WBC’s critics, these processes remain too subjective, offering little accountability and documentation of the scoring process. But although many have been vocal in their criticism, are their requests really feasible?
What would changes mean for the World Barista Championship?
The World Barista Championship has undergone several changes since launching in 2000.
Everything from the judging criteria to the structure of the competition itself has been revised. Earlier this year, it tweaked the rules to allow the use of alternative milks, such as oat and almond, after mounting pressure from several industry figures on social media.
Each time, the purpose has been to make the WBC more relevant and retain its status as a prestigious event. And recent calls have centred on the way in which the judges award points.
To further enhance the competition’s fairness and spectator appeal, advocates have called for a more straightforward and transparent judging process. Jay has been a particularly vocal proponent of this movement. Through his YouTube channel, he has provided insights and critiques of past championship performances, demonstrating the potential for a more democratised approach to scoring.
He maintains that a more simplified and transparent judging process with scores revealed on the spot could make the competition fairer and more interesting as a spectator event. “When Diego Campos won the World Barista Championship a couple of years ago, I took our score sheets, watched the video, talked about what he was doing, and then gave scores,” Jay says.
Such transparency could benefit competitors, especially those from non-English speaking countries who may struggle to understand the rules and scoring system. Additionally, measures to address the cost of participation, such as discounts or fee waivers, could encourage greater participation from baristas with limited financial means.
Another potential avenue for expansion is diversifying the locations of host cities. When it comes to the cost of participation, wider availability of discounts or fee waivers might encourage more baristas from low-income backgrounds to participate.
Jay recently discovered that registration alone for the US regionals was $300. “A lot of these fees, in some respects, are artificial,” he says, adding that they are presumably put in place to generate a level of prestige. “The United States is notorious for restricting people. I would prefer the World Barista Championship never be held there because of that.”
Diversifying the locations of host cities could also ease the visa restrictions faced by many competitors, particularly from Latin America and Africa. Improving access in these ways could help the competition reach those who need its influence most. Particularly in regions where the barista profession is still struggling to be taken seriously.
Why does a revised WBC matter?
Most would agree that the World Barista Championship has work to do before it can be considered an all-round fair competition. Nevertheless, implementing systemic change will require careful consideration and time to be executed effectively.
For example, one of the most simple and immediate solutions often put forward is to set caps on how much each competitor can spend or to go even further and supply a coffee that every competitor must use. However, Jay explains that this gives rise to problems in itself.
“Anyone that would reason that there is no inherent unfairness would be trying to pull the wool over your eyes,” he says. “I’ve heard that idea [concerning coffees] expressed quite a number of times and I get it. But one of the more interesting things is seeing competitors coming forward with a new type of washed coffee or one that has undergone one of the wilder fermentation processes.
“It’s a great thing to see people pushing our industry forward. I think that’s one thing that we need to be cognizant of before we start to limit things.”
Instead, he suggests that the competition rules must be written to ensure fairness, irrespective of the value of the coffee. The key here lies in understanding the flavours and presenting them effectively to the judges to obtain higher scores, regardless of whether it is a $3,000 coffee or a $30 coffee.
The World Barista Championship continues to offer much in the way of elevating the barista profession globally. Thus, preserving its potential while charting the way forward is critical. That said, any change must be approached with respect for its roots and acknowledgement of its purpose: to enable the best baristas to showcase the best coffees in the world.
“There is still so much the WBC can offer to the world and people who can benefit from it,” Jay says. “I think that’s important to keep in mind as we figure out what’s the next step forward.”