Winning a barista championship is just the beginning

South African Barista Champion, Winston Thomas, talks about life after the lights go down on the competition stage.

As a kid, I often wondered what my favourite sports players did when they “retired from the game.” Our Springbok Rugby World Cup winning team recently completed their country-wide trophy tour and I’m sure a few of them will be hanging up their boots soon. It’s always sad to see them go. 

I was on a local TV show a couple of years ago and I referred to the short-lived experience of a barista champion being like that of a beauty pageant winner. I attempted to make the point that the experience can be fleeting – as soon as your title reign ends, the new champion is quickly whisked in, and your name can easily be forgotten.

Awkwardly, the host assumed that I had presumed to be the best-looking barista!

Rugby tournaments and beauty pageants aside, I like to think that coffee competitions can have the opposite outcome. They can often act as a catalyst to propel someone’s career forward either through competition success, set innovations, relationship building, or increasing visibility.

Brand building and marketing

I had the benefit and honour of winning back-to-back South African titles in 2017 and 2018. I also had a third “extended title” because my 2020 win was followed by multiple WBC postponements due to Covid-19. This meant that my years as South African Barista Champion were far from fleeting – and I like to think I made the most of it. 

Coming from a global south country, it can be difficult to organically create a platform for yourself without winning a world competition. However, I was fortunate to be a part of a global ambassador program with Urnex which opened a door to a global network, and I rode the wave of marketing opportunities off the back of competition success.

This is where I put in the work. I travelled; I sacrificed; I was present at events; and I made myself available to the community as a champion.

Apparently, this was a smart move because I made myself accessible and marketable. (At the time, I just wanted to have fun and attend all the events I could). Lo and behold, more brand ambassador opportunities, TV show appearances, and magazine features followed. 

Looking back, I could have monetised the situation to better effect. However, it did give me a platform and opened opportunities that would not have come my way otherwise. And I’ve seen other competitors follow suit.

The work doesn't stop after a barista champtionship

Relationships and networking

This process exposed me to conversations with many different people – both in coffee and from other industries. I like to refer to myself as a natural “connector”, which helped me build important relationships with many of the interesting people I met. These developed into cherished friendships, as well as business opportunities, that would not have been accessible had I not won a barista competition.

Of course, my business and the partners and clients I work with benefit from a certain level of reputability that comes with winning a national competition.

And even though these competitions are a foreign concept to most outside of coffee, people are generally keen to learn more. Whether it be the set theme, the equipment, or the coffee itself, there is usually an element that can pique someone’s interest – creating an opportunity to broaden your network and connect with people you may not have otherwise.

Developing skills and gaining knowledge

It’s important to remember that competing in a coffee competition comes with a considerable amount of preparation. Especially for the World Barista Championships, it takes planning, research, practice, blood, sweat, and tears. Maybe not the blood.

It’s a unique situation that drives you to deepen your knowledge and elevate your skillset. This doesn’t simply dissipate once the stage lights turn off and the focus shifts to next year’s competition.

The competitor walks away forever changed, carrying a newfound understanding of the industry – or at least, a part of it. And this is often shared with the wider community.

I remember walking away from my first barista competition with the ability to pour four milk drinks while engaging meaningfully with my judges. What might seem like an easy task to some was a big challenge I struggled to overcome in my early days as a barista. This skill followed me back to the coffee bar, meaning that I could produce higher-quality drinks and improve my customer service – something I’ve endeavoured to teach others.

The interesting thing to consider here is that competitors are all so different. For example, I thrive on the relationship and human element in coffee. Others are drawn to technological or agricultural innovations. These differences embody a pool of diverse skills that can feed back into the industry.

There is no other situation like it – where a practitioner can gain such a nuanced understanding of an aspect of the industry and share that with the world. As such, it’s important to nurture the knowledge and skills generated as a result of coffee competitions and implement them in the workplace.

Now What?

From a broad perspective, the benefits that come with being a champion can’t be kept for the individual – they surely must extend to the wider coffee community. 

Competitors need to understand that there’s a “buy-in” – if you win, you become an ambassador. The WBC rules clearly state that judges are looking for a champion who “may serve as a role model and a source of inspiration for others”.

This is the primary role of a barista champion, not only during the competition and the title reign but afterwards, too. In my view, this means there’s an implicit duty for champions to contribute to the betterment of the coffee industry – beginning locally, and shifting globally if the opportunity arises.

In short, I believe champions should inspire, grow, challenge, change, and educate.

New Ground Coffee

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Winning a barista championship is just the beginning

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