March 17, 2017

Should The World Barista Championship Use a Compulsory Coffee?


“It’s supposed to be a barista championship, but no, it’s a coffee championship,” Gianni Cassatini of Nuova Simonelli, one of the World Coffee Events sponsors, said. “Every competitor should have to use the same coffee. That would be fairer.”

Responses came hard and fast. Agreements, disagreements, questions – everyone had an opinion. The World Barista Championship (WBC) is the only one of the main championships to not feature a compulsory coffee, which coloured everyone’s perspective. But then we pulled up to a small Brazilian farm in the Caparaó region. We piled out of the bus, and the conversation was, for now, forgotten.

This was during Ally Coffee’s week-long Champion’s Origin Tour 2016, where they took seven coffee champions and runners-up to see twelve of Brazil’s best coffee farms. We’re talking Tetsu Kasuya, World Brewers Cup (WBrC) Champion; Lem Butler, US Barista Champion; Todd Goldsworthy, US Brewers Cup Champion, and more. (Ally will be the origin trip sponsor again this year, and is expanding the number of champions they take from seven to ten.)

But who better to debate the topic of a compulsory coffee than coffee champions and sponsors? So later, I asked everybody their opinion: “Should the World Barista Championship have a compulsory coffee?” Here’s what they had to say on this controversial topic.

Spanish Version: ¿Debería la Competencia Mundial de Barista Utilizar un Solo Café para Todos?

Ally Coffee

Todd Goldsworthy, Tetsu Kasuya, and James Tooill (left to right) compare pours during the Champions Origin Tour.

Compulsory Coffees & Barista Skills

One idea that came up again and again was the purpose of the WBC. And while not everyone agreed with this (more on that later!), most people would say that the WBC exists to test baristas’ skills.

Tetsu told me that he chose to compete in the Brewers Cup rather than the Barista Championship because the Brewers Cup features a compulsory coffee. “If we use same coffee, the judges can judge only our skills,” he explained. He suggested that there should be two rounds, much like in the WBrC.

Nor was Tetsu alone in his opinion. Todd Goldsworthy, 2016 US Brewers Cup Champion and WBrC Finalist, said he didn’t feel in a position to comment on the WBC. However, what he did tell me was that “I think what we did in the World Brewers Cup was a really good way to showcase what people can actually do. We had the same water, we had the same grinder, and we had very little time with the coffee…I think that the direction it’s being taken in right now is more about the skill level of the brewer, and it excites me that the people who are making it through do have that skill level.”

In fact, Gianni felt that a compulsory coffee might a useful exercise for competitors, forcing them to improve. “Everyone uses Geisha. It’s very popular right now, and it’s very easy to describe. I want baristas to experience new coffees, to challenge themselves. Maybe they will discover new ones with more complexity.”

Ally Coffee

Tetsu Kasuya gives his winning WBrC performance. Credit: Dennis Hicks for World Coffee Events

But Is a Barista’s Skill Set Just Making Espresso?

However, other champions disagreed. Lem Butler, 2016 US Barista Champion, responded with, “Wow. No. No. Heavens no… I feel like in a café we sell two things: a high-quality product and a high-quality service. And then, with the competition, it’s taking that to the extreme. The barista’s knowledge of the coffee, where it comes from, what the judges are going to taste and why they’re going to taste what they’re tasting is very important in the industry… and if you’re all using the same coffee it kind of takes away from that. No, that’s a bad idea.”

The signature drink round also relies heavily on a barista’s tastes and preferences. However, when everyone is using the same beans, it limits a competitor’s ability to create a drink that reflects their vision of specialty coffee.

Tony Querio, US Roasters Champion 2016, offered another perspective. He told me that “Green buying is the foundation of every coffee company. If you can’t pick a coffee, if you can’t say that a coffee is going to serve its purpose well and you’re going to get excited about presenting it, I don’t believe you should be competing.”

“It should be a basic foundational skill of everybody at this level. Whether you do it in your cafés or [in a roastery], it’s up to you to find a coffee that fits the needs of whoever your consumer is… You use those skills, so if you’re going to be in the top calibre you should be able to express those skills.”

This begs the question: who is the World Barista Championship for?

Ally Coffee

Tony Querio (centre) listens as members of Academia do Café explain how they grow their coffee during the Champions Origin Tour.

Compulsory Coffees & “Fairness”

“The people you see do well, they’re café owners, roasters, green buyers, head trainers… They are not your normal café barista,” Andrea Allen, US Barista Championship Runner-Up, tells me. “They are people have access to literally the world’s best coffees.”

“The people I see coming to the competition who are café baristas, they’re bringing a point of view that is is relevant, and valid, and good,” Andrea continued. “But the judging panel, I think, has begun to expect a level of innovation and high ideology that really I think it’d be very hard to do when you’re a 40-hour-a-week café-bar barista… Those people who are higher up in the industry are presenting ideas that are changing the industry.”

One of the WBC’s strengths is, in fact, that it helps bring about new industry trends. However, some felt that the coffee sourcing section of the WBC benefited not just those in management positions, but also those from certain countries. Tetsu told me, “Not everyone can use expensive coffee, especially from some countries.”

Tony, while he values the green bean sourcing aspect, similarly acknowledged that, “In most Latin American countries, it’s harder [for a competitor] to import outside of their own country and so that narrows the window.”

The first seven years of the WBC (2000-2006), it was won by Denmark four times, Norway twice, and Australia once. Admittedly, there have been improvements in recent years. In 2011 and 2012, it was won by the coffee-producing countries of El Salvador and Guatemala. In the last couple of years, Asia has started to appear more frequently. But at the same time, in the last four years the US has made the finals three times, while only once has a coffee-producing country appeared. Funding, access, and education are undeniable aspects of this.

Tetsu was undecided on the matter of a compulsory coffee, and Tony was against it. Yet Reg Barber, another sponsor, also told me that he believed a compulsory coffee would be better. “[Some competitors] come from the Eastern bloc, South America, Africa, and they don’t have the money behind them or the backing to go out and get it, and that’s unfair.”

Ally Coffee

2016 World Barista Champion Berg Wu during his winning performance. Credit: Joel Smedley for Perfect Daily Grind

SEE ALSO: James Tooill: I Competed in the Brewers Cup to Be a Better Roaster

Should Coffee Competitions Be Fair?

Unfair it may be, but some of the champions didn’t feel that fairness was attainable.

Lem said, “You know, the world is not fair…. Let’s take it a little bit further then. So we all use the same coffee and then it comes down to the barista’s skill level. Well do they have access to a training facility? Do they have access to a Black Eagle? Or a K30? No, they don’t.”

He told me of WBC competitor who didn’t know what a K30 was. He asked for a blender, and so the other competitors had to help him dial in the grinder before the competition.

James Tooill, US Brewers Cup Runners Up, also said, “I just don’t think that fairness is a reasonable goal. I don’t think fairness is an aspect that we find in the marketplace. Fairness is not an aspect that we find in our employment lives. I think achieving equality of opportunity for success in national competitions would hurt the aspirational aspect of the competition so much.”

Ally Coffee

Lem Butler and Andrea Allen pull espressos on Fazenda Primavera, Brazil as part of the Champions Origin Tour.

Are Coffee Championships Really About The Barista?

For James, the WBC isn’t about a barista – it’s about a company. This is why he believes it should reflect the marketplace. “There’s this sort of old school philosophy that if you win the WBC or WBrC then you’re some sort of crackshot crazy awesome elite water pourer.” He laughed. “I’m not an elite water pourer… we can all pour water.”

“I think if anything, if there’s a concern that it’s not really about the barista, I just say… it’s not really about the barista. That’s fine. Let the barista be the representative of their company, and their roaster, and their philosophy, and their supply chain and their origin partners and their water supplier. Let the barista be what the barista is every day, which is a representation to the end customer of everything.”

“And there’s no need to isolate the tamp of a barista. We don’t want a tamping competition. We just want something that’s going to drive the industry forwards to better serve customers.”

Ally Coffee

Andrea Allen and James Tooill inspect coffee during processing as part of the Champions Origin Tour. Credit: Ally Coffee

Would Compulsory Coffees Be Unfair to The Coffee Industry?

Nor is it just companies who are represented at the WBC. It’s also farms, and regions, and countries. It’s processing methods. It’s varietals. It’s coffee.

Tony was passionate about the importance of this. “It opens up the ability for people to bring forward coffees from areas that don’t always get the same attention. You know, with everybody having to use the same thing, it generally ends up that it is a sponsor doing that. And how are we ever going to push forward some of these coffee-producing areas that are get written off, if nobody gets to present them on a massive scale?”

“When a Barista Competitor says that, you know, this coffee from Mexico, this coffee from Tanzania, this coffee from some of these places that don’t the same reputation… this is as good as all of your best Brazils, your best Colombians, your best Kenyans, your best Ethiopians, your best Panamas… That can majorly shape the future of this product.”

“And we need to be expanding if we’re looking at the future of coffee as we know it.”

Ally Coffee

Compulsory coffees could make it harder for small farms like Fazenda Tres Barras to appear in competition.

No Consensus, But Grounds For Thought

A compulsory coffee for the WBC is a contentious issue. It raises issues of what the WBC should test, who is supposed to compete, and whether we should consider it to be more of a skills-based contest or an industry award.

These questions are complex, and we lack easy answers. But it’s important to be aware of what the WBC really means – and what limits, or advantages, competitors. As Tetsu said, at the end of his interview with me, “We must keep thinking about it.”

Please note: Ally Coffee is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind and hosted us during the Coffee Champions Origin Tour.

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up to our newsletter!