January 11, 2022

Does the World Barista Championship need to change?

The World Barista Championship (WBC) is a competition that promotes excellence in coffee and recognises the barista profession on an international scale. It is a successful event which is popular across the sector.

However, many in the coffee industry maintain that it is in need of a refresh. Accessibility, inclusiveness, and transparency are three key issues that have been flagged by critics in recent years.

To learn more about the event, I spoke to 2013 World Barista Champion Pete Licata, 2018 World Barista Champion Agnieszka Rojewska, 2019 World Barista Champion Jooyeon Jeon, and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood from Colonna Coffee. Read on to find out what they told me.

You might also like our article on infused coffees.

man competing at world barista championship

What are the barista championships about?

The WBC is an annual competition organised by World Coffee Events to determine who is the best barista in the world that year. The event is hosted in a different city every year. 

After a 30-month hiatus and the cancellation of the 2020 WBC, it returned in 2021, where Colombian Diego Campos was named champion.

The competition format

The competition’s entrants are the winners of the national barista championships, which are operated either by Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) chapters, or an approved independent national body.

For the WBC, there are three judging stages held over two days. In every round, the participants perform a 15-minute routine in which they serve a total of 12 beverages to four selected judges. Each judge receives an espresso, a milk beverage, and a signature drink.

There are two types of judges, Sensory and Technical. Sensory judges award points based on different factors such as presentation, flavour, and the drink’s overall balance. Technical judges, meanwhile, award points based on the techniques used by the baristas and the cleanliness of the process. 

The baristas with the highest scores advance from the first round and the semi-final to a list of six finalists. They then compete in the final round, before the judges crown the champion for that year. 

What are the aims of the competition?

“It’s an opportunity to share ideas and approaches on stage, gather a community, and help promote high-quality coffee,” Agnieszka says.

Many in the coffee industry look forward to this event, as it is the largest global professional barista event that exists. For many, it’s an opportunity to meet up and share both experiences and knowledge.

Jooyeon, meanwhile, says that for her, it’s about growing the specialty coffee industry and promoting the value of the barista.

“In the past, few people thought of the barista role as a profession or career; they viewed it as a part-time gig. Some still do. 

“The WBC offers a stage where we can be respected as baristas, and feel that we are doing something of skill and value.”

So why does it need to change?

Pete says: “In the last decade or so, the once-small and immature industry that is specialty coffee has grown significantly and quickly.” 

Pete notes that in line with this, the barista profession has evolved accordingly. However, over the years, he believes certain intangible, unmeasured expectations have gradually become a part of the competition and its scoring. 

“The WBC is supposed to be a barista competition; a test of your barista skills,” he says. “Today, however, it’s come to be more about how well you source coffee or how much knowledge or information you have that other people don’t. It’s lost some of its accessibility, and it needs to be more inclusive.”

The WBC rules and regulations have evolved somewhat over the years, but the format and judging have overall largely remained the same. For some, this is a problem, and they think updates are necessary.

Maxwell is a three-time UK barista champion and a three-time WBC finalist. He says he thinks the competition is in need of change. 

“At first, I thought championships were more objective and calibrated than they actually are,” he says. “However, I quickly realised that the competition structure has not been built with an astute understanding of scoring and objectivity.” 

For him, the most important change regards one thing alone: transparency.

world barista championship winners

Transparency in the WBC

All four interviewees agree that the WBC is a hugely impressive event, and that the judges, organisers, and others involved deserve respect for managing to keep it both popular and valuable.

“However, we can make it better,” Pete says. “It hasn’t evolved too much in the last 10 or 15 years. We have to redefine a few things, and make it a little more objective, transparent, and accessible.” 

In September, Maxwell released a video on social media entitled Why barista championships don’t make sense. In this, he outlines the main issues with the competition today.

Subjectivity in scoring

The topic of scoring subjectivity is nothing new. However, some believe that efforts to make the scoring system more objective and transparent are well overdue.

“When I started competing in 2004, the rules and regulations weren’t that well defined,” Pete says. “The judging was very subjective – more so than it is today – and brazenly so.”

Maxwell says that the scoring remains too subjective and opaque, and believes that the competition hasn’t explored these issues enough.

“The complexity of the rules and the lack of transparency leaves room for people with the most authority to take control of the rules and impose their interpretation,” he says. “There is little accountability, all the scoring happens behind closed doors and there is no documentation.”

Influence with scoring

Influence in the scoring process is another issue, Maxwell says. Judges with more influence, a higher profile, or more experience can unwittingly sway the other judges and their scores. 

“There is value in perspective. The difference in the judging and people’s perceptions of coffee is the interesting part,” he says. “It’s a pity the final score doesn’t always reflect this.”

He suggests that having judges reveal scores on the spot would make the competition more interesting for the public, as well as being fairer for competitors. 

Judge selection

WBC judges and many of the event’s organisers are volunteers, which is testimony to their commitment to the sector. 

However, Maxwell says this is often used as an excuse for poor organisation. He tells me that in turn, this creates a shortage of potential judges and leads to an unregulated selection process.

“The judge selection process is shrouded in mystery,” he says. “We need more accountability and non-biased selection.”

Pete, meanwhile, says that many people complain about the judges’ qualifications. 

“Competitors spend six months learning and practicing, and are sometimes judged by someone who might not even have the same amount of experience,” he says.

However, he does acknowledge that overall, the judges have good intentions. According to him, they have made efforts to make the scoring more accurate, relevant, and fair over the years, even if there is room for improvement.

barista preparing coffee in cafe

Exclusive competition or accessible opportunity?

The topic of accessibility in the WBC is a two-sided debate. For example, Pete says that a barista competition should celebrate the skills of people who make coffee on a daily basis. 

While it should definitely reward excellence, practice, planning and strategy, it shouldn’t reward things that are out of reach of someone who works in a café everyday.

“Some competitors have universities doing research for them so they quote that data in their presentation to be more credible and get extra points,” he says. “I don’t think that information should be weighted higher than everything else, for instance.”

The average barista might not have the time or means to travel to producing countries, experiment with processing, or engage with academics. Rewarding people for these factors can be construed as unfair. 

Maxwell, on the other hand, believes that excellence, innovation, and initiative should be rewarded in a competitive context.

“I struggle with the concept of accessibility in coffee,” he says. “I don’t think you can find any hobby that doesn’t require a lot of time and effort. 

“The question is more about how we can make it easier for people to begin their journey.”

For him, it’s once more about honesty and transparency. Successful baristas and champions being transparent about how they got where they are and how things work can act as a blueprint for aspiring competitors.

There is also the question of inclusivity. The list of barista champions over the years alone clearly highlights this issue, as an overwhelming number of them are male and white.

Agnieszka became the first female to win the World Barista Championship in 2018.

She says: “There were always fewer women competing, so it’s logical that fewer were winning. The competition itself doesn’t block anybody from competing. 

“It’s more about women gaining access to training and being encouraged.”

She says the biggest barrier is resources, and says that people who compete and win often invest a lot of money or have sponsors behind them. This means they have access to better coffee, better preparation, and better coaches.

“It’s like a professional sport these days,” she says. “What would help is to make resources more accessible, then more people would at least try.”

man competing in world barista championship

What does an improved version of the championship look like?

In spite of these criticisms, the WBC remains successful and popular. It is an amazing platform for baristas, especially those looking to network and collaborate.

“The worry across the industry is that it will lose its value if it doesn’t evolve,” Maxwell says. “I’d hate to see the competition disappear. We need to fix it before that happens.”

More transparency

For Maxwell, the way forward is to make the whole thing transparent. He recommends elevating the judging, making the score sheet simpler, and embracing differences in judges’ perceptions based on experience and credentials.

“We shouldn’t be having this conversation at barista competitions backstage,” he says. “We need to speak out, find solutions and implement them, and people need to be held accountable for their decisions.”

How can it be more inclusive?

For Pete, accessibility and inclusiveness are the areas to focus on. 

He mentions the importance of engaging organisations like Glitter Cat Barista, a non-profit that provides support, training, access to resources, and mentorship for marginalised hospitality professionals including “BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, neurodivergent, disabled, and persons of marginalized gender”.

“It’s a great initiative to get people who probably never thought they could even compete to participate and be taken seriously,” he says. “This is a platform that has traditionally been reserved for white men, and it’s important to address that.”

Pete also believes that innovation and creative competition should be separate. 

“You should be able to just walk in with your barista skills and be judged solely on that,” he says. “This, by default, will make it more accessible.”

Co-operative and be realistic

Agnieszka, meanwhile, says there needs to be a willingness to cooperate between organisers, judges, and competitors. 

“Every party needs to understand and consider the point of view of the other sides.

“It’s easy to say something is wrong without offering suggestions for improvement that are realistic for all involved.”

diego campos, world barista champion

The WBC is an amazing spotlight for the specialty coffee movement and for baristas. It highlights and rewards skill, innovation, teams, community, and production. There is clearly a sign that it is changing, too. The 2021 iteration welcomed the first African finalist, as a winner from a major coffee producing country.

However, a lack of transparency, objectiveness, and accessibility are issues that stakeholders have been talking about for years. In spite of this, they remain issues that the championship seems to find hard to shake off. 

There is great value in rewarding excellence, curiosity, and knowledge. Channeling that while implementing reforms informed by knowledgeable, experienced, and open-minded stakeholders could take the WBC from being successful to truly transformative.

Enjoyed this? Then try this article on 3 revolutionary WBC routines.

Perfect Daily Grind 

Photo credits: Luca Rinaldi & Michele Illuzzi 

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