August 24, 2023

Are specialty coffee competitions still about credibility – or prize money?


Competitions are some of the most exciting and captivating events in the global coffee sector. Often pushing the boundaries of innovation and creating new trends in specialty coffee, competitions also serve as important platforms for industry professionals to progress in their careers.

Over the years, we’ve seen many competition winners – most notably at the World Barista Championship – go on to establish themselves in the industry or develop their own personal brands. The widespread recognition and respect for taking part in such highly-regarded championships has helped kick start the careers of many well-known coffee professionals.

Recently, however, it also seems a small but growing number of event organisers have started to offer bigger cash prizes to winners. And while some level of financial compensation for competitors is certainly warranted, it’s also important to question whether credibility is still the top prize.

To discuss this further, I spoke to seasoned coffee competitors Hany Ezzat and Josh Tarlo. Read on for more of their insight into how championship prizes are changing – and how this could impact future career opportunities for competitors.

You may also like our article on what happened at the 2023 World Barista Championship.

Coffee competition winners at the World Barista Championship.

How have prizes for coffee competitions changed in recent years?

Although the specialty coffee competition scene is relatively new, there is now a more diverse range of events than ever before. These vary from more prestigious and rule-focused competitions like the World Coffee Championships to more inclusive events like the World AeroPress Championship and the Barista League.

Similarly, the prizes also vary. For instance, at the 2023 WBC, winner Boram Um received a cash prize of €5,000 (US $5,446.65) provided by qualified water filtration sponsor BWT water+more. Um also received a WBC trophy and an origin trip ticket.

However, arguably an even more important prize is gaining the title of “World’s Best Barista” – an accolade that has been a launch pad for the careers of many prestigious coffee professionals. Some of the most well known examples include:

  • The first-ever World Barista Champion Robert Thoresen, who founded several prominent coffee companies – including KAFFA Oslo
  • Tim Wendelboe who won the 2004 WBC, and opened the eponymous and influential Nordic roastery three years later
  • The 2006 World Barista Champion Klaus Thomsen, who opened trailblazing Scandinavian roaster Coffee Collective the following year
  • James Hoffmann, who won the 2007 World Barista Championship, and has been credited as a pioneer of the UK specialty coffee scene
  • The 2010 WBC winner Michael Phillips who co-founded Handsome Coffee Roasters in LA – which was purchased by Blue Bottle Coffee in 2014
  • Sasa Sestic, the 2015 World Barista Champion, who has become a prominent figure in experimental coffee processing methods
  • The first-ever woman to win the WBC, Polish competitor Agnieszka Rojewska, who helped to improve inclusivity and visibility of women in specialty coffee

A bigger focus on prize money?

Most of us can agree that industry-wide validation of competitors’ skills, dedication, and passion for specialty coffee is always the most sought-after prize at these events. 

But while this certainly remains true, a small number of coffee competitions have also started to offer substantial cash prizes. One of the most recent examples is the inaugural Australia’s Richest Barista, which took place at the 2023 Melbourne International Coffee Expo.

Winner Rawirat “Jibbi” Techasitthanet received the grand prize of AU $25,000 (US $16,110), with runner-up Pirada Tungbenjaphol and third-place Lucky Salvador also awarded prize money. 

It goes without saying that earning the title of “Australia’s Richest Barista” obviously needs to come with a hefty cash prize. But is gaining credibility still as important with these kinds of competition formats?

Hany Ezzat is a Sales and Guest Roaster Manager at ONA Coffee in Canberra, Australia. He also competed in the first-ever Australia’s Richest Barista competition, and placed fifth at the 2023 Australian Brewers Cup.

“I definitely still believe the biggest benefit of competing is the platform and respect you receive from the coffee community,” he says. “For many years, credibility had been the only prize offered, except some short-term sponsorship deals or ambassador roles until the next champion was crowned.

“I love that we’re finally seeing bigger and bigger cash prizes,” he adds. “For the majority of competitors, if you compare the time spent on training to prize money, they aren’t proportional.”

A barista samples a coffee at a competition.

Aligning competitors’ expectations with reality

For many competitors, the biggest pay-off for weeks (or even months) of training and financial investment is being considered the best in their respective field. Prize money also clearly helps, but gaining this title often holds more weight.

However, it’s what competitors make of their newly-crowned title that ultimately counts in the long term.

Josh Tarlo is the founder of Headstand, a RTD coffee leaf tea seltzer brand. He is also the 2018 UK Barista Champion and 2013 Canadian Brewers Cup Champion.

“I think having a variety of competitions is great,” he says. “In my experience, however, competitors’ disappointment is sometimes rooted in the fact that people have an idea of what the competitions are, but they don’t live up to their expectations.

“Coffee competitions can’t be everything for everyone,” he adds. “So the more diversity we have, the more opportunities there are for competitors to find a format that resonates with them the most.”

In line with this, we could see some coffee competition organisers focus more on awarding substantial cash prizes – while others continue to use a more traditional format. Both types of competition can co-exist harmoniously, as long as there is transparency about the overall purpose of taking part.

Investment from industry stakeholders

Most competition winners would agree that respect and admiration from fellow competitors and peers in the coffee sector is incredibly important. But if you want to progress further in your career, there needs to be a similar level of interest from companies and brands.

“I might be wrong, but I’m not seeing many big career boosts from competitions in recent years,” Josh says. “This only really matters as much as the industry gives it credit. I can only speak from a UK context, but besides the World Coffee Championships, my impression is companies don’t share the same level of enthusiasm for other competitions.”

Since launching in 2000, this has been most noticeable at the World Barista Championships. Many winners have gone on to become prominent roasters, brand ambassadors, content creators, and influential figures – and also receive more support from prominent coffee companies.

“It’s a shame given how many coffee businesses don’t differentiate from their competitors,” Josh adds. “If a company knew how to leverage an award-winning team, it’s one of the few ways to stand out from the crowd.”

A judge watches a competitor at a coffee competition.

It’s clear that the format of coffee competitions is changing, including the prizes that winners receive. But how they will continue to evolve in the future remains to be seen.

“I still believe the most valuable prize is the recognition and platform you gain when performing well at competitions,” Hany concludes. “How you chose to use that platform, however, is a whole other conversation.”

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether the World Barista Championship is becoming more mainstream.

Photo credits: Specialty Coffee Association

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