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What Barista Competitions have to say about serving speciality coffee

November 08, 2012

There is a fair bit to talk about on the competition front.  What often fails to be appreciated though, is the worth the competitions have as an influence for a speciality coffee model; more specifically how service can draw from the format of competition routines.

When I first got into coffee in Melbourne Australia, many of the shops/roasters I visited and the baristas I chatted with did not have a deep enthusiasm for barista competitions.  The common complaints suggested the format was obscure, and did not translate to a real world service environment.

It would indeed be fair to say that the competition is very specific.  And when entering the realm of coffee I thought that maybe the competition was more about developing expertise and understanding in a way that was valuable but detached from a real world serving environment.  With routines being based on a rehearsed presentation, there is every chance that individuals who do quite well in a competition may not be as effective when navigating the daily challenges of a busy commercial environment.  It is a possibility, although not a certainty.

However, after an increasing recognition of the hurdles faced by speciality coffee, especially regarding service in existing café models; I do think that barista competitions have been gently suggesting a positive direction for commercial shops to consider.  The developing service approaches in speciality coffee are centred on presentation and explanation of this complex product, as well as a continued exploration of the product’s possibilities.

Treating speciality coffee as a specialist product and displaying it in an appropriate way is exactly what the competitions achieve. In the past they have not been relevant to coffee shops out there, because there haven’t been dedicated speciality coffee shops.  Independent cafes that take time and care over their coffee but do not present a clear display of provenance and flavour, and that do not have any consistent dialogue or intrigue are not speciality coffee shops. The spotlight is not really on the coffee.  They are cafes that care about their coffee. It is the difference between a bistro that has a great wine list compared to a dedicated wine tasting store.  This concept needs more elaboration and my next post will look at this more directly.  The typical artisanal independent coffee shop models can be and often are wonderful cafes/coffee shops but they are not in the strictest sense a specialist shop focusing on one product.  This is why competition formats will appear not to relate, rightly so as complete specialism will always be a divergence from a broader approach.

A lot of discussion takes place as to what a future retail model for speciality coffee could be.  I do not think the key lies in not having a till on the bar or some conceptual environment (yes, design can and does aid the overall goal), but what really matters is that the focus is on the product and the shop and staff are displaying their coffee to the general public in the same way coffee is displayed and talked about at a barista championship.  By this, I mean the kind of communication that scores well and is encouraged by judges, the kind of routines and performances that anyone can watch and enjoy.

When I think about it, the model our shop has developed resembles a hybrid cross between an efficient hospitable coffee shop and the presentation of a barista competition, coupled with a few other devices to prep expectation.  Really though, the concept is making coffee in front of people, explaining its provenance and flavour as well as making enough of a show to encourage queries, questions and dialogue.  All the while hosting and guiding the experience for the drinker.

Sound familiar?

The folks behind Barista competitions really have been onto something for quite a while.


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