From barista championships to brewers cups, competitions are a place where elite coffee professionals come together to showcase their skills and put their abilities to test.
For a shot at success, contenders must undergo months, if not years, of training to hone their performances and finesse their techniques. However, the journey through which they go offers invaluable experiences and insights for both their professional and personal advancement.
What’s more, winning a competition, particularly on the world stage, can propel coffee professionals into the public eye. For many, it has offered an unrivalled platform not only for growing their businesses, but also for speaking out about issues affecting the industry.
To understand more about the value of competitions for coffee roasters, I spoke with three-time World Barista Champion coach, Federico Bolanos.
The role of competitions in the specialty coffee sector
In the specialty coffee sector, competitions represent some of the most important dates in a calendar year. They are held in almost every coffee-consuming country around the world, drawing in thousands of professionals from a range of backgrounds.
Among the most prestigious competitions are those run by World Coffee Events (WCE). WCE is an event management organisation founded in 2011 by what is today the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).
Of the seven annual championships held by WCE, the World Barista Championship (WBC) and World Coffee Roasting Championship (WCRC) are considered some of the most important events for coffee roasters.
Federico has been working in the specialty coffee industry since 2005. During this time, he has trained three world champions: Alejandro Mendez from El Salvador (2011), Jooyeon Jeon from South Korea (2019), and Diego Campos from Colombia (2021).
He tells me that coffee competitions tend to shine a light on different aspects of the industry – and push it forward as a result.
“In every part of the coffee chain, there is a professional who plays an important role in creating that cup of specialty coffee,” he says.
“Coffee competitions provide a window through which people can really see the level and importance of what these coffee professionals do. It’s a space to show not only their talent, but also their progressive ideas. This can impact the industry as a whole.
“For instance, barista competitions have promoted a lot of progressiveness and advancement of technology in all aspects of the coffee industry – from the farm level all the way to roasting, machineries and more. So many ideas have come out of coffee competitions. And we have to be thankful that this platform exists.
“Competitions push people to think further about coffee and what coffee can do. That’s because competitions are exactly that space – open and willing to receive creativity from coffee professionals.”
The benefits of competing
The rigorous training, practice, and research that goes into preparing for competitions is often a steep learning curve for roasters. However, it’s essential to honing their craft and sharpening their skills.
“Once you are involved in the competition and you put yourself to the test against the best of the best, it makes you understand that there is always so much you can improve on as a coffee professional – and as a person,” Federico explains.
“Competition is not so much about determining who is better than the other; but rather, it is a mechanism that allows you to measure how much you understand about coffee already. It is about wanting to be better than yourself.”
This means that you will always be encouraged to push beyond your boundaries and constantly seek for self-improvement. At the same time, it also nurtures your creative side as you innovate on your products, and develop new roasting styles or brewing recipes.
It’s also about boosting your career in the public eye. In most cases, finishing as one of the top runners elevates your status and earns your brand credibility and publicity.
For example, co-founder of Onyx Coffee Lab, Andrea Allen won the 2020 US Barista Championship and said in a Forbes article: “The competition is a huge marketing arm for us. It’s watched by high-end niche coffee professionals and shows us to the exact right audience to demonstrate our quality. It has helped put Onyx on the map.”
A number of coffee roasters and baristas who have won competitions have also gone on to become prominent figures in the industry. These include Tim Wendelboe, James Hoffmann, Rubens Gardelli, and Sasa Sestic, to name a few.
Federico tells me that, ultimately, competitions allow you to be part of something bigger than yourself. They offer a space in which coffee professionals can come together to support and learn from one another, helping to build a stronger sense of community – and push the industry to greater heights.
“I have been in the coffee industry for nearly 20 years,” he says, “and I still have the friends that I made in the first year I got involved in competitions.”
What does it take to be a coffee champion?
Becoming the best in your field in anything usually requires several qualities converging at once. Very few champions have been able to reach great heights by relying on their natural talent alone.
As well as grit, determination, and perseverance, it takes a willingness to put in the necessary hours of practice and push yourself to the limit. 2019 World Cup Tasters Champion, Daniel Horbat, did this when he went several months without a number of foodstuffs in order to train his palette before the event.
From his experience training world barista champions, Federico tells me that consistency is one of the most valuable qualities to have.
“To be a coffee champion, first of all, you have to be a champion at your workplace, with every cup that you make, every drink that you serve, and for every customer that walks through the door,” he says.
When you have that level of excellence in your day-to-day routine, it becomes easier to train and perform in competitions. For instance, the fifteen minutes that you spend on stage preparing drinks for the judges in a barista championship will appear natural and genuine to the audience.
“When excellence becomes a part of you, you don’t have to act it out,” Federico explains. “So it’s easy to become a champion when you have that.
For aspiring roasters or baristas who are looking to get involved in competitions, Federico’s advice is to “jump in, compete and don’t get discouraged even if things don’t go well the first few times.”
“In fact, not only should you not get discouraged, but actually embrace the negative or undesired results because with those results come the most important lessons. Those lessons make you transcend as a professional.
“If you don’t make mistakes, you have no experience. You might win but you won’t have experience and experience is at the core of a true world champion.”
However, the majority those who have won coffee competitions haven’t seen immediate success. For example, Jooyeon Jeon was competing for ten years and Diego Campos for more than twelve before either of them claimed the title of world barista champion. While many would have given up long before, it was the perseverance that ultimately enabled them to win.
Finally, doing well in competitions requires not only technical skills, but also having the right attitude and mentality. In Federico’s opinion, kindness, humbleness and passion are important traits that will contribute tremendously to the journey of becoming a coffee champion.
Ultimately, coffee competitions offer much more than just a trophy and title. From validations you receive for yourself and your brand, to experiences that you gain along the way and people who you meet in competitions, they all play a significant role in advancing your career in the coffee industry.
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