Thoughts from the 2005 USBC - Part One

(Important note... this was written a while back. I've been thinking a lot since then about whether or not I really want to share it with everyone. After a lot of talk and some input from people whose opinions I value and who I trust, I've decided to post it. Please keep in mind that this is just my opinion, does not represent any sort of official viewpoint or statement by my employer or any organization.)

Ever since getting back from the USBC I’ve been struggling with how to express my experiences at the competition and my reactions to those experiences. I think I’ve finally got a handle on it. So… what I’m going to do is break it all out into three sections. The first section is A Report on the 2005 USBC – observations, conclusions, and the state of the game. The second section is Specialty Coffee in the US – thoughts on the community, the people and the structures. The third section is Seattle Espresso – tasting notes and opinions.

As a warning, I am 100% confident that I’m going to manage to piss off a lot of you at some point in this. Please understand that what I’m writing here is not only just my own opinion on things but that it’s also entirely not personal and not directed at any person or people.

A Report on the 2005 USBC – observations, conclusions, the state of the game

This was an incredibly stressful and tense experience. Not just for me but for everyone (or so it seemed). When looking through the folks who were entered, it became clear well in advance that there were going to be some really good baristas who didn’t even make it to the finals. In fact, after the semifinals were completed a couple people noted that there were three of four baristas who could be considered candidates to win it all who would not make it to the final round.

This, obviously, is a huge change from previous years. Across the board, the skill level of the baristas has increased dramatically. And that made this the most competitive and most compelling USBC yet. I was really proud of so many of the baristas in attendance. They worked so hard and represented their craft so well. My thanks go out to all of them.

Anyway… so Valerie and I hopped on the train in Portland on Friday midday. Oh… by the way, the train is definitely the way to go. Especially if you have a broken leg. After a rather pleasant ride up, we got to Seattle. A quick side note… the Seattle train station is horrible. It reminds me of the Bridgeport, CT Greyhound station (and no, that’s not a good thing). Anyway, got a cab ride (scary – living in Portland means you forget what city cab drivers are like) over to the Hotel Andra (super sweet). Settled in, made some phone calls, co-ordinated some stuff and then went out for a fantastic meal at Lark.

So now it’s Saturday and it’s the semi-finals. I’m chatting to various people, getting the reports on the qualifying rounds. Two things become clear. First – the baristas are polished and pro (though the espresso is inconsistent). Second – the politics behind the scenes are crazy. I try to calm things down a bit – as much as I can at least. The performances are underway and baristas are looking strong. Everyone has patter. No-one seems to be doing obviously stupid things. Wow. I’m starting to get stressed.

Heather Perry comes out and does an incredibly professional performance, but she seems to be making some uncharacteristic technical mistakes. None the less, she is so polished it’s amazing. Jennifer Prince does an awesome job. Super elegant and smooth. Jon Lewis wows the crowd with his off-the-wall, entertaining and brilliant presentation skills but suffers a blow-out with his seltzer bottle for his specialty drink. Kyle dons his Assassin Face and stuns the crowd with his spiel (first time in my life I’ve seen all four judges totally empty the signature drinks). Billy is charming and slick. The difference between last year and this year for him is immense. Ellie is the picture of calm professionalism. Phuong seems uncharacteristically shaky but gets through her routine.

Afterwards I talk to some competitors and get their thoughts. Most are uncertain, nervous and stressed. Ellie and the other Intelligentsia folks seem to be the most confident. Poor Phuong is super bummed and heads off to the hotel to pack her stuff so she can leave.

I talk to some judges and to spectators and we do some odds-making. Everyone pretty much figures it’s going to come down to Ellie and Kyle with Jen Prince and Billy being the dark horses.

When the finalists are announced there is shock amongst the spectators and the competitors. While Ellie made it, Kyle did not. And while Billy made it, Jen Prince did not.

In some ways, this could be seen as a good thing. For the first time ever, you couldn’t pick out who was going to win without tasting the drinks. Still shocking, and people are beginning to comment about drinks they’d tasted, unusual explanations of scoring… and politics rears its ugly head again.

Folks go out to various parties. The vast majority of people are not competing on Sunday, so the alcohol consumption is high and the hour is late. The mood starts to turn, the community pulls back together.

Sunday morning comes around and the finals begin. Everyone seems to be doing really well. Brownen and I kibitz colour commentary. We’re noticing that most of the competitors are having issues with their shots. A lot of people are pulling shots with the grind just a bit fine, leaving them with low volume and some visible extraction issues. For a couple competitors, we also see some dramatic variance from shot to shot. Nerves? Unfamiliar machines? Hard to know, but it’s clear from our better vantage point that the espresso is turning into a struggle for a lot of people. The standout performances seem to be Ellie’s and Billy’s. Ellie is just as smooth and inviting and professional as in the semi-finals. Her shots seem to be a little over-extracted from where we sit, but otherwise she knocks it out of the park. Billy’s performance seems really solid. He’s charming and we don’t see any flaws from where we sit. His shots look the best from our viewpoint – thick and heavy and creamy, with perfect flow – and he cuts them off before they get over-extracted (unlike some of the other competitors). Phuong does a beautiful presentation. Incredibly smooth and relaxed. Night and day from the semis – such a great thing to see.

Again, we do some handicapping and agree that it’s likely to be Billy or Ellie. But no… Phuong comes in first!! So cool. To think she thought she was going home just 24 hours earlier, and now she is the US Barista Champion. She looks totally shocked and overwhelmed. I try to talk to her, but she’s like a deer in the headlights. And then someone from the SCAA comes up to her and says, “We’ll need a phone number where we can reach you at all times for the next three days. We have a bunch of media calls to set up” and you can see the reality begin to set in.

Phuong is going to be a really good representative for the US. She’s so professional; she’s so good at what she does. And she is such a wonderful person. Immediately afterwards people start telling her, “If there is anything I can do to help.” Again, the community pulls together. People are offering judging assistance, tasting assistance, coffee assistance. It’s very cool.

So in the end – what did I think? As I said in the beginning – the barista skill level at these competitions has increased really dramatically. The difference between the top 6 and the next 6 was unbelievably small. Only one of the regional champions made it into the finals. This was a tough, tough competition. And, in the end, we have a great champion.

Now that being said… there were some issues with the competition. Some were small and technical but others were more serious. On the small and technical front… you have to wonder why the competitors were using Automatic machines. We all work on semi-automatic machines. If you’re a quality conscious shop, that’s just what you do. Providing competitors with these machines probably contributed to the issues with espresso quality. This may seem like a tiny thing – but there is a reason why we all choose the equipment we use. We want to make the best espresso possible. By forcing competitors to use equipment that is not only not what they are used to but which is a compromise when it comes to quality you are degrading the resulting drinks.

On the more serious side, while the quality of the judging was obviously greatly improved this year, there are still issues. I suppose I’m barista-centric in my thinking, but as far as I’m concerned, I have an issue with there being judges who have never been baristas, who have never worked bar shifts and who I wouldn’t put behind a bar in a shop. I don’t care how passionate about coffee you are or how long you’ve been in this business – as a general rule, baristas know the craft of being a barista best and are best suited to judging. There are, of course, always going to be exceptions but this is my general rule.

In addition, I still have some serious issues with the structure and with the scoring of the competition. I suppose it is the underlying philosophy of the competition that troubles me the most actually. To me, the USBC should philosophically be about rewarding the best baristas. And the best baristas should be those people who make and serve the best drinks in the most appropriate and professional manner. Instead, the USBC seems to have become about identifying the best US WBC competitor. It has always been somewhat divorced from the realities of being a barista in the United States, but this has become more obvious over time. We are in very real danger of seeing “competitive barista” as a job and a pursuit and a passion split off entirely from “professional barista.”

It seems at a certain level like the USBC is becoming the “American Idol” of the barista world. It’s flashy, it’s competitive, it’s stressful and professional and in the end it is about creating the next generation of conservative professional entertainers. It could become very good at identifying and promoting the Kelly Clarkson of baristas. But it will never turn out a Nirvana. It will never discover the next big thing; it won’t push the envelope or create revolutionary change.

Personally, I’m tired of the whole “three star” thing. I mean, let’s be honest… there is not and will never be a “three star” coffee bar. To even suggest such a thing displays incredibly ignorance of what the concept entails. The fact that there will never be a “three star” coffee bar is not a bad thing. There will never be a “three star” bistro either. There will never be a “three star” takeout restaurant or a “three star” beer bar. And when it comes right down to it, I don’t want this whole starched white shirts and bow ties, centerpieces and tablecloths nonsense. What do I want? I want the mythic Peter Guiliano $5 espresso. I want the $7 cappuccino. Does this require polished and professional service? Hell yeah. Does it require more than the usual coffee bar ambience? Of course it does. But most of all it requires incredible drink quality above all else. So things change as a result. Are you going to have to wait a bit longer and would that be okay? Of course (bye-bye 15 minute rule). Is it okay if drinks sit and wait to be served? Of course not (bye-bye 4 drinks served at once). Do you want to be entertained by your barista a la Benihana? Do you want to attend a lecture on the varietal provenance of the beans in your blend? Please – I think not (bye-bye patter). Do I want to be able to interact with the barista, on my own terms? Of course (bye-bye invisible wall).

What do I think would be a solution? It’s time to rethink the USBC. Instead of just following the lead of the WBC and seeing the USBC merely as a way to qualify for the WBC – we need to have the USBC be about crowning the US Barista Champion. On our own terms and in our own way. This might mean drastically changing the current rules. It might mean throwing them out and starting from scratch. So be it. Maybe we end up with a competition where judges order drinks from baristas. Maybe we end up with team events. Maybe it’s just like it is now but with different scoring, people can bring their own baskets and can adjust temp and pressure. Maybe it’s all peer-judged and peer-structured. I don’t know what structure everyone will want – but the current one isn’t working for all of us and is working less and less well for professional baristas here in the US.

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