2017 ASCA Australian Barista Champion Hugh Kelly on the value of competitions

Over the last few years, the value of barista competitions has been questioned. Online coffee personalities have criticised the competition for being outdated, unfair to those unable to source more exclusive coffees, and for not being a true representation of barista technique.

I, however, strongly believe barista competitions have as much value now as they ever have on a fundamental level that allows people to grow and progress beyond what the industry currently practices.

I have competed in barista competitions for the past eight years, and this journey has been an eye-opening experience. My first three to four years of competing were all about finding my feet in the coffee industry. I worked as a barista in a coffee shop where I enjoyed making and tasting coffee. I knew I wanted to be better, but I wasn’t thinking a whole lot deeper about what my ideal coffee would be, nor what my role would be in making this happen.

With a limited understanding, my first few years of competition were tough. I felt like I made every basic mistake there was to making a cup of coffee. All of these mistakes, and many more, in some way affected me on the scoresheet. My desire to improve forced me to face my errors head on rather than sweeping them under the rug.

In the café, if a shot has channeled, meaning it hasn’t been evenly distributed or tamped in the basket and is extracting unevenly, you can easily make another. Fixing small inconsistencies in technique are not quite the pressing issues they can be in competition. Having one chance to serve your best 12 coffees in a row, in time, and in front of a knowledgeable audience, creates a different sort of pressure. At times, it is hard to be in control.

For this reason, I spent a lot of time working on distribution techniques. My team and I worked on bringing the first distribution tool into fruition (the Ona Coffee Distributor, or OCD) and I actually focused on how different ways of transferring grounds to the basket and tamping them affected the taste of each coffee I worked with. I would have never explored these fundamentals or options in a busy café. However, these, and many more developments, have consequently made their way to our café operations, meaning more consistently executed and higher quality coffees for our customers.

In this way, competition has fundamentally emphasised the importance of properly understanding the basics of preparing coffee. For me, it has provided some indication of where these basics were failing me. Baristas have to control and understand a huge number of variables to make consistently great coffee, and some indication of where to look first is always helpful. The detailed scoresheet gave me an element of direction that has been invaluable to not only myself, but our cafés and wholesale company in their evolution of quality.

With the fundamental value of competition considered, it’s also important to consider what barista competitions should focus on. For years, many competition routines were based around the work of others, particularly coffee producers. There is nothing wrong with this, as it helps spread some understanding and awareness of their role in the supply chain. These competitions have also helped progress the way we understand and prepare coffee in respective areas of the coffee industry, from cultivation to farming, processing, transportation, storage, roasting and extraction. Quality is being rewarded with higher compensation for efforts and new opportunities.

In the past, barista routines were based almost exclusively on the work of a coffee farmer. Now, we are seeing a tendency for judges to reward the barista for their work, interpretation of coffee(s), and how they’re influencing change across the entire industry. It is exciting to see greater emphasis on the role of the barista in delivering an experience through subtle rule changes, and new judging calibration standards that have pushed the barista to show what they can do. The current World Barista Champion (WBC) Dale Harris from the United Kingdom is a great example of this. He applied a lot of science to his routine, then articulated it in a way that was easy for the judges to interpret. Moving forward, there will still be reference to origins and processing, but more in the context of understanding the terroir.

People with access to extraordinary coffees have traditionally had a big advantage in being able to serve at least acceptable cups every day due to the reliance on extraordinary green coffee. However, this has brought the structure of barista competitions into question. I believe that the weight of criticism based on green coffee creating an uneven playing field has been exaggerated. This has drawn attention away from the true value of barista competitions: the role of the barista.

At the WBC in Seoul last year, some of the competitors swapped samples of their coffees for comparison, and the variance in quality of green and roasting approaches varied significantly. Some baristas were able to find and deliver excellent quality on the day, and do very well with coffee that had notable issues in both farming and roasting. This is not to criticise individuals for having bad coffee. Rather, we should be commending the baristas for utilising their strengths. The differentiation of the successful baristas was built more around those that could overcome adversity, use considered techniques appropriately, and place emphasis on the wide range of factors that contribute to a coffee experience. These inclue the chemical composition or hardness of the water used, grinder speed, distribution technique(s), tamping, temperature of the machine and water, brew weight, water pressure and volumetrics, time, vessel size and shape, and means of presentation.

It is easy to make an exceptional coffee taste average, but hard to represent its true quality. To deliver the experience required of top level competition is extremely difficult, regardless of the quality of the coffee and despite the criticism of barista competition being an exclusive green bean contest. At the higher levels, all coffees are exceptional and it becomes more important what the barista can do with their coffee. The understanding I have gained working with extraordinary competition coffees can be applied to improve regular coffees too.

This article features in the MICE 2018 showguide: A Coffee Lover’s Guidebook. To see the FULL article, pick up your copy of the showguide at MICE.

Hugh Kelly works in Research and Development at Ona Coffee, is a two-time Australian Barista Champion and 2017 fifth place World Barista Champion.