A look back at the first World Barista Championship

first World Barista Championship

Espressology’s Instaurator takes a trip down memory lane to his first encounter of the World Barista Championship, and describes the lessons learnt along the way.

A competitive nature is a healthy trait. It can motivate you to be curious and inspire you to reach heights you never thought possible. I learnt this first-hand back in 2000 when I went to hire a new barista trainer.

I advertised for the position and narrowed the candidates down in my fast-track way and arranged appointments with the three best applicants. When they came into the training room, I chatted with them in a relaxed, conversational way to try and get an understanding of what made them tick: their interests outside of work, their ambitions, where they saw themselves in a few years or five or 10 years’ time. I then explained to them that obviously, because they were going to have to train others in how to make coffee, they would need to be competent baristas themselves.

I asked if they would mind doing a little practical demonstration that consisted of making four coffees in a limited time with only a few minutes to set up. They of course agreed because they wanted the job.

I was amazed at how this simple demonstration separated the wheat from the chaff. There was one particular guy who amazed me as he just kept going for almost 10 minutes and still couldn’t make one satisfactory coffee. What stunned me wasn’t that he was not able to demonstrate the necessary skills, so much as his ability to have no embarrassment about his inappropriate lack of skill. He pretended right up until he walked out the door that he was actually perfectly skilled for the position. It was a great insight into the human ability for creating not just words that do not match up to actions, but actions that don’t match up to stated ability.

first world barista championship
The six finalists at the 2000 WBC from left: (top) Erla Kristisdottir, Robert Thoresen, Martin Hillebrandt, (bottom) Zelmir Bajic, Thomas Polti and George Sabados.

I had drawn a blank. None of the people I interviewed were good enough for the job.

At about this time though, I heard about a barista competition that was being staged by a coffee brand in Australia known as Piazza D’Oro, which was owned by Douwe Egberts, a very large European firm. Piazza D’Oro was a trailblazer of this kind of public barista competition in Australia. I was immediately curious to understand what it entailed as it was open to everyone. I tried to encourage a couple of our baristas to enter, even though one of the stipulations was that the contestants had to use Piazza D’Oro coffee. The competition was interesting and seemed to be based as much around general coffee knowledge as practical barista skills, with the judges interviewing the contestants as well as analysing their coffee-making ability.

I was intrigued by the way the competition worked and how it seemed to inspire people to do a good job. I knew this was something I desperately needed to do across every one of the 70 stores I was charged with helping to grow. One of the flaws in this format seemed to be that it was run and branded by a company and didn’t allow for different coffees that reflected the barista’s own preference. It would have been a bit like the Formula 1 but all the drivers having to compete using only one brand of car. As a branding exercise, it was no doubt very good and visionary for the time, but as a format, it was always going to be limited.

There, however, I met George Sabados, a young, rather charismatic guy who emceed the competition. His performance at the competition was a CV display in itself. He demonstrated the very skills and abilities I was looking for, and I managed to persuade George to start working with me as my first barista trainer. To this day, I believe George is still one of the best trainers I have ever came across.

I pondered the different competition formats I’d witnessed and the need to combine the coffee dedication of the Australian competition format, with the theatre and entertainment of the signature drink component of the American format I’d seen at the Specialty Coffee Association expo. I happened to look through Coffee and Cocoa International magazine, one of only two international coffee trade journals at the time. I saw an advertisement for the inaugural 2000 World Barista Championship to be held in Monte Carlo. I enquired immediately and found out that the format seemed to combine the two elements I had long been thinking about. As it happened, no one else from Australia had enquired about this competition. So, as I was the only person who had taken the time to enquire, I was told it was free to enter a barista on behalf of Australia if I could get there in time. I consulted with my wife, and she very big-heartedly agreed that we could pay for the trip out of our own personal savings. And so I booked and paid for tickets for George Sabados and me to fly to Monte Carlo.

The Coffee Entrepreneur
The Coffee Entrepreneur is available on Amazon, Kindle, ibooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

The format for the competition was pretty simple: make four espresso coffees, four cappuccinos, and four signature coffee drinks that could include any non-alcoholic additional flavourings. The whole performance was to be within a 15-minute timeframe – just as I had tested those trainer candidates.

With minimal practice and some preparation in the form of me purchasing and testing some backup ultra-heat-treated milk, we prepared to set off from Sydney airport with 10 litre-packs of milk in my suitcase.

Before our flight departure, we went to get a coffee from the café that had the best reputation for coffee in the airport. It served Grinders Coffee. The brand was owned and run by the Italian-born founder Giancarlo. He had started his business about five decades previously, roasting and serving coffee in Lygon Street, Melbourne, and was in the vanguard of those great Italian post-World War II immigrant coffee entrepreneurs who helped transform Australian culture from beer-swilling to latte-sipping.

This one outlet in Sydney International Airport was an amazingly good example of how to break into a new market. By being located in the airport through which lots of influential people constantly travelled, and by doing a good job, the word of mouth and demand for his coffee grew rapidly. It was guerrilla marketing by default. George and I enjoyed a really good old-school, smooth, rich, classic Italian-style espresso and then boarded our plane.

We flew to Monte Carlo with a brief layover in Paris. There at the competition, it seemed apparent to me that George was probably the most advanced barista at this inaugural World Barista Championship. However, he ended up fourth after his uncharacteristically nervous performance. The fallback plan of having tested and brought over backup UHT milk was actually a good idea. As it turned out, the finals were held on a Sunday and most of the shops in Monte Carlo were closed on this Sabbath day, so it was almost impossible to get any of the fresh milk that we were used to using.

Unfortunately, about nine of the 10-litre packs of UHT milk had burst on the flight over. So not only did we have just one backup litre of milk, my suitcase had spent much of our stay in our hotel room constantly being washed in the shower. It was the only way I could think of to try and get rid of the sour, curdling nine litres of milk that had leaked all through my suitcase.

On the flight home, in spite of being bitterly disappointed at our misfortune over not winning, my competitive instinct had been aroused, and I resolved to somehow win this world competition. The exposure to this larger world coffee stage inspired me enormously, and supercharged my thirst to learn.

By the time of my return, with the possible exception of the espresso coffees that George and his other seven competitor baristas had made while we were away, it turned out that the humble coffee I was served by the barista at Sydney airport was one of the best coffees I enjoyed on the whole trip. This was a rather startling revelation to me as to how much the appreciation for good coffee had grown in Australia. It was not clear then to what extent this would continue, but this growth has not slowed in the intervening decades. It has actually increased exponentially on the back of tens of thousands of small coffee entrepreneurs who have all passionately and with varying degrees of success, set out to satisfy their curiosity and the ever more sophisticated demand by Australian consumers for great coffee.

This information is an edited extract from Instaurator’s book The Coffee Entrepreneur. It appears in the April 2020 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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