BeanScene Magazine

The next platform in learning

From the November 2015 issue.

Coffee competitions aren’t about celebrity baristas – they’re about learning. Australian Specialty Coffee Association (ASCA) President Brent Williams explains.

Sometimes it might look as if ASCA’s major contribution to Australia’s coffee industry is to help a few individuals gain notoriety through hosting the coffee championships.

Although a handful of baristas have done well from the competitions, I suggest that this is too simplistic of an attitude to adopt.

While putting on the competitions is a major part of ASCA, and by no means a small feat, it is what they are fundamentally about that we see as our real work.

To put it simply, ASCA’s coffee championships are about education.

Barista competitions provide an impetus for the coffee lover, whose interest until that point may have been restricted to within the café walls, to learn.

When baristas sign up to compete they are agreeing to go in front of an audience which will pretty quickly be made aware of just how much they know. Besides the drive to want to keep their customers and managers happy, I can’t think of a better motivation to learn. It’s no secret that being put under a bit of pressure increases our ability to take in new information and master new tasks. Anyone who’s ever been thrown into the deep end at a busy café can certainly attest to this.

We have seen that although some baristas will make the decision to compete independently, more often than not, baristas will have the support of a café to help them on their journey. This support can be through providing access to equipment, allowing for time off work, or time at work to practice, but occasionally the helping hand from the workplace extends beyond simply being accommodating. Sometimes it involves mentoring from a more senior staff member.

It is often this skill sharing that takes a competing barista from a novice, to a professional. A mentor has the ability to not only demonstrate practical skills, but to pass on knowledge integral to competing and essential to taking the coffee profession to the next level.

Watching many a barista being called onstage to accept their winning trophies, I’ve observed so often that the first thing they do is thank either a team or an individual for teaching them what they know. Time and time again it is demonstrated that education is key.

I imagine that the idea of a Karate-Kid-for-coffee-preparation mentoring relationship is probably very appealing for most aspiring baristas. After all, who wouldn’t want a Mr Miyagi imparting pearls of brewing wisdom to them while they worked? But unfortunately, for many young baristas this is not a reality. I’m sure that most older or more experienced staff would love to afford the time to provide some tamp in, tamp out tutorials, but in a busy café environment this is often not an option.

While that’s unfortunate, I don’t believe it is cause for despair. It just means that as an industry we need to think of new solutions to ensure baristas hungry to learn have access to information in an alternative way.

Never in my years in the industry have I seen the desire so strong from coffee professionals wanting to hone their skills. I believe that we owe it to those baristas who want to do better for their employers, their customers and their own careers, to provide an educational framework for them to be able to harness their inner John Kreese.

With ASCA currently putting up the stage that provides the push to expand coffee knowledge and skills, it is time for the next platform for learning and education. Watch this space.

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