The rise of the New Zealand Barista Championship

New Zealand Barista Championship

Emma McDougall uncovers the rise of the New Zealand Barista Championship and its impact on the specialty coffee industry over the past 20 years.

In 2021, New Zealand will crown its 19th New Zealand Barista Champion. However, with COVID-19 throwing the world out of whack last year, it will also mark 20 years since Emma Markland Webster won our first NZ Barista Championship way back in 2001. A fortuitous winner indeed, as Emma (who placed fifth in the World Barista Championship 2002) has gone on to become the Events Director for the New Zealand Specialty Coffee Association’s creating a world class professional Championship portfolio in Godzone and overseeing Championship Judges and committees at World level.

Emma McDougall is the Communications and Administration Co-ordinator of the NZSCA.

The NZSCA’s current treasurer, Nic McClean of Extra Shot Coffee Consulting, led the charge for our first barista championship back in the day while working for Robert Harris Coffee. Nic and Robert Harris continued to run the event for another seven years.

“Before we could host an event and send a NZ rep to the worlds, we had to get permission from two officials of the World Barista Championship (WBC). It was far more informal than what is required today,” Nic says. “[One of the WBC’s founders Alf Kramer] read our proposal, asked a few questions, and gave us the nod. Literally, no contract just a shake of the hand and a welcome to the club. Then on to Bern, Switzerland to meet Markus Blaser from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe. This meeting was a lot longer, but he liked what I had to say.”

After receiving the go-ahead to host the competition and send the winner to the next WBC in Norway, the Robert Harris team’s next step was finding competitors.

“Even the word ‘barista’ was still new to many people so the concept of getting people to enter a barista competition, with no such thing as social media, was an imposing task. We printed flyers, had great buy in and support from across the industry, and roasters all over were inviting their café clients,” Nic says. “Having not run or seen a national barista competition at that stage, the process was very much guess work. We decided to run three regional heats and a final at the Culinary Fair in Auckland. We encouraged anyone to enter and I think we had about 120 contestants in the first regionals.”

While those involved in first New Zealand Barista Championship remember it fondly, it was not without hiccups. When the container meant to be carrying equipment arrived at the venue, Nic opened it to find it was completely empty.

“Luckily, the correct container was not far away, and the show went off after just one more hitch. When all the machines were powered up, the resulting power surge blew most of the fuses at the venue,” he says. “One last panic that year was a few days before our inaugural winner, Emma, was setting off for Oslo. We discovered that competitors were supposed to take their own grinder, just a small thing no one had remembered to tell us.”

While the NZ Barista Championship may now host a fair few less than 120 competitors, its role and importance to the specialty coffee industry has only grown over time. Nic says while some things have changed, much of what goes into running a coffee competition remains the same.

“As it is today, it was a big logistical job running an event and getting espresso machines around the country in one piece and on time,” Nic says. “We had the added complexity of three regional and one final event and over a hundred competitors. Getting everyone through on time meant we had all three workstations on the go, each starting on different cycles.”

Nic attributes the success of the first, and every following, New Zealand Barista Championship to the willingness of the specialty coffee community to collaborate.

“A huge number of coffee companies joined in and helped in everything from getting competitors to sign up, training and supporting them, runners on the day to setting standards and then judging the events and cleaning up afterwards. It was a big call for them to all get behind what was an event branded by one of their competitors,” Nic says. “Everyone agreed ‘competitions drive standards and standards drive volume’, which was good for everyone in the coffee business. I will always be grateful to those roasters who picked up on the plan and were critical to getting the competition off the ground.”

The Meadow Fresh NZ Barista Championship 2021 took place from 20 to 21 March in Upper Hutt.

For more information on the New Zealand Specialty Coffee Association, or to join, visit

This article appears in the April 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

Send this to a friend