Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Your current bag of coffee

I’m hoping that you’ll take 2 minutes to answer the questions on this survey.

It’s a survey about the last bag of coffee you bought, the bag you’re drinking at home right now. As always, the results will be public on here after it closes, but I don’t want to say too much more for fear of influencing the results.

Thank you so much if you take the time to answer!

    Tuesday, 16 May 2017

    What’s the point of Barista Championships?

    I know what you’re thinking: this title seems a bit rich coming from someone who has benefitted from being a barista champion. There’s been a good amount of conversation spurred on by Pete Licata’s excellent blog post on the subject. Listening to Baca and Truby chat about it on the latest Cat & Cloud podcast spurred me to write up a few thoughts, that all centre on the idea: what are we trying to achieve with barista competition?

    The early era of barista competition

    In the past a large part of barista competition was about professionalising the industry, setting standards, and building a central point for a global community. While some would come to be frustrated by the era of the barista in speciality coffee, it was broadly agreed that the most common point in the coffee chain that quality is lost is in the brewing. The competition was, in many ways, about getting baristas to brew better coffee. This was not the only effort made in that regard, but it is hard to argue that standards haven’t improved dramatically in recent years.

    Standards are a key part of things too. There was, a few years ago, some discussion about getting rid of the technical scoresheet. In the WBC many competitors would score pretty much the same on the tech sheets, making them somewhat moot in that competition. However, there was significant pushback, because the competition helped promote basic technical standards in the industry – especially in countries with less developed or nascent speciality coffee cultures. Flushing groupheads is a completely standard practice, and competition really helped spread that and elevate the importance of these sort of techniques in better brewing.

    Now, though, it is worth looking at the competition and trying to decide what kind of outcome we’re looking for.


    When I was competing, the idea of looking for an ambassador for coffee was something that was often discussed. I think a large part of that lingers in the format today. What terrifies people about competition is that it has become a public speaking engagement (terrifying in itself) with the added distraction of trying to make coffee under intense scrutiny. It makes sense to look for someone comfortable being the centre of attention if the end goal is an ambassador for the industry.

    However, I think many aspects of this are flawed. If knowledge is prized, it is never truly examined or tested. Competitors are expected to display “coffee knowledge” about what they’re serving, that has become the tedious and rote trotting out of facts and statistics about the coffee. These can be learned easily, and are often inconsequential but ultimately never checked. I’ve heard people say things that weren’t true in competition a number of times, though more often than not I would argue they were given bad information rather than were knowingly looking to mislead. I would have thought adding in a 5 minute Q&A with the judges (on or off stage) would be vastly superior to assessing knowledge than listening to an unchecked short presentation. Understanding is a difference between trivia and knowledge, and understanding is never tested.

    The best barista

    There is a repeated, and merited claim, that the competition does not find the best “barista”, in as much as the competition does not reflect the real life skills necessary for excellence in a cafe. There is no test of service, no real test of workflows, of relevant culinary creativity, or of speed.

    Creating a format that does test these things would also likely be susceptible to the criticism that a single barista does not make a cafe great and really it is about an effective and excellent team. Team competitions (like NBC) haven’t really touched on this because testing it outside of a real world cafe isn’t really effective or interesting. I suspect better cafe awards would be an interesting and perhaps useful step in the right direction.

    There have been a number of calls, over the years, for a compulsory round. I can’t really argue against it if you’re looking to test an individual’s skills. You can still complain that standardising equipment favours competitors with better budgets (i.e. they’re more likely to be able to practice on a competition setup, and better understand the equipment’s effect on the coffee).

    It’s a coffee sourcing competition

    There’s no denying the complaints that a large part of barista competition has become a sourcing competition. The weighting for the coffee, over the preparation (as if they’re easily separable), means that what gets served at a competition is a long way from real world coffee service. There’s no question that the format is driving competitors to use certain styles of coffee, and it is worth questioning whether or not this is a desirable outcome? I don’t think it is, but there are some who may disagree. It could be argued that creating a larger market for geisha, a variety that detaches price paid from the actual cost of production, is a good thing for producers. However, the number of producers that benefit is inconsequentially small.

    I don’t think forcing only a compulsory coffee on competitors is good for the industry, for reflecting diversity, or for retaining interest and investment in the competition. However, I think there should be some consideration about what kinds of cup qualities the competition really wants to promote.

    Barista Competition isn’t Entertaining

    Barista competition is not compelling to watch. There’s a pretty simple reason: you have no idea who is really doing well. I’ve commentated from the stage, tasted all six competitors coffees with them after the routine, and had no idea who would win.

    We prize taste above all, and skill above all. If taste is to be the most important factor (which it probably should be) then the key parts of the competition will always be hidden from view. Unless judges discuss, onstage, what they’re tasting and how they feel about it (common in TV with shows like MasterChef etc) then the audience will always be removed.

    Entertaining barista competitions often lack credibility because they’re not as focused on taste. There’s no real way around this, without following in TV’s footsteps. (Which I’d actually like to try, but this does have the negative effects of further raising the profile and influence of the judges above that of the competitors.)

    The ROI is bad

    Barista competitions are expensive. They require a lot of humans, energy, equipment and time. There’s no getting around this. It has been argued that an event with 30 competitors sees 1 person benefit massively and 29 have a bit of a bad day. While I believe any competitor can approach the competition in a way that guarantees a successful outcome, regardless of placing, it still doesn’t feel particularly fair. When compared to events like Barista Camps – where 100 people attend, and 100 people have a good time – it can be hard to retain enthusiasm for competitions when it comes to seeking a solid Return on Investment.

    Now is a point of inflexion

    I believe that the next couple of years of barista competition are an opportunity for it to consider what it wants to achieve and to change the format to reflect that direction. Baristas aren’t chefs. Baristas aren’t bartenders. Both chefs and bartenders have their own competitions, with their own issues. I think we can learn/steal/appropriate from both industries, but this must be done proactively and with direction.

    I still believe there is value in finding an ambassador, but I also believe that the competition could be improved if that is the outcome. I still believe there is value in professionalising the image of the barista further, but then we have to be thoughtful about what qualities we’re promoting. The trope of the barista boring their customer to death with unasked- for information about the coffee is a direct descendant of what we’ve promoted with barista competition.

    So, we’re left with the simple question: What do we want to achieve with barista competition?

    I don’t think we have the answer, but I’m also not sure we’ve really been thinking from this principle and hopefully that will change and help provide some direction for the future.

      Monday, 15 May 2017

      Quick Hack: Getting Rid of Static

      I made a quick video about getting rid of static when you’re grinding coffee. I hope you try it and like it, but I do want to talk quickly about attribution of ideas.

      I think it is important to try and attribute ideas whenever you’re sharing someone else’s work, eve if you feel you’re adding or innovating on top of it. In this case, I attributed to the person I’d learned it from (jepy) without realising that this is a well-known technique dating back to 2005 and – the newsgroup that so many interesting ideas in coffee came from! I learned this when someone shared a Home Barista post I somehow missed, created back in 2012.

      It’s a nice reminder that most new ideas are old ideas (I think this is going to prove painfully true in the next phase of speciality coffee worldwide – that’s for an upcoming post though) and that it doesn’t hurt to try a little harder when researching where things come from. Thanks to all who quickly corrected me, and shared the RDT (Ross Droplet Techniques) origins. (Though I have to say I prefer the spoon handle method of adding water over adding droplets directly to the beans…)

      Enjoy the video!

        Tuesday, 2 May 2017

        Coffee isn’t cool

        It’s easy to let an idea take root in your thinking. It feels, for a moment, insightful and perhaps even useful. What happens then is most likely a case of confirmation bias – you begin to see things that confirm your idea, that support and strength your particular insight.

        In my case, it is the idea that good coffee isn’t cool. I’m pretty sure that, for at least a little while, really good coffee was cool. It was hard to find, it was worth travelling for. It was experimental, it was passionate, it was anti-establishment.

        What’s changed? Well, here’s an example: no one really cares if you get your espresso in a paper cup.

        For a while, having your espresso in a ceramic cup was something extremely important to us. It offended us that you didn’t see that what was being served was different, was better, was notable and attention worthy; “Stop, just for a minute, and marvel at how good this tastes!”

        It was a period of time where specialty was defining itself by what it wasn’t. It wasn’t cheap. It didn’t come in 20oz cups. You were not in charge of your beverage, your drink order was not an opportunity to define or express your individuality. Essentially we were trying to communicate that this wasn’t Starbucks, wasn’t the norm, wasn’t what you were expecting. We were, forgive the pun, the counter-culture.

        By defining itself by what it wasn’t it became, inevitably, exclusive. People didn’t like that. Consumers were angry that we defined ourselves by what was wrong with what they liked.

        However, it was passionate and it was compelling. It was exciting because it felt new and full of possibility. We became galvanised around taste, around experience. Great coffee infected people, and soon leached into the beer or wine they drank and the food that they ate. Baristas were wonderful keys, capable unlocking the hidden gastronomical delights in any city.

        Two experiences recently brought into focus the idea that people saw great coffee differently. The first was quite small. I was on a BBC radio show and before going live the host was, while interested in me and what I did, delighted to tell me how she loved bad coffee. Not necessarily in a traditionally British, anti-snob sort of way. Instead, she talked as if liking bad coffee was the new anti-establishment position to take. Liking good coffee had become normalised, and this was a little rebellion.

        The second was an advert for McCafe. Initially, I hated this advert, in part because it picks on customers a little too much and has a few stupid misses in its jokes. The truth of the ad settled a little time later. McDonald’s can’t get away with making you the butt of the joke if you’re actually cool. You need to be sufficiently mainstream, successful and normal to be an effective counterpoint for one of the largest food corporations in the world. You could see this advert as marking the moment that great coffee was so successful that the type of person who would buy a coffee from McCafe knows about it. This is not a demographic that would traditionally seek out coffee experiences.

        We’re seeing the punk-like anger of youth begin to fade in the speciality coffee industry. We’re beginning to see the rise of passionate moderates. These are people who care about coffee, want it to be amazing but are more willing to meet people where they’re at. Exemplified to me, from a distance I admit, by business like Cat & Cloud or G&B/Go Get ‘Em Tiger. Both have owners/founders who are impassioned, but also coming from a place of humility. (I’m not saying these aren’t cool businesses – they both are, but that’s more about the strong aesthetic and vision they both have coupled with how clearly they communicate that. Also, they’re very good at making delicious coffee.)

        It’s ok, I think, to miss the way things were. To miss the underdog feeling, the battle against low expectations, and to have something secret and special that you enjoyed sharing with people who care.

        The world of coffee is changing. It has matured and continues to evolve, despite being a bit flat right now. (I don’t give coffee the excuse of being young industry – it’s old enough at this point to be developed and complex.)

        Our situation has changed, expectations have changed and what worked before may not work anymore. People aren’t as willing to seek out a great cup of coffee, to travel, to research, to plan a visit. Coffee tourism is on the wane. That doesn’t mean success is impossible, or even unusually difficult. It just means now is a time of adaptation, and experimentation to find out what will allow us to effectively engage with the customers we’ve not found yet, or previously turned off from what we do.