Thursday, 25 June 2015

USBC Regionals, Competitions Formats and Purpose

I am writing something on the subject of the SCAA announcing an end to USBC regionals with a little hesitation. There’s a tonne of blog posts circulating, twitter is very busy, and it could be said that there is already a surplus of opinion. It isn’t my national competition under discussion so I feel like something of an outsider in all this, but it is a good opportunity to share a few thoughts I’ve been sitting on for a while.

I write this with sympathy for both sides. From the SCAA’s perspective the regional competitions consumed a lot of money and resources. They did return, but it could be argued that they do not return equally across all participating. A few people have a very good day (one person has a spectacular one), and the rest come away in varying states of satisfaction. This is the nature of competition generally, rather than the specific fault of barista competitions.

I was inspired to get involved with the Barista Guild of Europe by the SCAA’s Barista Camp model – events that returned pretty equally for everyone who attends and, while I don’t have the numbers, events that seemed to attract a more balanced gender mix too. The SCAA’s resources are not endless, and their job is to invest where it most effectively rewards and provides value to their membership.

From this perspective I understand the SCAA’s decision. However, I am also someone who is a huge fan of barista competition. Not only as someone who has benefited greatly from their existence, but who believes they’re great ways to develop and push yourself (and those opportunities feel pretty rare). Regional events made barista competition available to a lot more people – a good thing – but struggled with consumer engagement. The lack of consumer engagement also hampers opportunities for things like sponsorships – the companies that have traditionally sponsored have been marketing to the coffee industry, and to some extent they’re pretty tapped out. Nick Cho puts forward one solution for making the actual events happen, but I still believe there are challenges around engagement.

This brings me to a question of format, another discussion rolling around on twitter. Is this an opportunity for a new competition format? Perhaps. The current format is built around credibility (I’m sure some of you disagree, but go with me for a moment). For the community the best barista should primarily produce the best tasting drinks (and ideally do it in a charming, welcoming, friendly and interesting way). This means that the bulk of the points must come from tasting, which in turn immediately disconnects the audience from the competition. I’ve watched competitions for a decade now, and I can watch a WBC final onstage and have no idea who has won because I don’t know what those exact shots tasted like. (This is a challenge when you’re there to provide commentary and insight…)

I was chatting a little to Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, while in Gothenburg last week, and we were talking about competition formats. We were talking about this point of audience disconnection, and about how to do a taste based competition without losing the audience. If we look to the world of food tv (terrifying as it is) then there are formats and competitions that work, and have been hugely successful. What’s required is transparency and openness of judging as part of the format. Things like live scoring factor would make a big difference. I’m all for increasing transparency of judging, and I think it would remove the group-think dynamic that is inevitable in competition discussions. My one concern – that a judge may have missed a piece of information, and that post match discussion is useful for this – was answered by Maxwell who suggested that at the end of the routine judges ought to be able to simply ask the competitor questions. I like this. Having the judges briefly explain their scoring, what they tasted and what they thought, would be entertaining. This does start to look a little like the panel of judges on a talent show like The X-factor, but there’s no denying that its format that engages a huge number of people.

The downside of this is that judges quickly become bigger personalities than many of the competitors, especially if they’re good at playing to an audience. You’d need credible (from a coffee perspective) entertainers. We know that we want the person on stage, the person who has spent time, money and effort on preparing to be properly awarded with our attention. I do think that, to compete in something like this, you’d need relatively thick skin to be comfortable receiving your critique on stage.

Am I suggesting something like the above should replace the current format? No. It’s built for a different purpose. I think something like this could run alongside. You could easily compete in both, but I think there are formats or events that could help bring in consumers, bring in new sponsorship opportunities and help support a nationwide competition structure. Such an event could easily be a one-off, it doesn’t need a national or world structure. It’s an opportunity for invention, for experimentation. That opportunity has, I suppose, always been there – but now there is incentive. It doesn’t have to have the production values of the WBC, especially at the beginning.

I don’t know how I could help, but if you want to create a new competition format, based around the consumer, and you think I could be helpful then get in touch. I’d like to see the USBC thrive, the barista community in the US thrive, I’d like to see something positive come out of this that could have an impact on the rest of the world’s coffee communities too.

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