Life Lessons from Coffee Competitions
Last week, thousands of coffee professionals from all over the world gathered in Atlanta for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) annual Expo. I wish I could give you an overview of all the new products, interesting lectures, and talented baristas at Expo, but, like many other attendees, my weekend was booked solid. I spent my time volunteering and judging the United States Barista Competitions (USBC). This trip was a milestone in my career. I was judging baristas who had inspired me to pursue coffee as a career and it felt like a minor league player being asked to be an umpire for the World Series. While watching the most talented baristas in the nation prepare some of the best coffee, two qualities came up time after time: humility and intentionality.
As a judge, I had the opportunity to taste drinks that will stick with me forever. I will always remember taking a sip of a cappuccino, licking my lips as I was instructed, and clearly tasting lime like the barista competitor told me. That barista, Lem Butler, went on the win the national title. Lem will go on and represent the US in the World Barista Championship later this year. He, among all the barista competitors, has the right to brag about his skills. Lem makes an excellent barista champion not because of his skills, but because of his lack of arrogance and selfishness.
He understands that, while baristas get the majority of the credit for a delicious cup of coffee, hundreds of other people have also played a part in creating that delicious cup. My friend David says it best, “your [coffee] represents the work and knowledge of hundreds of individuals. So represent them well.”1
When you imagine the stereotypical barista, you probably think of a guy with interesting facial hair who is pretentious to the max and scoffs when you add cream to your coffee. I’ve been in cafes full of this type of barista and I absolutely hate the experience. The best cafe experiences I’ve had, involve baristas who give selflessly to make sure I’m welcomed and taken care of well. I experienced the top level of hospitality at USBC. Competitors put aside their egos to ensure that their four judges have the most inviting and inspiring experience.
Humility behind the bar is not something I’ve always exhibited to my customers. As a new barista, I believed that I knew best. I was the stereotype of a barista. If anyone said any false fact about coffee I’d chime in with, “Um, actually…” followed by a long diatribe about how wrong they were and in the process, turned them off from the idea of specialty coffee. This weekend I was reminded the importance of being a humble barista. I didn’t learn about coffee all on my own. I gained knowledge about coffee and coffee preparation because professionals before me put in hard work. Like Newton said, “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The best part of judging barista competitions is seeing the result of all the hard work. Most competitors have spent the past month obsessively practicing. Baristas will plan every single detail of the 15 minute routine. Everything from cups, to place settings, to aprons, to music, to coffee, to which order to make drinks, and the list goes on. There’s a category on the scoring sheet for attention to detail. Baristas can either pick a few easy points here or carelessly lose a few points. One competitor lost a half a point on his attention to detail because some flowers he had placed on the table obscured my view of him during service. That’s the level of detail on which baristas are focused. Since a barista has to serve 12 drinks in 15 minutes all while speaking about her coffee and any themes she wants to present, there is no time for wasted movements. Excellent baristas practice the fine details of espresso preparation until they become muscle memory. Practice alone won’t form good habits. There’s a secret ingredient that I wish I had learned about earlier; intentionality.
With a small amount of training anyone can prepare average coffee. With some practice anyone can prepare good coffee. Only with purposeful and deliberate preparation can a barista produce excellent drinks consistently. Sloppy practice leads to bad habits and low quality drinks. When I was a fresh barista I spent time practicing without any intention behind my movements. I built terrible habits and had the hardest time making tasty drinks. Thankfully, an experienced barista took me aside, kindly pointed out my mistakes, and helped me prepare a plan to create good habits.
I enjoy going to barista events because I always learn something. Sometimes, I’m learning in a formal setting with lectures and workshops, and other times, I'm learning from observing and discussing. SCAA reminded me that humility and intentionality are qualities of the top baristas in the nation. I believe these two virtues are a part of what makes a good person good. Who knew you could learn life lessons from coffee?
Go for gold,
P.S. You can go back and watch all the performances from this weekend, including Lem Butler’s winning routine, here.
1“The Honor and Privilege of Coffee Extraction” David Fasman