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WRBC 2008, Part 1

Name: The 2008 Western Regional Barista Championship
Live-blog (and host): Pacific Bay Coffee Company
Locations: Gaia Arts Center, 2120 Alston Way, Berkeley, CA

Rating: 4

I’m bucking the trend and starting my review of this year’s 2008 WRBC in advance of my actual visit. I suppose it is a bit unorthodox to review the coffee at an event before I’ve even consumed it, but the line up of coffee being provided at the WRBC’s 4th machine – the other 3 are the one’s used in competition by the baristas – includes some of California’s best roasters, with shots pulled by some of these roaster’s best baristi and bariste, with their coffee also being made on the Starbuck’s Clover 1s (so technically there are two 4th machines). The fact that all of this is just a couple of miles from my doorstep is enough to make me pee my pants in anticipation of that much coffee consumption.

Now unless you’re particularly tuned into the coffee world, you may not have even heard of this particular competition or of barista competitions in general. In short, they are a little like the Iron Chef meets espresso making – a timed competition in which the competing barista is judged, technically and in terms of the senses, on 4 shots of espresso, 4 cappuccinos and 4 signature drinks. At this point, the competition season is in full swing with the winner of the WRBC going on to compete at the U.S Barista Championship in Minnesota in May and the winner of that competition moving on to the World Barista Championship in Copenhagen later in June. You can read more about this phenomenon on the WRBC website. There’s also a good description on The Shot and some links to videos of the top 2007 WBC competitors on ZacharyZachary organized here.

Now I’m not going to speculate about whether barista competitions should be the next Olympic Sport or will be the next big cult hit for the Food Network (hmmm, maybe I just did?). My focus will be to cover the event from a coffee drinker’s perspective, both the coffee and the classes that offer coffee enthusiasts better insight into the industry and enjoyment of coffee. Oh, and in both a feat of self-promotion and full-disclosure of my involvement, I should add that I’ll be live-blogging the event from 12 until 2:30 PM this Friday, March 28th.

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4 comments to WRBC 2008, Part 1

  • I just stopped by your blog and thought I would say hello. I like your site design. Looking forward to reading more down the road.

    Robert Michel

  • I’ve always thought barista competitions were a great internal celebration of the trade. But I’ve always been a bit ambivalent when it comes to taking them beyond that scope.

    To the stated goal of “elevating the status of the barista in the U.S.,” they mostly succeed at that. However, the competition format does feel a bit unrealistic and arbitrary. I like what April Pollard of Seattle’s Vivace once said: “A ‘real barista contest’ would include having 10 customers in a line, one person being a jerk, something going wrong and a person a wanting a muffin while talking on a cell phone.”

    Even Olympic Figure skating shed the actual *figure* skating compulsories. But don’t get me started on the Food Network and how it’s fired every chef with street cred and replaced them with smiling non-chefs who espouse 6-minute chicken enchiladas. 😉

    Unfortunately, you only find a narrow swath of the profession engaged in these competitions — often relatively new to the industry and typically quite young. People who have been at it for years — a rarity in the U.S. but a standard in places like Italy — are too jaded in a “yeah, been there, done that” way and see no reason to participate. Elevating the status would ideally be more inclusive.

    But it’s a great way to meet people in the industry over some great coffee, and to see some folks earn some bragging rights. I hope to make it out myself this year.

  • I think you’re right that the competitions are not fully representative of the baristascape. Lots don’t come – I don’t think Blue Bottle is in the line-up, for example. And, those that do compete are a select group who excel at the time-management and showmanship skills required by these competitions that make them both exciting, but somewhat artificial compared to day to day baristaing. Not to say that competitors can’t do the day to day thing – I bet most of them can – just that the competition may not be a good judge of this skill.

    But this almost misses the point. First of all, they are simply fun to watch and a great place to try out LOTS of coffee. And second, the whole competition thing is a fantastic and brilliant marketing tool, and I mean this only in a positive sense. It gives cafes another way to advertise themselves as someone who cares about the quality of their coffee and it helps bring attention to SCAA and quality coffee more broadly.

    Now, onto business. Maybe you and I ought to meet up and work on a plan to make millions. Forget the food network, we can create an exploitative, Fox network owned, barista compentation where ordinary people are expected to perform in front of real, ornery, caffeine-deprived cafe patrons at 7:15 in the morning.

  • It is a brilliant marketing tool. I am still dumbfounded that for all the blowhard “dominate the quality end” blather uttered from Howard Schultz’s mouth these days, they opted to replace their horrid Verismo machines with even more brainless-sounding Mastrena.

    Here’s a man who is looking for every excuse to suggest Starbucks is relevant to quality coffee again after a decade in the wilderness — buying the Coffee Equipment Co (Clover), etc. And despite even mentions in his memos about the loss of esteem when converting over from their La Marzocco machines to their idiot box Verismos, Starbucks employees will continue to work on alien equipment that essentially leaves them ill-equipped and incapable of even participating in a legitimate barista competition. Not that any aspiring barista with a sense for quality would consider working for Starbucks these days — but still, a completely blown opportunity. For crying out loud, the laughable Krups product line sponsors a lot of these competitions.

    Oooh, but I like your thinking here to make millions. I say bag the Food Network concept — these days, they’d first and foremost air a program focused on espresso pods and their machines anyway. Better yet, think along the lines of “Barista Confessions” a la “Taxicab Confessions” — a day in the life of a barista who meets the seedy underbelly of under-caffeinated celebrities in line for their morning fix. That’s a variant to your idea that might have some legs…

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