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Setting Standards and Driving Innovation: The World Barista Championships

Five Senses CoffeeBrydon Price 8 August 2016

After recently returning from judging the World Barista Championships in Dublin and with the ‘16/’17 competition season ahead of us here in Australia, I thought it timely to share some thoughts on the role that these events play on the ever evolving world of specialty coffee. The World Barista Championship (WBC) can, from the outside, look very detached from the day to day café world. Baristas will often use elaborate equipment, exotic coffee and utilize advanced brewing techniques which many café baristas or owners would shy away from in the fast paced daily service. So what then does this hyper real showcase of coffee making contribute to the wider coffee industry and how does the organising body, World Coffee Events (WCE), mission statement to “engage the specialty coffee industry and promote coffee excellence” play out.

With its detailed and relatively objective assessment criteria, the WBC has become the most widely adopted global standard for espresso coffee quality. With the format used across over 50 countries for their national level events, the WBC acts on specialty coffee in two distinct phases. In emerging specialty coffee markets, like the United Arab Emirates where I’ve judged for the past few years, the rules and scoresheets of the WBC act as a framework, guiding this young industry towards world’s best practices. On the flip side, in highly established markets like here in Australia, the USA or the UK, the competition provides an opportunity to explore the cutting edge of specialty coffee preparation and service.

Many aspects of the specialty coffee experience we now take for granted have been significantly advanced by their showcase on the competition stage.

The service of single origin espresso, for example, and the appreciation of their individual flavour profiles has substantial roots in the WBC. Where once a balanced espresso was seen to require the blending of multiple beans, the competition format around the expression of distinct flavour profiles and transparent coffee lineage has seen single origin selections come to the fore. As high profile competitors began to receive recognition for their service of these coffees, we saw café baristas and specialty roasters follow this trend and use it as a point of interest for engaging with their customers. “What single origin are you featuring?” is now a frequently asked question in specialty cafés and even the service experience is often accompanied by coffee cards and tasting notes as pioneered at judges tables.

The serving of single origins has also driven a high level of focus on the traceability of the coffees – a movement which has had significant impacts through the supply chain. In the pursuit of demonstrating their knowledge as a coffee professional and communicating just why their chosen espresso is so damned delicious, competitors have for multiple years now looked to tell a story of both the coffee itself but also that of the producers behind it. Making champions of those producers striving for excellence and innovating at the farm level by promoting them on the world stage has undoubtedly contributed to the furtherance of specialty coffee.

Inevitably, competition baristas searching for the best micro-lots end up at the door of similar producers. This has made celebrities of innovative producers such as Aida Batlle whose coffee was served by many competitors, notably in 2014 & 2015. This years’ competition in Dublin saw many baristas select their amazing green coffee from the champions of progressive farming and processing, Ninety Plus. While this rarefied group of incredibly expensive micro-lots does not represent the majority of coffee produced, it does provide a valuable platform to showcase the super pointy edge of innovative producer practices.

WCE Dublin saw a focus in many performances on presenting what’s being tentatively labelled as the “4th Wave” of producer driven innovation in the specialty coffee industry. This concentration on how a chosen coffee came to taste as described in the cup advanced the competitive conversation beyond where the coffee came from and very much toward varietal and processing.

Varietal

Top Six finalist Lex Wenneker of the Netherlands compared specialty coffee varieties to service in the wine world in perhaps the most varietal-central performance of the competition. Lex selected three coffees from one Colombian estate, Las Margaritas. They were all from the same harvest and all processed naturally however each course was a different varietal. Accompanied by a filter brew of each served in a wine glass, Lex focussed on how our service of select varietals could translate at a consumer level by highlighting specific sensory experiences in each of the Sudan Rume, Geisha and Pacamara variety brews he served. Varietal separation and specific varietal selection are becoming more common place with progressive specialty coffee producers but unless we can translate this effort and expense to the café customer it will remain the demand of roasters, coffee geeks and competitors rather than a sustainable option for the wider producing community. Performances such as Lex’s bring this conversation to the fore.

Lex Wenneker’s routine at the 2016 WBC

Processing

The second placing performance of Yoshikazu Iwaze was unique as he blended or “interwove” two coffees together for his drinks. Using two different grinders to achieve specific particle size and extractions, Yoshikazu mixed differing percentages, after grinding, of each Ninety Plus coffee. These coffees were a marriage of two varietals but more interestingly, two opposite processing methods when it came to fermentation of the cherry. The Panama Geisha enjoyed a low temperature fermentation gaining balance and complexity through an extended process of ‘cold fermentation’. The single varietal Ethiopian selection had, in contrast, gone through a ‘melted fermentation’, high temperature and less time. This deliberate innovation in the processing of specialty coffees gives producers a further means to provide coffee with a defined profile. For the competitor like Yoshikazu this obviously allows a selection of coffees that will achieve a very specific cup profile. For us as roasters and specialty coffee professionals however, this also suggests an approach to secure coffee that is exaggerated and expressive for our customers, presenting a consistent approach to producing new flavour experiences.

Yoshikazu Iwaze’s routine at the 2016 WBC

Varietal and processing have undoubtedly been a feature of the competition world for a few years and have, at a basic level, become part of the café to consumer lexicon. The exploration of these areas within WBC will likely see further efforts into innovation at farm level, along with a slow outpouring of knowledge and appreciation to the specialty coffee consumer.

I often liken the WBC to Formula One racing in the way that it leads innovation that then trickles down to the wider industry. The average consumer may not know where these innovations came from, but can still appreciate their incorporation into a personal experience. So what did we see this year that is likely to appear in specialty coffee shops across the globe?

Rivalling each other for most utilised coffee tool were the OCD and Acaia scales.

Both made appearances last year with a few competitors but this year were almost ubiquitous on the benches of each National Champion. The OCD is a levelling tool which in the competition environment simplifies achieving consistency on the technical scoresheet, it makes it that much easier for a technical judge to agree that the levelling technique is effective. Consistent dosing and tamping does of course have import in the café environment, reducing channelling and promoting evenness of extraction which will likely see the OCD become de rigueur on many specialty café stations.

As well as selecting amazing coffee the barista competition is also about what the barista has done to create the sensory experience. This has come to see brew ratios become common language, often changing from one course to the next. Accurate brew ratios of course require accurate scales and Acaia were very much the most commonly used tool for this. Whether weighing doses and signature drink ingredients with the Acaia Pearl or weighing out extraction with the Acaia Luna, these scales were this year an almost inevitable piece of kit.

There was of course many other cool bits of kit used across the competition this year and I have to throw a shout out here to Ben Put of Canada, placing 3rd, who used his returning vacuum chamber to remove carbonic acid from his espresso drinks as well as a custom made pressurized syphon to create a “full immersion espresso” for his signature course, pushing higher extraction and boosting Malic acidity. For aspiring competitors Ben’s performance is definitely worth a watch as it provides an amazing summation of both coffee knowledge and progressive barista technique by, as he states, taking risks. Watch Ben’s 2016 WBC routine here.

As well as representing producers, the performances at the WBC are a great outlet for equipment innovation.

The drive to be more consistent, manipulate extraction, work faster or simply be tidier sees the use of equipment designed for this purpose or retooled for our industry. The EK43 was primarily a deli grinder before Matt Perger and Charles Babinski dragged it kicking and screaming into the world of espresso. It is now of course one of two compulsory sponsor grinders! Of note, the Puq Press made a couple of appearances this year with technology further tightening dose and tamp technique. Competitors may well be giving over one of their two allowed electrical devices this competition season to this neat bit of kit.

As a Head Judge at the World Barista Championship I am obviously a disciple of its value within the specialty coffee ecosystem. Beyond the examples I’ve given above, the concepts, flavours and community expressed at these events have over the years continued to inspire me as a coffee professional and excite me about the industry’s future. Whilst the competition format is by no means perfect in its representation of the wider specialty coffee world it does undoubtedly provide a unique forum for innovation and evolution of coffee, technology and the barista craft.

If you’ve been wondering what it’s all about or debating throwing your hat in the ring, I’d heartily encourage you to do so – whether as a competitor, spectator, judge or volunteer. The upcoming Australian regional championships are just the ticket for anyone looking for a sure-fire coffee passion injection!

See the upcoming ASCA competition dates here.

© Photos 1 & 3 by World Coffee Events. All rights reserved by photographer

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