Every year, hundreds of baristas come together for the United States Coffee Championships. The competitions are heavily anticipated, with folks preparing for months to present their routines to judges and figure out who is the best coffee brewer, roaster, or taster in the nation.
The heart of the entire competition is the barista championships. You might be thinking, what could a barista competition even be? Is it who can make the best coffee? Is it who has the best beans? Is it who can make the prettiest latte art? All these things make up a portion of the competition, but it’s fundamentally a test of skill, expertise, and perhaps a little bit of luck and circumstance.
Competitors have 15 minutes to present four espressos, four milk drinks, and four signature drinks to a panel of sensory judges, all the while having two technical judges hovering around you, scoring your technique and technical abilities. The winner goes on to represent the United States at the World Barista Championships, which happens to be in Boston this year.
The competitions are the breeding ground for new ideas in coffee. You might see competitors freeze their coffee beans or talk about new processing methods. Techniques and concepts that we accept as commonplace in the coffee industry usually come from coffee competitions, and their influence on the future of specialty coffee can’t be measured.
Every year, my colleague, Colin Whitcomb, and I sit on the sidelines and provide live commentary for folks watching at home. The competitions are livestreamed by the Specialty Coffee Association, who hires a professional AV team to run sound and shoot live video, and Colin and I meticulously re-read the rulebook and watch past competitions to see what’s new, what trends have carried on from years past, and provide context for the decisions that competitors make.
This is a task that Colin loves. He’s a long time barista competitor, Executive Council member for the Barista Guild, and is currently building out his new café, Canary Coffee Bar, in Milwalkee, Wisconsin. Colin has been part of the specialty coffee community for over a decade, and competed in his first barista competition in 2008. In this interview, which we recorded on the eve of the United States Barista Championships, Colin talks about the history and ever-changing format of the competition, what trends and ideas came out of the competition sphere, and we make some spur of the moment bets on who we think will win (spoiler alert—we’re 100% wrong).
This is Colin Whitcomb of Canary Coffee Bar. Listen in.