**warning, this is an opinionated post and a bit uncharacteristic: so you have been warned**
The GLRBC was this past weekend and I really didn't want to say anything about it...but I can't not.
I beg anyone to show hard evidence that a barista competition does any good whatsoever for the coffee culture at large. It actually sickens me to a degree. I have met competitors and for the most part have enjoyed my conversations with them, so this outpouring is not on the people involved personally, but on what the 'circuit' has created at large within this subculture, and what it is doing to shape, mold and define the world we are a part of. What are the tenets of being a barista? For a few years now I have been threatening myself to write a barista manifesto of sorts..and have actually even written a few pages...but it has taken more form in thought than on paper.
I can respect the barista who comes out and says 'I want to be recognized by my peers and receive notoriety for something I am passionate about', and so enter a competitive match. My complaint is not with this persons motivations, it is how the industry has allowed the competitive barista circuit to become such an important qualifier for an accomplished barista and the real byproducts of these competitions...ego, waste and irrelevance. Hopefully I'm giving the competitions too much credit and weight, but then I fear my perception isn't that far from reality...
The inspiration for competitive portafilter wielding was probably a drive to bring the skill and art of the barista to a greater audience and celebrate, if not market, the true skill and dedication that many baristas posses. And I suppose that to a degree this has been successful. I see articles in national and local papers during regional competitions bringing to light the skill and art involved...but a serious byproduct of these competitions is a puffed up version of a position that (in my opinion) is characterized by humility, curiosity, excellence and art. There may be a hint of these characteristics evident during the 15 mins of performance...but that is what it is, a performance that, when finished, quickly segue-ways to the boxer having just knocked out his opponent and is prancing about the ring.
My number one objection to the competitions is waste. I can't reconcile that inside of 15 minutes a barista can tell the story of the hard working farmer who dedicates their lives to coaxing a specific quality from a stubborn shrub, making just enough to support his family and community; a roaster who sampled, cupped and scrutinized the roasting and blending until the perfect balance was realized; all this effort poured down the drain during countless practice sessions, timing practice, exhibitions and so on...all for the presentation of ones skill resulting in a feel good, ego stroking blah blah. I can't believe that these events inspire the interest, much less the actual financial support of our industry by consumers to justify the reckless wasting of our resources. It is abusive. It is at odds with the core values of the specialty coffee industry. Too many grinds are spilled for my taste.
Has it challenged baristas to be better, to further push the envelope of quality and understanding of espresso extraction? Has it inspired manufacturers to pay more attention to the variables and the baristas control over them via their tools? I don't think so. I might be wrong on this, but I think the major advancements and the major discoveries have happened and will continue to happen as a result of dorks like you and me messing around with it all. Trying theories out...testing and tasting...spending too much time thinking about water.
As a result I can't come to any other conclusion than to say that barista competitions are (or at least have become) irrelevant. Maybe they are fun, maybe they are a good show and provide some cool entertainment...but I think the industry needs to blog, tweet, flikr, and spend its resources on greater pursuits.
And now I just realized I'm a hypocrite for writing anything about it at all.