16 March, 2010

GLRBC...an acronym for ego, waste & irrelavance

**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.



  1. I'm glad you wrote this. I'll be thinking about your argument, even though I'm not in the industry.

    Since you mentioned this, I've thought briefly about culinary competitions, which end up having a significant impact on the industry, because the chefs who win bring a lot of notoriety to their restaurants and kitchens. I also think about the waste, though--is this just the waste that comes with art? And is the work of a barista "art?"

    Is it the case that people travel to the coffee shop(s) where the baristas who have won these competitions work? Does it bring visibility to coffee-production and surrounding issues?

    I think about Project Runway as an example, or Top Chef. These competitions produce so much waste! Yet they have brought life back into industries (the design industry, especially) that were slumping.

    Regardless, I think your call to humility and squaring one's activities with the roots of an industry are really valuable things to be thinking about.

  2. First, I think your perspective is important because you aren't in the industry, but you are a consumer of it. In the end, by purchasing a coffee you help us all stay employed, so I value your opinions!

    I hear a few questions that I'll try to answer briefly:

    Do competitions bring business into the winners shops?
    No idea, maybe...but even if they do, are the consumers there to appreciate something of a certain quality and engage in a better product, or to be in the same room as someone with a certain notoriety?

    Is waste a justified byproduct of art?
    That'sa big question. I'm inclined to say yes, but I don't know why...and it doesn't really fit with what I think about competitions...but that is probably explained by the answer to the next question.
    Is the work of a barista art? Primarily, no.

    Do competitions bring visibility to coffee-production and surrounding issues? In words for a period of about 15 mins at a time, but I don't think they have any real lasting causes or effects along those lines

    Do they bring life into an industry that may need it? I don't think our industry needs it...I think the interest in growth and development of our industry is inspired by roasters, baristas and growers for the most part.

    I have not done extensive study or observation of the competitive circuit. My opinions are based on what I observe so I hope to learn from sharing my opinions...

  3. I love how you re-phrased my question much more eloquently: "is "Waste a justified byproduct of art?" That is one I'll definitely be positing to my students in the future. Many obviously do not think so, as so much contemporary art relies on recycled materials. Some of that art, of course, is less politically and socially driven and more a function of the need to make art at lower costs (a lot of the DIY movement).

    As for the coffee discussion, my gut tells me the work of a barista isn't art, but I feel guilty saying this. As a server, I did not think I was creating art, either, although I loved the task of describing food, tried to do it skillfully and artfully, and thought of it as a craft. I guess perhaps I might fall prey to the art/craft distinction here and sheepishly posit baristas' work as craft.

    I am inclined to say that what separates art from craft is invention. While I may play with words or invent phrases to describe food, I am not, ultimately, creating art (as chefs are) while I'm serving. And while baristas might be playing with technique, layering ingredients, and making shapes out of foam (that's probably the closest thing to art that I've seen a barista do), most of that is editing and tool-based skill, rather than invention. What roasters do, I'm tempted to say is culinary art (and science).

    I'm thinking about what motivates me to go to a particular coffee shop, and you are right that it is not a barista's skill. I frequent shops because of the coffee, space, business ethics, food served (i.e. does a business call itself "Fair Trade" while it sells Sysco desserts and underpay/monitor its employees while they are working), Internet accessibility, etc. Similarly, my favorite bar (Le Tigre, as you know) is my favorite bar not only for its environment, but its bartender. But it isn't his skill with making drinks that compels me, it is his skill with people and general manner. If he won a regional mixology competition, I'd be inclined to go once . . . but if he was not an interesting person himself, I would not be compelled to keep going.