In the wake of this year’s national barista championship – a grouping of words I once thought silly and senseless – I find myself, once again, looking at coffee in a different light. I’ve been around coffee literally my entire life, born into it as it was, and have spent time in all facets of the industry. Whether it be on a farm, behind a sample roaster, cupping, as a trainer, or working on a machine, looking back at all those stages of the process, there always seems to be a moment I can point to that I consider formative. When it comes to the act of making coffee, that last piece of the puzzle, this comp was it.
If I’m being completely honest, I have not been the greatest believer in coffee competitions. The rules seem arbitrary and uninspiringly strict, and the whole act of competing in coffee seemed like a poor attempt to mimic Iron Chef (the original Japanese version, of course). For years, I dismissively referred to barista competitions as the ‘coffee capades’, failing to see the value in the whole thing.
Things changed for me this year, as we at Reunion Island had a horse in the race, so to speak. Our Quality Manager, Seth – an experienced barista comp judge and trainer – got together with his pal Josh Tarlo – one of Toronto’s top baristas – and they began collaborating. And it was spending time with the two of them, watching them craft their initial routine for the regionals (I’m with Chevy Chase – what the hell are regionals?), choose a coffee, and train (cue the Rocky montage) ad nauseum.
After Josh’s 2nd place finish at regionals, which earned him a birth in the national championships, things intensified (understatement of the year). The “training” became much more than just training; it became a series of experiments that would serve as an amazing platform for us all to learn. From the selection of the coffee (a fantastic, experimental micro-lot from our friend Raul at La Soledad in Guatemala), to a tremendous amount of test roasts, through to the seemingly endless attempts to find the ideal extraction ratio and time, and even a wide variety of milks to taste test, the true value of these of these competitions started to appear, at least in my eyes.
While much has been written about the communal nature of the competitions and how they bring us closer together as an industry (all true), the greater value and benefit to coffee as I see it, is in all of the experimentation and testing that Josh and Seth put into craft the routine. There is so much practical information to extract (pun intended) out of the past month; lessons I believe will affect our outlook when it comes to roasting, training, testing, and if we ever get around to it, making drinks in our very own café one day.
[I’m not even touching on the signature drink that was crafted for this routine (a great play on the ubiquity of k-cups in the coffee world these days), which required its own intensive experimentation, but I hope I’m sufficiently emphasizing the level of effort that went into this competition, ie. it’s no joke. And while an outsider looking in may think little of the exercise, and wonder, “how hard could it be to make 12 drinks in 15 minutes?” Well, it’s damn hard when you have to explain everything you’re doing, all of your choices, cleaning as you go, inject some creativity in the whole thing, make it taste spectacular, and manage to do it all in an engaging and engrossing way. This is not something you can throw together at the last minute, or that someone off the street can walk in an do at the drop of a hat – despite many protestations earlier in my career.]
So, here I am, once again with a different outlook on the ever-evolving specialty coffee world, and with a newfound respect for all those who competed this year in the Canadian nationals, and in every competition in the past and every competition to come in the future. It takes a brave sort to put themselves out there and it’s heartening to see just how many are so passionate about coffee that they are not accepting status quo, and are actively working to improve our once humble beverage. And with all we learned over the course of this year’s competition, it stands to reason that this won’t be our last visit to the nationals.
PS. If you’re reading this then you’ve probably seen mention of it on social media, but it bodes another mention… Josh came in 2nd place at the Nationals this year. It was his first time competing in the barista comp (he’d competed, successfully, in a Brewer’s Cup comp previously), it was our first time working closely with a competitor. To say that I’m proud of Josh, Seth, and the whole team at RI that helped along the way, would be a massive understatement. It’s not often that something is as enjoyable, and rewarding, as this whole process has been. To anyone who ever wants to compete in a coffee competition, find a roaster you can really work with, and go all in – I promise you’ll feel the same way, no matter how you do…