The Barista as Gymnast
Every couple of months the debate comes up somewhere online concerning the merits of the Barista Competitions as performance vs. microcosm of bar life. On the one side there is the camp of those who say these are silly displays of frilly pansies creating impossible drinks for sternly snobbish coffee aficionado judges. There is, they claim, no parallel between pumping out the well rehearsed one dozen drinks demanded for competition, and preparing an ever-changing flux of tickets in a busy cafe. The argument usually takes the position that because the two arenas are so far removed from each other, the competitions have little to no value as a market driving force (or spectator event, for that matter).
The other school of thought I have seen is something of an apologetic approach, explaining the hidden similarities. A Barista must craft their performance to the taste of the judges, and play to them to score well, just as they must read their customers to serve them well. But I think the best view of this side is to look at it as more of an abstraction of human activity, in exactly the same way that sport is. No one claims that American football is anything like real warfare, but that is what it simulates. Archery is not like hunting because your target can’t get away. Olympic style down hill slalom has absolutely nothing to do with the type of skiing that 95% of most vacationers perform, even on the black diamond hill.
I have to agree that Barista Competitions are nothing like working a bar shift, and I think that they should stay distinctly unique from bar service. One would never expect to see a child on the Jungle Gym performing like Nadia Comaneci, nor would one ever expect to see nothing but somersaults and cartwheels in a championship level gymnastic routine. We easily enough accept this level of abstraction in sports, so why is it so hard to take in competitive food preparation? It is as absurd as proclaiming Picasso to be a poor artist because faces just don’t really look like that.
The Gymnast is an exaltation of the capabilities of the human body. Skills that are basic to all humanity, balance, speed, strength, are taken to a height of development far exceeding the simple necessities of day to day life. That is why it takes an exceptional Barista with a somewhat different skill set to win at these things. The complaint that the winner’s circle is out of reach for the average Barshift Barista is a bucket that won’t carry water. Of course it is out of reach, it is reserved for the freakin’ champion! Besides, the average Barshift Barista can barely draw off a half decent espresso or steam milk without making it smell like baby throw-up. So only those Baristas that have been trained to very high standards can even make the finals. Of those finalists, the winner will be someone who understands the nuances of the rules, knows a lot about the judging (or the judges themselves), and has the presence of mind to keep it together as the focal point of attention.
These distinctly unique skills have brought the occasional accusation of champions having corporate backing, inappropriately close relationships with judges, or the inside track with sponsors. But these are just the people who have made coffee their work and their life. Those who have sought out knowledge of the rules are armed with knowledge, and that is not an unfair advantage. Those who have done roasting know about bean processing and espresso blending; still not unfair. Having made time for rehearsals and practice is also not unfair because finding the time to do it comes at a tremendous sacrifice to other areas of one’s life. These are not unfair advantages because they represent the activities of committed individuals who have busted their asses to figure out how to win. If you just show up with the standard house blend and no creative thoughts for your sig bev, you can not claim any disadvantage. The same coffee world is out there to be raked over and scrutinized, and if you are not saturated in it you just won’t be as well equipped. But that is no disadvantage, it is simply not being as well prepared.
These two things I see come up again and again; competitions are not like real life, and winning is only for the privileged. Both of these ideas are a bit hogwashy. Of course competition are not like real life, and they shouldn’t be. There is no cast system in place for Baristas, you just have to want it enough to arrange your life around it. As for myself, I had become complacent in my attitude about coffee and espresso preparation after working behind the bar for a dozen years. It was not till I decided to compete, and realized how much preparation it would take, that I really developed all areas of my game. The more I saw I needed to know, the more research I did. I have learned more about coffee in the last year than in the previous 10. My skill has come up to what I would call “Competition level”, and that simply makes it impossible to drink espresso at other shops. (edit: shops in my area, you may have good ones where you live)
What does this do for the market and the industry in general? I will be taking a full time job with a roasting company, installing and maintaining equipment, and training as many other owners, managers, and Baristas how to get the most out of their coffee as I can. This I will be spreading around my entire region, and I hope to make as much impact on the front lines as possible. This goes far beyond training the Baristas of just one shop. This is my drop in the bucket, and that has to count for something in elevating the entire industry.