Our Green Coffee Buyer, Dan Streetman, has been partipating as a judge in the worldwide barista competition circuit for years now. Here’s his inside take on the 2015 World Barista Championship, held this April in Seattle, Washington.
Attending the World Barista Championships each year is always exciting, but it’s even more so when the annual contest is held in the United States. The WBC being in Seattle this year was an exceptional privilege for everyone in the US, as it was the first time it has happened on our shores since Atlanta in 2009. But despite not having to travel as far as Vienna, Bogota, or London, the trip was still a bit of a whirlwind for me personally, as I was responsible for coordinating all of the on-site judging activities in conjunction with all the things I normally do during a Specialty Coffee Association of America event, which this year’s WBC was held in tandem with. Still decompressing even now, it took me a bit longer to process, and discern what, if any, takeaways I had from this year’s event.
First, let me say congratulations to Sasa Sestic from Australia, the 2015 World Barista Champion! He presented excellent coffee, along with interesting and unique ideas that can be further explored in coffee. Most of the conversation within our industry has focused on “the new” things that emerged in competition, and for certain there were several exciting, innovative ideas presented this year on the WBC stage.
Sasa’s presentation of the carbonic maceration fermentation process applied to coffee was a unique concept that I have never heard or seen in coffee before, along with Ben Put’s presentation of espressos placed into a vacuum chamber to reduce carbon dioxide and change their viscosity.
However, what especially stuck with me was Charles Babinski’s focus on systems, and producing coffee following a standardized approach. Charles did that really, really well without necessarily introducing a groundbreaking or innovative approach to “making coffee better”. As the days and weeks have gone on, I have appreciated even more the refocusing that Charles gave us, as an industry, on what it takes to produce and present specialty coffee to the public, and how we do that successfully. It also struck me that Charles was able to achieve that level of success, taking home second place in the world, without fancy new gadgets, doohickeys, etc. I don’t want to go into a detailed analysis of scoresheet lingo, but the point spread of only 5 points between first and second place means that the coffees served by Sasa and Charles were indistinguishable in objective quality by the judges.
In other words, all that “newness” didn’t result in dramatically better coffee, and proves that superb coffee can be made following readily accepted standards within our industry.
This struck a particular chord with me, as I continually look around the coffee marketplace and see us “reinventing the wheel”. People are continually excited about the “next hot thing” when in reality, producing delicious specialty coffee has not changed in any substantive way in 10 years—sorry folks.
What has changed is interest in specialty coffee and its availability. I often wonder how much of this energy in finding the “new” is a drive to get noticed and differentiate from competitors especially when they are only different and not better, and I fear that much of it is.
Because of this, I am struck by something else about Charles’ approach and conversation during the WBC that seems to be overlooked. Charles’ emphasis was on serving his customers and understanding their needs. He reintroduced to us that we should engage and LISTEN to our customers more when we are designing our businesses and determining what to serve. A wise message for anyone who dares to listen I would say, and one we try to take to heart at Irving Farm, itself a different style of coffee company than Babinski’s three Los Angeles cafes.
I hope that we can take heed, and learn to look at the specialty coffee drinker as an ally in the pursuit of quality; learning, understanding, and delivering what they want to drink will drive value in the chain for everyone. At least I believe that it will a lot more than innovation for innovation’s own sake, i.e without significant objective and indisputable quality gains.
I was particularly inspired by Charles’ message, and look forward to seeing where both innovation, and consistency, take coffee in the future.