For those who have not experienced a barista competition, it can be daunting. In fact, it can be overwhelming. The sheer thought of standing in front of stoic, seemingly lifeless judges with their calculated movements and presenting both yourself and your assumed skill as a barista amidst a crowd of coffee professionals can be downright overwhelming. Moreover, the piece of competition often unseen in preparation can be equally stressful due to lost serving ware, malfunctioning whip cream dispensers, and pitchers with spots that seem completely impervious to any amount of scrubbing. However, with the intimidations that the environment of competition inherently offers, their is a wonderful balance that exists in the people who come to compete at such an event as the United States Barista Competition.
This year was my first time to the USBC. I had decided to brave the long trek from Muncie, Indiana to the Great Lakes Regional Barista Competition looking for some perspective and hoping to develop my barista skills. Having a reasonably healthy experience there, I still hesitated to enter into the USBC. Going to a regional and having a good time attempting to compete for the first time is one thing; standing among the seasoned and reputable, competitive espresso craftsman is quite another thing. Yet, compelled by a desire to continue to learn and an encouraging nudge from solid barista competitor Chris Deferio, I decided to push myself in a new arena of competition. When I arrived to unpack my competition set I noticed the mood to be quite different than the presupposed intensity of other competitions that I had been a part of. I saw some of the most recognizable and "famous" competitors having casual discussions and conversing about the general substance of the year past. The atmosphere of intense rivalry and stiff competition, though present in the actual presentations, seemed to be non-existent behind the closed curtain of the preparation area.
As I made my way to the dish sink to scrub, rinse, and obsessively polish my drink wares I found people openly introducing themselves and sharing about their lives with me. There were many great conversations about the love of coffee, the need to be stretched and grow in the craft of espresso, and even some "star trek convention-like" moments about equipment and the barista community. It all came as a pleasant surprise to me. I had wrongly assumed, prior to the competition, that I was in for a weekend of intimidating stares and cold shoulders. I found quite the opposite. I felt quite at home.
One of the most moving conversations I had was with both a coffee shop owner and connoisseur of fine cuisine by the name of Jay Caragay. He shared with me, in my opinion, one of the most insightful understandings of the purpose of competition when he said, "I do not compete necessarily to win or even to do exceedingly well; I do it to pay homage to coffee professionals that I truly respect. If you look at the world of gourmet food, you see that most famous chefs do not receive accolades largely on how they compete; their true success is measured by their ability to bring joy to people in their restaurants by what they serve day in and day out. I wouldn't mind being known as a great competitor, but I would much rather be known as the humble coffee shop owner who serves the kind of coffee that brings people joy."
Competition is wonderful to be a part of. It helps one understand how they react under certain types of pressure and it helps one understand the significance of every detail's importance in creating an immersing experience for the customer. But, the most important is, and will hopefully always be, that people are committed as a community to be a home of joy for coffee and for life.