You wouldn't be the first person to give me a raised eyebrow at the sight of the words coffee competition. In fact, almost everyone does. But they are, in fact, a real thing, and more than that, they're important. Not only to the baristas who compete in them, but also to coffee in general. And, to some extent, to you, too—even if you don't know it yet.
Coffee competitions might not draw enough spectators to warrant an hour's block on the Food Network, wedged between Cupcake Wars and Chopped, but in the professional coffee community, they are the most exciting of spectator sports. Even the ones that are, well, not especially thrilling to watch.
There are competitions that are based entirely on how coffee tastes (the Cup of Excellence, for instance), how well someone can taste coffee (Cup Tasters), and how well a professional can hand-brew coffee (Brewers Cup). There are regional, national, and international competitions based on espresso-based drink preparation and service (events leading up to and including the World Barista Championship), as well as beauty contests for lattes (Coffee Fest Latte Art Competition, World Latte Art Championships). There are even competitions for the best coffee made with an ibrik, an AeroPress, a siphon brewer—you name it. You can watch these live, since many are open to the public, or you can huddle around a computer screen like I often do, as the majority are also live-streamed in one place or another online.
Someone who "just wants a cup of coffee" might roll his eyes at this kind of frivolous contest, as they do when the local sandcastle competition or hot-dog eating contest gets local news coverage.
There's one thing that all of these coffee competitions have in common, however, and that makes them all significant in their own way: They prove that coffee is something that can be prepared meaningfully; showcased professionally and theatrically; and taken seriously, even if only by the person facing the judges.
Take the Cup of Excellence competition, for instance: Probably the most significant, and certainly the most prestigious, award a coffee can achieve, it is a national competition held in coffee-producing countries, pitting the best of the origin's beans against one another in a blind taste-test to determine which is the top of the heap. The coffees are scored and their farmers revealed at the end, when the highest scoring among them is sold at auction, often at relatively jaw-dropping prices.
Cup Tasters, meanwhile, is a competition that showcases the incredible human ability to train one's palate well enough to detect and identify differences among coffees blindly—not an easy feat, considering the fact that coffee is literally the most complex substance that human consume, based on the number of aromatics present in a cup of the stuff.
Brewers Cup and the Barista Competitions are often described as worthy of the Christopher Guest treatment à la Best in Show, but there's actually very little dog-and-pony about them both. The competitors in both strive to display a level of professionalism and dedication that can exist in the service industry in general and in the coffee-service industry in particular, and the challengers who take part are among the best, brightest, humblest (well, mostly), and most generous in the business. Not only that, but they're also darned good at what they do, and most will tell you that becoming a competitive barista or brewer is what has helped them become head and shoulders above the rest.
That last point might be the most significant argument pro competition of all stripes, and is certainly true in the world of coffee: Competition makes people better at what they do. That's the whole point, to work at something until you are better than your opponents, until you are good enough to have a chance at winning something. Even when the prizes are silly or small, like a T-shirt at a hometown latte-art throwdown, there is something to be said for working toward a goal, and the industry as a whole may improve the coffee they're growing, roasting, and brewing as these talented, dedicate folks show what's possible.
What do you think about industry competitions like these? Do you think that coffee competitions are more, less, or equally as relevant to a culinary or taste profession as the Food Network contest shows, or are they all just silly fun? Sound off in the comments.
About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista, an audacious eater, and a smiling runner, but she remains a Nervous Cook.