Inside the World Barista Championships, the Olympics of Espresso
Not a Frappucino in sight
The World Barista Championships have been rewarding the best espresso preparation from around the globe since 1998. Borne of a grassroots desire for community and a genuine debate about what makes good coffee, the World Barista Championships (WBC) take place at the annual World of Coffee trade show. In the WBC, international master baristas compete by preparing three courses of espresso drinks—single espresso, milk beverage (any espresso drink made with cow’s milk), and signature beverage (barista’s choice, time to shine, and get creative)—for four judges in 15 minutes. The events take place in a different city every year, and this year the WBC will celebrate its 19th anniversary in Amsterdam.
But really, each preparation is judged in 44 minute spans. There are seven minutes to set one’s table arrangement; 15 minutes to prepare and set up one’s espresso station; then a timer buzzes and the 15 minute drink preparation or “performance” will take place, which includes service of the beverages to the judges; followed by seven minutes of clean up time. Each competitor is judged by taste, technical skill, presentation, cleanliness, station management, workflow, quality of service, and more. The winner becomes an ambassador for coffee globally. With that comes endless opportunity to advance one’s career in the coffee space, from opening a chain of coffee shops and launching high quality corporate coffee programming, to teaching and doing demonstrations around the world, or a host of other possibilities.
This “performance” is one that competitors spend about a year trying to perfect. Agnieska Rojewska from Poland, who will be competing at her third WBC this year, chose her coffee almost a year ago. It takes half a year, she says, to develop the drinks she will eventually serve during the competition and another half a year to practice the routine of making the drinks in the designated amount of time. “When you’re onstage and there’s 10 minutes and 14 seconds, you know at this time your left hand is reaching out for this glass of something and you pour this glass of something into something else. It’s supposed to happen every time [at] the same time,” she says. This year Rojewska has a coach and she practices every night after work, repeating and recording her preparation and sending it to her coach for feedback. “It’s like a night job,” she says. “During the day you are Bruce Wayne and then you have to be Batman and train all night.” Some baristas take off of work for one to three months prior to the competition just so they can run their performances.
But in addition to making all of these drinks competitors also have a clear message of what they’re trying to share with the coffee world. According to the 2018 WBC Rules and Regulations, the judges are looking for communication skills, a broad understanding of coffee knowledge, and passion about the barista profession in addition to technical and culinary skill, as well as someone who can serve as a role model for and inspiration to others.
The master baristas who participate in the WBC will use their performances as a way to address an issue in the coffee community. El Salvador’s Alejandro Mendez, who won the WBC in 2011, discussed sustainability while preparing a drink that rethought the ways to interact with coffee trees. In his signature drink, he combined his espresso with a tisane made from coffee cherries and coffee flowers, all from the same plants growing in the same place, while talking about the trees themselves. Others discuss the science behind coffee making, ways to reignite the passion for service and sharing knowledge, and more. “Competitors who are able to master espresso preparation can then use it to communicate something larger, whether that’s a larger and deeper and more nuanced flavor experience or understanding of the industry, or a service experience, an emotional experience that’s created, an intellectual experience, where you teach people or teach the industry at large about something, where you prove or try to prove a quality hypothesis,” says Alex Bernson, Brand Manager of World Coffee Events, the organization responsible for hosting WBC every year.
The judges and administrators behind the WBC have known forever the effect a little bean can have on someone’s life. Every year they look for someone who will share that knowledge anew, someone who knows there’s more to life than just a Frappuccino and will spend their year as a global ambassador in the world of coffee showing what else is out there.