Are barista championships actually relevant for coffee consumers?

  • The World Coffee Championships now have five distinct categories and attract people from up to 50 countries
  • Coffee competitions play a valuable role in driving innovation within the specialty coffee industry
  • However, some argue that a focus on experimental coffees is alienating everyday consumers

OVER THE last two decades, coffee competitions have become increasingly popular.

The first World Barista Championship was hosted in Monte Carlo in 2000, featuring a limited number of competitors. Now, the World Coffee Championships have developed into five distinct events and attract competitors from up to 50 countries.

Coffee competitions have emerged as an important platform for uniting and strengthening the specialty coffee community. These events are frequently held in conjunction with large expos and trade shows such as World of Coffee, Specialty Coffee Expo or CafeShow.

Historically, attendees and competitors at these events have predominantly been from majority coffee-consuming countries. However, producers and baristas from coffee-growing regions are increasingly taking part – and enjoying success.

This year, for example, Boram Um became the first-ever Brazilian competitor to win the World Barista Championship, and Carlos Medina secured the first-ever victory for a Latam competitor in the World Brewers Cup. This followed Diego Campos’ WBC win in 2021 – the first for a Colombian barista.

These competitions are an opportunity for coffee professionals at the top of their game to showcase the latest innovations within the industry – and inspire further advancements, too.

“I wouldn’t say that competitions are the single largest drivers of innovation, but I certainly think that the world stage is a great platform to present it,’’ says Nicole Battefeld, the head of education at Rancilio Group Deutschland and four-time German coffee competition champion. 

However, the impact of competitions on the broader industry – particularly for general coffee consumers – raises questions about their significance. While these competitions may bring benefits to a select few, their relevance for everyday coffee drinkers is up for debate.

Increasingly, “quality” at coffee competitions is linked with experimentation. Score sheets tend to favour coffees with complexity in sweetness and acidity, rather than more conventional flavours such as chocolate and nuts. 

Instead of uniting consumers through a shared love of coffee, the rising emphasis on experimental coffees could be alienating the average coffee drinker instead of engaging them in how coffee culture is evolving.

experimental coffees may not be relevant for everyday coffee consumers

The gap between competitions and consumers

The disparity between competition coffees and the preference of everyday coffee drinkers may be growing. However, there still could be benefits in continuing to push the boundaries and embracing experimentation.

Saša Šestić is the 2015 World Barista Champion. During his championship routine, he introduced carbonic maceration processing to the specialty coffee community, which has since been adopted across the world. 

He believes that, while competitions and the coffees used may be far removed from what’s happening in coffee shops, their innovations have a “trickle-down” effect that inspires progress throughout the entire industry.

“Whenever there are new techniques, innovations or ways of doing something – regardless of the industry – there will always be critics who say that it doesn’t belong, is ‘too much’ and not relevant,” he says. 

“In my view, the more we experiment with different ways of creating, preparing and sharing coffee, it allows us to explore new possibilities, which in turn allows us to offer a wider and better range of products to customers.”

However, it could be argued that this follows from a common mantra in specialty coffee: “Educate the consumer.” As such, the specialty coffee community has pushed flavours and qualities that they deem valuable to consumers across the board. But – did anyone ever listen to what the customer wanted?

Furthermore, the gap between competition and “normal” coffees extends beyond cup quality. The vast majority of world-class competitors use rare varieties produced in short supply, such as Gesha and eugenioides – coffees that are very unlikely for average consumers to come across.

Experimental coffees and rare varieties could be driving a wedge between the competition stage and the average consumer. With more competitors seeking out the rarest and most exotic coffees possible, this divide might widen in the years ahead.

judges may not consider coffee consumers when scoring

Finding the way forward

As competitions continue to push the boundaries of specialty coffee, there is a growing effort to make them more inclusive and reflective of the broader sector.

The inclusion of plant milks in the World Barista Championships is an example of this. Prior to the rule changes announced by the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) in December 2022, the use of non-dairy milks resulted in zero points in the relevant category.

While this change has been driven by event organisers, some believe the impetus is on the competitors to remain connected to their wider community and maintain a level of relevance.

“It really depends on your community and your willingness to have different experiences – if you only drink competition-style coffees or the most exclusive lots from across the world, then perhaps you would develop a negative opinion about ‘normal’ or lower scoring coffees, which I think is misguided,” Saša says. 

“As coffee professionals, if we don’t stay in touch with the coffee people are drinking every day, then we are losing the main connection we have to our customers and community.”

There is also a growing push for a more experiential approach to scoring coffees. This moves beyond flavour and quality descriptors, making the conversation more relatable to consumers’ experiences.

This is essentially what the competition stage is missing – relatability. If those in the upper echelons of the specialty coffee community continue to peddle the mantra of “knowing best” and solely assigning value to increasingly experimental coffees, they may find themselves preaching to an empty room.

However, the large steps forward made at competitions have widened the scope of what specialty coffee can be. As a result, consumers now have access to a broader range of coffee products and experiences than ever before. Perhaps accusations of irrelevance are simply a natural consequence of pushing boundaries and making progress.

“I think that at large, the coffee industry has succeeded in elevating the general knowledge of consumers across the world, and more people than ever are interested in the coffee they are drinking,” Nicole says.

“Although I think that sometimes the innovations of the specialty industry may not always align with what consumers at large are interested in, ultimately it’s our role as specialty coffee professionals to create great and consistent products for them. If we can deliver our innovations in a way that aligns with consumers’ values, then we are succeeding in our work.” 

As such, this conversation could shape the future of coffee competitions in two ways. Firstly, competitors should continue to push boundaries while deliberately aligning their innovations with consumer values and preferences.

At the same time, there may be an opportunity to strike a balance between acknowledging the value of everyday coffees and maintaining an environment of innovation. As competitions gain popularity, it opens the doors to explore new, inclusive approaches.

“I think that we need these high-quality competitions to push the boundaries of coffee and ourselves, so that we can achieve the best out of what we do,” Saša says.

“However I do also believe that there is space for other competitions that are more relevant to daily coffee consumption, and that would be more inclusive for those who are unable to engage with the existing competition formats.”