- Previous WBC winners, such as Tim Wendelboe and Saša Šestić, have been relatively prominent voices in the specialty coffee community
- Specialty coffee has grown and evolved since the first World Barista Championship in 2000
- As values beyond technical excellence appeal to the sector’s growing audience, WBC winners may become less prominent
THE WORLD Barista Championship is the most important event for baristas in the specialty coffee calendar. It makes sense, then, that winners are regarded with a sense of celebrity in the industry.
The first WBC event was held in Monte Carlo in 2000. Since then, it has grown and grown – with thousands of coffee professionals competing in regional and national competitions with the hope of representing their country on the world stage.
As it says on SCA’s website: “What began as a small gathering to advance the prestige and respect of some 17 career baristas in a small corner of a convention centre in Monte Carlo has morphed into a global arena with 62 competing countries and Olympic-style pomp.”
But times have changed since the first competition in 2000. First and foremost, the audience for specialty coffee has exploded.
It could be argued that, as the size of the specialty coffee community was smaller ten years ago, it was comparatively easier for WBC winners to make an impression. Indeed, some champions ended up with such a reputation that it took them by surprise.
“In my case, winning was so surprising that I didn’t know what to do with that, or how to deal with it – it was overwhelming and just too much,” says Agnieszka Rojewska, founder of Sheep and Raven, and the 2018 World Barista Champion. “It can be a lot for one person if you don’t have any idea how this will influence your life.”
However, the champions of the 2000s and early 2010s arguably ended up reaching a level of celebrity which is much less prominent today. Their victory was enough to start a portfolio of brands and drive impact across the coffee sector – whether through a boutique coffee trader or a large, well-known roastery. Previous winners like James Hoffman, Tim Wendelboe and Saša Šestić all come to mind.
Nowadays, however, WBC winners are much more likely to follow up their victory with brand ambassadorship roles rather than harnessing their personal brand to start businesses.
Agnieszka explains that competitors are now coming to the WBC at different stages in their careers than before. Competitions are now seen as a pathway to career opportunities, rather than serving as the starting point of a new brand. As such, establishing and maintaining a reputation is much less important.
“It used to be for a lot of people that becoming a champion was ‘cherry on top’ of their careers so they could now focus on spreading their experience,” she says. “For the new competitors, it is often the beginning of their career, so they want to use the opportunity to build something from it.”
Of course, another explanation could be that as specialty coffee has grown, the audience for these competitions has changed. Rather than having a small, tight-knit community of people who have a solid understanding of specialty coffee, we now have a rapidly growing audience entering the industry from a point of less experience.
We can see this reflected in the number of rapidly-growing influencers making coffee more accessible – more so than the winners focusing on controlling minute, scientific details throughout espresso extraction.
For example, Agnieszka’s winning performance was celebrated for its simplicity – and she has become well-known across the specialty coffee community since.
In contrast, many other champions in recent years have won by displaying new innovations and delving into complex extraction theory, such as exploring aromatic compounds and how mono-carbohydrates and polysaccharides affect coffee’s flavour balance.
Indeed, the technical skills and knowledge involved in competitions have arguably become more refined in recent years. It could be argued that competitors are often more focused on these areas rather than on overall performance and establishing a name for themselves.
At the same time, while extremely impressive, this technical focus will categorically appeal to a smaller proportion of specialty coffee’s audience.
“Coffee lovers seek sources of knowledge about coffee, brewing, roasting – how they can do it at home. World Barista Championship winners are not the best source until they start a platform where they share knowledge and experience,” Agnieszka says.
“That is also why a lot of people appreciate YouTube coffee pros much more than World Barista Champions – because they solve their real problems and answer everyday questions.”
Ultimately, specialty coffee has changed over the last two decades, and it naturally makes sense that the profile of a WBC winner has adjusted in line with that.
Better representation on the world stage
The first ten WBC winners were exclusively European and Australian, with six of them hailing from Scandinavian countries. This reflected just how influential these regions were in the early days of specialty coffee.
But as the sector has grown, we have seen winners from further afield. Alejandro Mendez and Raúl Rodas were the first two winners from coffee-producing countries in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Starting in 2014, there were three winners from East Asia in six editions in the event. And in 2023, the WBC crowned its first winner from Brazil: the largest coffee-growing country in the world.
So, while there may well be an understanding of newer winners being “quieter” than those from “classic” specialty coffee markets, Agnieszka explains that there is often more activity than some might think.
“I guess they are loud but in a ‘quieter way’ – this year, [current World Barista Champion] Boram Um has been on a champion’s tour around the world for about 5 months. He’s visited 10 or 15 countries for festivals, trade shows, and so on,” she says.
“He is there for the coffee community on the spot, not very loud on social media, but spreading knowledge and specialty coffee face to face. A lot of champions are focused on influencing smaller communities.”
As we see more champions from coffee-growing regions and emerging markets, it’s understandable that their focus shifts towards the coffee industry in their own country or region.
“I think we just have much more work to do in our own countries,” Agnieszka explains. “Poland, for example, is developing very fast when it comes to specialty coffee. But there is a lot to spread and do here.”
This is, however, just one of the many reasons that WBC winners’ profiles have changed significantly since the first world championship was held in 2000. Ultimately, the fact that recent champions are relatively “quieter” isn’t a good or bad thing – it just shows that specialty coffee and its audience have evolved.
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