Why coffee competitions are falling out of favour

barista competition stage
  • Coffee competitions have been central to specialty coffee for a long time
  • But as new generations enter the sector, the prestige is shifting 
  • In recent years, SCA Expo and WoC events have seen a notably smaller audience for their competitions 

FOR many coffee professionals, barista competitions represent the pinnacle of the specialty coffee industry, and many have built a career off the back of their competition success.

In recent years, however, these competitions have slowly fallen out of favour, as consumers decry rule changes, reject elitism, and embrace the influence of other mediums of “coffee fame.” 

Since the first World Barista Championship in 2000, many coffee professionals have built personal and company brands using coffee competitions as a springboard. The World Coffee Championships, for example, have generated industry icons like James Hoffman, arguably the most well-known internet personality both within the coffee industry and across the world. 

However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a downward shift in the popularity of coffee competitions among young coffee professionals. Once an avenue to create coffee mega-stars, the events have faced criticism for their elitism and disconnection from the realities of the coffee sector

“I don’t think it’s travel related, but more that the priorities in people’s life have changed, and that the risk to reward factor in competition is sometimes not worth the investment of time or money,” says Charlotte Corra, two-time World Barista Championship finalist and coffee consultant.

Today, there are noticeably fewer people in the crowd at coffee competitions and less engagement and fervour than there used to be from spectators. This could be due in part to the competitions now being spread across a greater number of countries and continents, leading to higher travel costs for prospective attendees. 

Despite smaller attendance at global competitions, competitor attendance continues to grow, particularly in both regions with a strong coffee culture, and in coffee-producing countries. What is then causing the decline in support of coffee competitions? 

Prestige is shifting

For many, the allure and celebrity of successful coffee competitors and world champions has waned in the face of changing audiences and their values. For others, the ways in which coffee competitions are changing has made them less attractive, causing them to seek out role models elsewhere.

It would be an overstatement to say that people do not care for these coffee competitions any more. However, some lament the ever-changing rules, regulations, and judging criteria of global coffee competitions, feeding into partial disenchantment with competitions overall.

“The biggest issue I see is the quality of the judges’ panels, the feedback they give to competitors, and the type of trends that have been promoted and rewarded lately. It’s really hard for competitors to adjust to the judges’ ever-evolving expectations,” Charlotte says.

“It feels disheartening for competitors to practise for months at a time, invest heavily in coffee, equipment, and a team, and then get absurd feedback from a judge with a questionable CV.”  

The recent inclusion of new types of coffee and ingredients, for example, has triggered mixed feelings within the industry. The acceptance of plant-based milks in the World Barista Championship was celebrated overall, particularly following protests and threats of legal action when the discipline only allowed cow’s milk. 

But other changes have sparked criticism, like updates to the rules and regulations for the 2024 competitions allowing for the use of “infused” or “co-fermented” coffees. The industry remains divided, swaying between concerns about food hygiene standards and maintaining the “purity” of a coffee’s flavour, and how these coffees can benefit some producers. 

Meanwhile, sponsorship is proving to be a double-edged sword for these events. While it provides vital financial support for the competitions, it can also have controversial strings attached to it that cause friction amongst stakeholders.

In 2023, the World Coffee Championships allowed for the inclusion of both traditional and  automatic machines as qualified sponsors for the World Latte Art Championship. Shortly afterwards, they announced superautomatic machine manufacturer Thermoplan as their machine sponsor, meaning that for the first time, competitors wouldn’t be preparing espresso for their competition. This was met with heavy criticism.

Specialty Coffee Association CEO Yannis Apostolopoulos claimed it to be a “significant step in the important work of including a wider range of equipment” in the competitions, but such changes continue to cause further headaches for competitors and further decrease the enthusiasm from spectators and volunteer staff. 

“The constant changes in equipment always force the companies (or individuals) to invest in new machines, which is probably not a priority expense to most,” says Charlotte. “The expenses for a decent barista competition campaign can become quite ridiculous, and is definitely preventing many people from taking part in them.” 

Fame and exclusivity are no longer enough   

Coffee competitions must struggle to appease an ever-demanding audience, satisfy a growing group of competitors, and ensure the competitions are financially viable to operate. But even if they manage to achieve all of this, the payoff of competition may not be as viable as it once was.

This rings particularly true with Gen Z, the largest-growing demographic of coffee drinkers in the market. While success at the World Coffee Championships once led to celebrity-level status, this consumer group seems less interested in “coffee superstars” and more interested in community engagement, sustainability, and social media. 

Social media platforms have birthed many “coffee influencers” – many of whom are arguably more popular than coffee competition champions today. At coffee trade shows, many brands vie for the attention of influencers, to visit their stand or endorse their brands. 

In response, many former champions now seek to transfer their fame and followers to their social media platforms. They are now exploring meaningful discussion and authenticity, as opposed to the more commercial promotion they used before to engage new generations. 

“Relevance shouldn’t be a matter of what you have achieved trophy-wise, or how many followers you have,” says Charlotte. “It comes from your daily actions and from the value you bring to the coffee industry beyond the competition and social media platforms.” 

Similarly, brand notoriety and product exclusivity are also becoming less appealing to new generations, who prioritise convenience, ever-changing trends and prefer to select brands based on whether their core messaging, aesthetic and priorities resonate with their own.  

For example, social media star and podcaster Emma Chamberlain built a successful $20 million-a-year coffee business off the back of her online presence, achieving fame and popularity in coffee despite not even being a coffee professional. 

When it comes to competitions, there is little doubt that the coffee industry will continue to argue over what matters, who is important, and what the competitions need to stay relevant. The fact remains that coffee competitions are huge operations to pull off, and still hold value and matter to many. 

However, as with any brand or product, they will need to adapt and align with the changing values of its stakeholders if they are to retain their engagement in the long run.

Coffee Intelligence

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