Thursday, May 17, 2007

State of confusion: an overshadowed win

It’s been less than a week after the 2007 United States Barista Competition and I have been getting ready to commit seppuku. This is the time of year that usually causes celebration, late night keggers, and camaraderie amongst fellow baristas. But this year is a bit different, OK, it’s a LOT different, with an semi unexpected win by Heather Perry of Coffee Klatch, machine breakage, and an unexpected event I will now dub the ‘beer hat episode’ that has caused a rather large and heated discussion between competitors and fans of the USBC. With controversy, there always come the same questions: How do we make it more audience friendly? How do we get this thing to the next stage? Are we alienating the very people we are trying to impress, the public? I have been asking myself these questions, and I think I have an idea.

As it has been said elsewhere, there is an elephant in the room, and it needs to be addressed, or according to some people, just plain dressed. I am talking about this years USBC performance of Tatiana Becker. The performance was ‘Sorority’ themed, and Tatiana acted the bit of a Sorority member, and her judges where her pledges (inductee’s). Tatiana was dressed in a blue halter top, short black cheerleader-like skirt, and high heels. Her water was served in red plastic solo cups, and her signature beverage was served in beer hats that the judges had to wear. Fortunately for the judges, nobody had to do a keg stand.

The argument is this: was this performance by one competitor a well executed, pre-planned event to cause people to re-evaluate what the competition is about, or is it just plain, out-and-out mockery of what we barista’s work so hard to be, a professional. Either way you look at it; this was the performance of the competition, even overshadowing the finalist’s performances, drawing the collective eyes to her hem-line instead of the score sheets. (side note: I don't approve of they way it was done, but it was a means to an end. You decide)

As you can guess, this performance by Tatiana drew quite an audience, and before it was over the debate had started, which of course, was quite a lot to talk about. But it also had one major side effect, it really pissed some people off, and I mean pissed. Online alone there are thousands of people arguing about it, podcast’s being made to discuss it, and many, many people so angry about it, that they put their foot in their mouth, and people got pissed off at that.

For people who don’t know much about barista competitions, or who haven’t really paid them much attention, I will make one long statement. If you decide one day, that hey, I’m going to compete in the United States Barista Competition, I bet you’re going to invest a lot of time and money into being prepared, and having the right equipment. There is a lot at stake here, not only will one person, and/or company, spend thousands of dollars sending a competitor, but there is a huge emotional investment that the barista has in performing to the best of their ability. So if they perceive that someone in the same event, who supposedly took the same time and effort as they did, is making them look like a jackass, they’re not going to be happy about it.

But, all that barista drama aside, it did do something good; it made people take a step back to take a look at the big picture of the competition, and evaluate it. Eventually the discussion will wane off of Tatiana and get directed to where it belongs; on a competition in its infancy, and how it needs to grow.

Now let’s look at the event as a whole, as something that can be molded into a competition which we can all, at least, approve of. While there are many things I could discuss here, I will limit myself to only the most important ones. As I see it two major questions arise, and these are the type of questions that could make you, or break you.

First, is it actually interesting enough to the audience? I think the format needs to be kicked up a coupla’ notches, to paraphrase a certain famous cook. Not to say the coffee community needs to sell out, or put our integrity aside, but things could be a bit more interesting. Honestly. We absolutely, 100 percent, unequivocally need to engage the audience, the ability to make people excited about what is happening is a major key to making it work. Make it personal. Fire, flames, haiku, explosions, different formats, play-by-play coverage, live commentary, but something to be proud of.

Secondly, is this the right direction towards bettering ourselves as a community, and not just trying to become rock stars? Many people think the idea of being this barista with mad skills that people just throw themselves, and their money at, is appealing. But is that where we want to go as community of professionals? This may be a bit like the Olympics of the coffee world, but many think it’s just too self-congratulatory to be taken seriously. There is a balance here that needs to be struck, one where the people who watch the event unfold see a barista professional at the top of their game, and not some self absorbed fame seeker.

There was also an unfortunate event where the middle machine broke during competition, but as far as I can tell, the issue was handled quickly and professionally by the event staff. Way to go team! I like it when the competition itself has a evolved to the point where hiccups this these are almost non-events. It proves to me that all hope is not lost, the competition isn’t broken, that it is still very, very young as far as competitions go. It will continue to get refined just as the Olympics have over hundreds of years, and we will reinvent ourselves as the times and technology change.

So as the competition community is focusing on these problems, let’s not forget that we still have a winner who still needs to be properly congratulated. Good job Heather, go kick some ass in the WBC. I think with all the hard work people put into the competition, we definitely need to tell each and every competitor that has had the nerve to get up on stage, congratulations, we are proud of your accomplishments.


please leave your comments on this......

Friday, May 11, 2007

Coffee flavored fuel?

I just read this article HERE, and I was just amazed that they can make bio-diesel from just about anything now. The fact that they ferment coffee oil to make ethanol, and that it will improve their coffee stocks without degrading their domestic stock is awesome. The coffee farmers now have another tool at their disposal in case of a bad year, just dump their crop into bio-fuels. Just can't help but make me wonder that this may affect the price of coffee the same way it affected the price of corn in the US.

Now I'm off to go throw a couple of pounds of Finca el Injerto in my car and see if that make it run better. I wish I had a Mr. Fusion.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A Cause in a Cafe

The other day (April 21st), in a friends cafe that I used to work at, they hosted a charity event for Bikes to Rwanda. This is a cause championed by Stumptown Coffee Roasters, specifically Duane, who has been 'stumping' for this cause for quite a while. The event was coordinated by Clara Seasholtz, who provided posters, brochures, and handouts for the event. Stumptown brought over a couple of employees, lots of Rwandan coffee, a film on a coffee farm, and a few of their friends. The cafe promoted the event to their customers (and told their customers to bring their friends), to their family, and asked a local musician to come play. The event was great, they had enough donations at this event alone to purchase 7 bikes, and had an excellent turnout, with more people there than could fit in the place.

I point this out to show that it doesn't take a lot of clout, or take a lot of money, to have a huge event for a cafe that will increase their presence in the community, and thereby increasing business. This is what I think is missing from the minds of many cafe owners today, The Big Picture, i.e. the community as a whole. Most cafe owners think in very linear lines, always asking themselves the same questions over and over, How do I increase business? Where do I advertise? Why am I still losing money? How do I cut costs? They keep asking these same silly questions until they go out of business not knowing why they didn't do well. You don't know the difference in being successful is being part of the greater community, and when you become part of the greater community do you become successful.

But as I see it, when it all boils down to it, the good guys always win. Not just because they are good, but because they aren't bad at what they do. As long as you are good to people, and you serve good products, you will always do good.

(Oh, and by the way, they made no money on the event, but the amount of increased business over the following week made the books even out. Plus now they have about 40 to 60 more customers who are highly impressed by what they do how they do it, and what they know. An educated customer is a customer for life.)