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......


Rich said...

"thousands arguing about it"?

If only that were the case, then we'd be talking about how successful Tatiana's performance was in breaking down the walls between pros and consumers.

I doubt it's really even hundreds, let alone thousands thinking about Tatiana. More like dozens, it seems, unfortunately.

Eric said...

The fact is, I've been to one shop in which the people are dressed to a level of "professionalism." I've had better coffee from people covered with tattoos and wearing t-shirts and jeans (Billy Wilson).

The problem I have with barista competitions is just that - why are we supposed to emulate a 4-star experience when you're more likely to get a great espresso from a 2-star looking coffee shop like Albina Press than an actual 4-star restaurant that uses illy pods?