November 23, 2022

Is there space for new coffee competitions?


In specialty coffee, there are a range of competitions designed to test the skills and knowledge of different coffee professionals. Among these, the World Coffee Championships (WCC) are widely recognised as the most respected and highly regarded events in the coffee sector – notably the World Barista Championships (WBC).

Undoubtedly, there are many reasons to celebrate WCC events, including the innovative and unique trends that can emerge from competitors’ performances. However, in recent years, the WBC in particular has received criticism for a lack of inclusivity and accessibility, leading some to question whether the format of coffee competitions needs to change.

So is there space for new coffee competitions in the industry? And how can we make existing competitions more inclusive? To learn more, I spoke with two coffee event organisers. 

You may also like our article on whether the World Barista Championship needs to change.

Judges assess signature drinks at the World Barista Championship

Understanding the significance of the World Barista Championship

Ola Brattås is the founder of the Kokekaffe Championships, an annual competition which sees competitors prepare coffee using a traditional Nordic brewing method.

“The WCC organiser, World Coffee Events (WCE), is a large organisation which helped to establish the authority and credibility of the competitions,” he says. “It has organised WCC events for many years now, and has redeveloped the rules as the competitions have evolved over the years.”

Although there are seven WCC events, including the World Brewers Cup and World Coffee in Good Spirits Championship, the WBC is arguably the most impactful. 

Previous WBC winners often go on to kickstart trends which are adopted by specialty coffee more widely. For example, the 2015 World Barista Champion Saša Šestić used a carbonic maceration processed Sudan Rume in his winning routine – leading to rising interest in both the processing method and the variety.

Furthermore, competing in the WBC allows baristas to showcase their skills and knowledge on a global platform – potentially leading to new career and business opportunities.

WCC events are also known to be very formal and rule-focused, which ultimately adds to their perceived prestige and credibility. For some, the more formal rule-based approach provides competitors with clear guidance on how to develop their routines in the hopes of receiving higher scores.

However, some claim this overwhelmingly rule-based approach can make WCC events exclusionary and inaccessible – especially for competitors who aren’t from English-speaking countries

Steve Moloney is the founder of Ordna Event Agency and The Barista League, a barista-style competition which takes place in several countries every year. 

“WCE has helped to set international standards for coffee competitions for some 20 years now,” he tells me. “However, the original concept for the WBC was created at a time when there was more of a need to establish common standards and practices in coffee competitions.

“So while there can be criticism over its lack of inclusivity and accessibility, we should acknowledge that coffee competitions in general have benefitted from the WBC’s standardised format,” he adds. “The WBC was developed by coffee professionals who care deeply about the competition.”

A barista brews coffee using the automated Poursteady brewer

What about other coffee competitions?

Alongside WCC events, there are a number of coffee competitions which take place every year.

One of these events is the World AeroPress Championship (WAC), which was first established in 2008. Each year, around 3,000 coffee professionals from some 60 countries take part in national and regional competitions, which involve brewing coffee using the AeroPress in a less formal and rule-focused environment.

“The WAC deserves a lot of recognition for popularising a different type of coffee competition,” Steve says.

Similarly, The Barista League is another example of an inclusive and informal coffee competition, with the first event held in 2015. Participants compete in several rounds of barista-style challenges, and the competition has a significant focus on sustainable practices – including the exclusive use of oat milk.

Another more accessible competition is Coffee Masters, a biannual event which is held in both the UK and US during the London and New York Coffee Festivals. Competitors are tested on a number of different skills – including cupping, brewing filter coffee, and pouring latte art.

As well as this, coffee competitions which focus on other brewing methods are becoming more common. For instance, the first Toddy Cold Brew Championship was held at PRF Colombia earlier this year, which saw competitors prepare three different types of cold brew beverages.

Ola explains more about the World Kokekaffe Championship, which is a relatively new competition in the coffee industry.

“It’s a small event with a few simple rules that are easy to understand,” he says. “The competition lasts for around two hours, and there is also the option of having a stand-in take part on your behalf to reduce competitors’ costs if necessary.

“Competitors also use a coffee which has been provided to them, and they don’t need to create a presentation to take part,” he adds.

Steve highlights the importance of encouraging new coffee competitions to emerge.

“The more different events and competitions we have in the coffee industry, the better for everyone,” he tells me. “We are a diverse industry, but sometimes there can be too much focus on one standard of coffee competition, which means we are potentially missing out on supporting other types of creativity and innovation. 

“New competition and event formats can inspire people, create different kinds of competition, and push events in new and different directions,” he adds.

Baristas use an espresso machine to prepare drinks as part of a coffee competition

How difficult is it to start a new coffee competition?

Given the values of the specialty coffee industry, there is undoubtedly space for further innovation and diversification as far as events and competitions are concerned.

“Around the world, there is so much innovation happening with coffee competitions that may not be showcased on a global platform,” Steve says. “It’s an opportunity to create something new – to test different ideas out and push the boundaries of other competitions.”

However, Ola explains that it can take several years to establish a coffee competition.

“It can depend on several factors, such as the level of media coverage and gaining acceptance from coffee professionals,” he tells me. “It can take around four to five years for an organiser to fully establish a competition in the specialty coffee industry.

“The World Kokekaffe Championship has been held for six consecutive years,” he adds. “We are starting to receive more credibility in the broader competition circuit as the event has grown in recent years.”

Steve believes that while competitions largely test the skills of competitors, they also need to be fun and positive for those who are involved.

“Even the team who placed last in the competition needs to get as much value out of the event as the winning team, or as a judge or volunteer,” he explains. “In doing so, we shift the predominant focus away from winning, and more towards creating more opportunities for people in the coffee industry.”

Ola agrees, saying: “For many baristas, competitions present the possibility to create a platform from which they can start their own business.”

A barista pours coffee beans into a grinder hopper at the Barista League coffee competition

Improving accessibility and inclusivity

One of the biggest criticisms of WCC events, particularly the WBC, is that competitors often have to spend a significant amount of money on equipment and resources for their routines. This also includes their coffees, which are typically more high-end and unique lots, varieties, or even species.

Ultimately, this can mean that competitors who have less financial support are more than likely to be at a disadvantage compared to those who do.

“The WBC is the biggest event in the coffee industry,” Steve says. “The competition arguably has the highest stakes, but it is also expensive to take part, which means it has a high barrier to entry compared to other competitions.

“I believe this issue could easily be addressed by WCE,” he adds.

More accessible events, meanwhile, could create a more level playing field for competitors. By improving access to competitions to those with less financial support, they may be able to showcase their skills and knowledge on a much larger scale.

“When it comes to developing rules for coffee competitions, we sometimes need to look outside of the box,” Steve concludes. “And as the competition takes place every year, organisers can more easily establish which elements of the event need to change to make sure they develop a competition that aligns with their goals.”

A barista prepares filter coffee for attendees at a coffee competition

It’s likely that WCC events will continue to be regarded as the most prestigious competitions in the coffee industry, but there is clearly a growing need for more accessible and inclusive events to also take place alongside them.

By organising and hosting more accessible coffee competitions, we can ultimately encourage and support a broader range of coffee professionals to take part – helping to create a more diverse coffee community.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on whether we should allow plant milks in the World Barista Championships.

Photo credits: The Barista League

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