Barista Champion – The World Barista Competition Way


May 05, 2008

Most people who are familiar with competitive cooking shows like Iron Chef have a good idea what WBC-sanctioned barista competitions are all about.  They are highly charged extravaganzas where aspiring barista superstars can take on their peers and emerge as the toast of the entire specialty coffee world.  What’s more, the recognition is there, not just for the top placers of the WBC, but for winners of the National and Regional championships as well. The winners from these competitions have been known to go on to sponsor products including equipment for making coffee. Klaus Thomsen, the 2006 WBC winner, co-produced and promoted a home machine on the basis of his uber-barista notoriety.  Winning a major barista championship is often seen as a ringing endorsement for a particular coffee or a local Third Wave cafe.  Think Billy Wilson, Think Stumptown Coffee. Think the Albina Press Cafe in Portland Oregon.  When you are that good at preparing coffee, the coffee you use, or the cafe where you work is of extreme interest to your fellow coffee geeks. The details of your coffee universe may also be of interest to those considering opening a new cafe or re-railing an existing cafe to a higher level. Your talents are admired and desired!

But the road to coffee fame and fortune is not short.  By the time a barista champion has reached the top tiers of competition, they are the veterans of countless smaller competitions and have put in hundreds of hours of practice & preparation.  Their coffee making skill is honed so is their dessert-making ability.  Why desserts?  Because creating a winning high-scoring signature drink these days requires knowledge that goes well beyond coffee basics.

So what do you have to do to get there? 

 What It Takes To Win a Championship— 12 drinks in 15 minutes

The basic requirements for competing in WBC are deceptively simple.  In competition, you get 15 minutes to make twelve drinks:  four espressos, four cappuccinos and four “signature beverages”.  The signature beverage is intended to leave some leeway for creativity on the part of the barista.  While WBC performances are not quite Kabuki dance, they are far from freestyle. Competitors are allowed to bring their own coffee, select their own grinder, but must use a WBC approved espresso machine–recently this has meant the temperature-stable La Marzocco FB80– and use whole milk for their cappuccinos.  For freestyle events in this industry see “Barista Jams”.  Barista jams usually pop up in conjunction with more formal competitions, and they are great places to get a different sense of the man or woman behind the machine.  Jams are where you see the personality, the tattoos, and the portafilter high jinx.   

















Rating a WBC Champion — First the Technical Points

An aspiringl WBC champion is vividly aware that they are being evaluated on very specific items on the sensory and technical side of their performance. 

For technical performance, there is a total of 89 points available to them. These are weighted over thirty-one particular items, in six categories.  Each item is valued at six points.  

It is a peculiarity of the competition that most of the technical points are earned for cleaning practices and controlling ingredient waste.  Steaming too much milk will cost you valuable points.  Over-grinding which results in extra coffee stacked in the portafilter could demonstrate a lack of precision on your part.  Are you controlling your equipment or is it controlling you? 

It is hard to overemphasize how much focus there is on these technical items–it’s a lot.  “Acceptable spill/waste when dosing/grinding” is specifically called out on the judges score cards.  Even the very first item on the technical score card consists of just this:  “Clean working area at start-up/Clean cloths”.  Housekeeping aside, technical points can also be gained for the quality of dosing and tamping, and whether or not a shot is extracted within the 20-30 second requirement.  To be a champion it is essential that you KNOW and SHOW that you are mindful of this.  An overly wet coffee puck will reveal exactly what’s going on to a savvy technical judge.

Sensory Scoring – the Lion’s Share of Points 

Championship performances require high scores on the Sensory side as well.  There are a total of 164 points possible for Sensory characteristics. These cover 21 specific items around the look and flavor of the drink.  The focus of WBC sensory scoring is far more along the lines of what most of us look for in a great espresso or specialty beverage when preparing at home or in a cafe.  This is because sensory scoring is about the cooking and not about the clean-up. 

For espresso shots, points are earned for the color of the crema and taste balance.  For the cappuccino, milk is evaluated for “consistency and persistence” and its visual characteristics.  Visual characteristics in this case can mean latte art but  a “traditional” pour is acceptable as well.   The overall temperature of the beverage though not called out to any scale, neither fahrenheit or celsius,  must be “acceptable” to the palette.     

 Sing a Song of Coffee, of Origin, of Self 

One of the most interesting categories in WBC scoring, evaluates how well the barista presents and explains their signature drink.  This requires a knowledge of more than just coffee, as these drinks typically involve preparations of flavors and products, like creme anglaise, not usually associated directly with coffee–unless you think of dessert as being part of the coffee experience, which it often is.  

Consider this excerpt by Sarah Wilson-Jones describing the signature drink of Sammy Piccolo, the 2006 Canadian Barista Champion:

Sammy had an amazing command of the audience, the judges and his coffee. His signature beverage (called Synergy) involved steeping cardamom in steamed milk, fresh mango puree and bittersweet chocolate whisked together, and having the judges chew a salted orange before they drank his beverage...” 

There is a lot of showmanship here.  And since the signature drink broadens the topic from coffee to culinary art, coffee knowledge must be augmented in order to pull this off in a commanding and convincing way. Faking it just doesn’t work here since it can reflect in drinks that are far from appetizing.  It can also be detected in the visible nervousness of the competitor who may be on unfamiliar territory–and know it.  In view of the possible pitfalls, a performance like Sammy’s is a remarkable achievement. 

I have seen baristi win or lose on just this aspect alone, because the ability to narrate well spills over their entire performance.  The story and presentation of a championship performance elevates drink-making to an art — while simultaneously reducing less artful presentations to calamity.   

I witnessed this first-hand at the 2008 US National Championships at SCAA Minneapolis this year. In a field packed with true coffee preparation experts, the winning performance achieved by Kyle Glanville (Intelligentsia) and second place Pete Licata (PT’s Coffee Roasting) were notable for their discussion of provenance and terroir and strong association with flavor and palette, the interplay of modes of taste with coffee to create a pleasing signature drink.  These guys were also extremely composed through-out the competition.

The lesson here was that the “Theatre of Espresso” aspect of competition should be heavily weighted in crafting a championship performance–and this will only become more important as time goes on.  Judges like to see, taste and hear about the performances unfolding before them, told through compelling narrative, metaphor and style.


Eric Perkunder



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