Caffeinated competition


Barista Skills Under the Spotlight. Photo: Prime Media Creative

Vivienne Pearson

Have you ever watched a fashion parade while muttering about how such an outlandish display has no connection to the real world of finding something to wear?

You may have similar thoughts when watching baristas create outlandish signature drinks during a coffee ­competition.

In the coffee world, competitions are big. Two weeks ago, you may have read in this humble section about a gold-medal-winning coffee roaster from our local area. Other competitions focus on baristas, with wired-for-sound competitors, on-the-spot judging and a live audience. Some comps have a very specific focus, such as latte art or the use of coffee in alcoholic drinks (seriously, it’s a thing). Others, such as the new Coffee Masters, demand multi-skilled competitors.

Do coffee competitions have any connection to your daily cup of coffee?

Like fashion shows, coffee competitions reward innovation and the pushing of boundaries within the industry. Though the specific outfits paraded on runways may never be worn by regular folk, the themes and trends that these outfits display do influence your local shop’s next-season collection. Similarly, though a specific signature drink made in a competition may never hit the menu of your local cafe, the ideas behind these creations do (pardon the pun) filter down to everyday coffee drinkers.

The cornerstone of both fashion shows and coffee competitions is the pursuit of excellence. New fabrics, techniques and standards are on display in a fashion show. Similarly, amazing latte art, high-speed service and excellence in every cup are the aim in coffee competitions.

Paul Bassett grew up in Byron Bay and became the World Barista Champion at the tender age of 25, and he remains one of only two Australians to win at this level. ‘It was great to win a world championship,’ he says. ‘I value the credibility that came with it.’

Paul feels that coffee competitions do directly transfer to the consumer experience, citing the sections of competition that focus on excellence within standard coffee orders. He sees those in the specialty coffee industry – growers, roasters, wholesalers and baristas – as the bridge between the rarified competitions and the everyday coffee drinkers.

Alex Crowe, from the Australian Specialty Coffee Association (the organisation responsible for Australian competitions), agrees. Competition ‘raises awareness of the skill that’s involved in being a barista,’ she enthuses. ‘It raises the bar of what to expect.’

Like fashion, coffee changes over time. ‘The overall standards of the coffee industry – everything from the machinery to the quality of the baristas – has climbed higher,’ comments Paul Bassett. He notes that far less instant coffee is drunk now than thirty years ago. A bit like the demise of several fashion trends from the same era, I think we can all agree this is a very good thing indeed.

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