Friday, July 06, 2007

USBC, Seriously?


Not quite the "USBC" we have in mind.

You don't take this seriously enough.

It's a paraphrase but I think it's succinct enough for you to get the gist of the message and it's basically what Tracey Allen (judge) of Seattle's Zoka Coffee tells me every year after the USBC.

For the uninitiated and newer readers of this blog, this "USBC" isn't the United States Bowling Congress, but rather the United States Barista Championship - an annual gathering pitting the nations' top baristas against each other in a head-on, all-out barista brawl of artful delivery, technical skill and drink-making fabulosity.


Chris Deferio and Kyle Larsen ponder the inevitabilities of the USBC.

The competitors range from competition neophytes to seasoned professionals. From those who are there to win at nearly any cost to those there to deliver a message - people like Jon Lewis and Chris Deferio who are finally showing that a poetic, thoughtful and artistic presentation can indeed make it to the Finals. Or Peter Middlecamp, a first-time USBC competitor, finishing in the Top Six - ahead of some of America's greatest barista talent.

They range from 2006 USBC Champion Matt Riddle with his smooth and flawless style to the in-your-face, shake it 'till your booty drops, sending-a-message-to-your-mama kind of presentation from Tatiana Becker. The former as the first competitor in a sweater and the latter as the first competitor from the Kappa Kappa Chino Sorority.

As a competitor, I fall somewhere in the middle - with a leaning towards the Tatiana side of things - without the mini skirt and halter top combo. Not because of some sort of "it's disrespectful to the competition" kind of mantra that some people exclaimed, but rather because I think the audience wouldn't appreciate the splendor of my physique in such an outfit.

So how was the USBC?

Well, in retrospect, it was "nice."

Fun, for sure. It's always great to see industry friends hanging out, sharing in their passion for coffee and seeing who's doing what on the cutting edge of our industry. But now that I'm two months removed, I'm actually a bit disappointed.

Disappointed for several reasons.

First, there's the ego thing. I didn't make it past the Preliminary Round. No Semi-Finals for me. Out. Finished. Kaput. One round and that was it. My scores just weren't good enough. I thought I had been disqualified, but I wasn't. I just didn't cut the muster. It was a buzzkill because I had a completely different presentation for the Semi-Finals. Doomed. My fault.

Secondly, I'm wondering who we're playing to and why? The USBC is held in conjunction with the SCAA Conference. It's on the show floor. In a convention center. You have to go there specifically for the event. There's no walk-by traffic to draw from. The show is a Trade Only event and even though the public can get passes, it's a pain in the butt to do so.

And while the event can help to increase public/consumer awareness about the craft and quality coffee, we're really playing to a very limited audience of ourselves, our friends (and family - if they're in the same city) and other people from within the industry. There's no coverage by the mainstream media or cable networks. The performance videos of the competition have not been released since the 2003 USBC.

So who are we playing to? Ourselves? We're trying to show ourselves the passion and commitment of the professional barista? It's a noble cause, but we're just preaching to the choir.

Lewis Mug

"The Lewis'" and "The Mug" - a nice gift. Thanks!

Thirdly, after three years of competing, I'm wondering what impact this competition thing has on our craft? Is it resulting in us "pushing the bar"? Or are we just resting on our collective laurels?

After watching numerous competitions, I'm definitely seeing a growing culinary awareness in the signature drinks, but to what means? On one end, there's a growing resentment of the signature drink - that it somehow is too similar to a crappy Starbucks Caramel Macchiato and, therefore, we should eliminate it from competition and focus on the purity of the coffee.

On the other end, those that are developing interesting signature drinks are letting them wither and die. There's very few shops or baristas actively developing quote/unquote "signature drinks" for public consumption. Most everyone develops one for competition and that's it. Game over.

To my mind (and experience) it's the signature drink that captures the public eye and imagination. Most everyone has tried a cup of coffee and, for most, it's a bitter and mildy offensive experience, one best served with lots of cream and sugar. These are the unwashed masses that we serve everyday and they are the same people who are caught perplexed by these so-called "exotic" drinks. But yet, the majority of shops poo-poo these drinks and toss them aside as soon as the Finals are announced.

Judge Jarrett

Judge Jarrett on patrol by the Zoka Coffee booth.

Fourthly, where are we heading with the judges and rulings? Uniformity in judging is a perennial problem. The lack of explicit rules are a perennial problem. One year after the finals fiasco in the 2006 USBC, where performance videos were inappropriately used to overturn scores and Finals standings, there is still nothing in the rules to address this hole.

Another potential pitfall for the USBC is this "defending of the faith" that is starting to emerge both within the competitor and administrative ranks. Tatiana Becker's performance mimicking a sorority/frat rush, with members of the audience chanting "chug, chug, chug" and the judges being asked to wear beer hats pushed the limits of even some of the most progressive judges while outraging a number of judges and competitors.

Like I said in the now censored and removed (at the command of the SCAA Board of Directors) Podcast Number 69, I support competitors' efforts to push and prod the competition in new directions. Some contrasted Tatiana's approach to my own and that's fallible because we have very different viewpoints and experiences from which to draw. For her to attempt a "Jay" style of presentation would be as absurd as me donning a halter top and mini skirt.


Myself with Tatiana Becker - it should be obvious why she looks better in the halter top.

As the competition continues into the future, we need to become increasingly vigilant against "keeping things safe." As an evolving craft, we need baristas to push the limits of our "comfort zones."

As it stands, the competition is starting to morph into a format that discourages innovation and this is movement in the wrong direction. A look into the rules and judging problems within sports such as gymnastics and figure skating are testament to this "defending of the faith" and is something we, as a community, need to avoid.

This year, when Tracey Allen gave me the "you're not taking this seriously enough" talk, I agreed with him. I'm not taking it as seriously as many of the other competitors. I hardly practiced my routine. I didn't have a signature drink until a few days before the competition. I didn't know what I was going to do until I did it. It wasn't a "serious" approach, I admit it.


Chris Owens as "Sylar" from the NBC television series "Heroes".

Some say I could be a "contender", but I wonder: "a contender for what? A "champion" to a narrow group of industry insiders who follow the competitions? Does this mean I have to abandon my preferred style for a more reserved, muted and perhaps boring one so that I can "win"? I don't find that remotely appealing.

Right now, the champion wins and toils in relative obscurity. Historically speaking, the USBC Champion has been given little opportunity to encourage greater awareness in the public consumer. The USBC Champions' domain has been the barista competitions and some regional barista jams, as well as perhaps some recognition by the hardcore coffee enthusiasts.

So, in the darkness of my own mind, I ask "what is the advantage of compromising on my personal vision in an attempt to win the USBC when it amounts to almost nothing?" What does it say about this pursuit when the National Air Guitar Champion, as well as the champion ranks of the International Federation of Competitive Eating receive greater media coverage and potential to influence the public?

I don't know myself, but it certainly makes it harder to take this "serious" thing seriously...

SCAA Kisses

Did I really say that I was going to give up competing and all this? Nah, that's crazy talk!