2018 Coffee Competitions Format: Some Thoughts

Noteworthy Changes

Yesterday, the SCA’s US Competitions Working Group rolled out some changes to the United States Barista Championship format with the stated goal of making competitions more accessible.

The major changes (covered in detail here by Ashley Rodriguez) involve the introduction of regional pre-qualifiers, hosted as member driven events in SCA-certified labs across the country at a lower competitor cost than qualifiers and nationals. Top placement in regional pre-qualifiers guarantees a spot in qualifiers, where baristas compete for spots at the US level. Competition at a regional level is not required, and those who don’t place highly enough at regionals can still sign up for qualifiers, as can anyone else. However, registration itself is highly competitive, so regional placement is the only way to guarantee a spot at the qualifier level.

During regional pre-qualifiers, baristas will also use a compulsory coffee, as they currently do in the compulsory round of Brewer’s Cup, rather than selecting a coffee beforehand and crafting a routine around it.

Intent

It seems to me like the important goals at play here are:

  1. To allow more baristas to enjoy local competitions in a lower-cost, lower-pressure setting without necessarily needing to compete at a higher level, kind of like local latte art throwdowns.
  2. To add a merit element to current qualifier registrations, which were so competitive this past year that many competition veterans weren’t able to register despite having money or sponsorship.
  3. To test-drive SCA lab-based regional qualifiers with the eventual money-saving goal of having them replace the current large and expensive qualifiers altogether (saving money for both competitors and SCA).

Potential Positive Outcomes

More Competitors Allowed, Period

Straight away, more people will get to compete this year than last year. That alone is a huge win.

There will be more competition spots overall, so many folks who simply couldn’t register because of high demand will now be able to compete and potentially win easy access to qualifiers, or just enjoy the regionals.

The addition of regionals will especially benefit newer or more casual baristas, allowing them to get all the benefits of competition without necessarily wanting or needing to take it further than regionals. That type of engagement can potentially really grow regionals into a thing of their own rather than just a competitions adjunct.

Lower Costs for Regional-Only Competitors

Regionals will also be less expensive than qualifiers and nationals, so for that round, cost will be less of a barrier. Based on how many certified labs host in 2018, regional pre-qualifiers could also be easier and less costly for some to travel to.

Compulsory coffee at regionals will also remove the cost of purchasing competition coffee, which is an expense in itself, and which has historically played a huge role in determining scores (in the current scoring format, scores are largely based on flavor, which has a lot to do with coffee quality).

Additionally, regionals open access to more casual or first-time competitors who will benefit from a more local feel with lower pressure and lower overhead.

Potential Negative Outcomes

Higher Costs for Whole Competition Circuit

While the regionals aren’t mandatory this year, they’re the only guaranteed way to secure a spot at qualifiers. Because of that, anyone serious about getting into qualifiers will feel obliged to compete, so we’d be short-sighted not to contextualize regionals within the competition circuit at large. While taken alone these regional events are less expensive, but they do raise costs for competitors when taken in context of a three-event series spanning almost a year.

Since there aren’t currently enough certified spaces in the US to make them truly local to many regions, many baristas will still have to travel similar distances to regionals as to qualifiers and US competitions. Going to all three then becomes an expense over and above last year’s costs.

Despite the addition of a compulsory coffee, which absolutely does cut costs for regionals, competitors will still need to purchase coffee to practice for regionals. Then, they will also need to spend their usual (often prohibitive) sum on excellent coffees for qualifiers and nationals. So, while a compulsory coffee at every level would help save a lot of money and level the playing field, a compulsory pre-qualifier coffee does not serve that purpose.

Even if registration fees for regionals are incredibly low, they still do add an extra cost in the overall context of a competition circuit. If utilized as member driven events in themselves, these new additions are cheaper than current competitions and a nice alternative, but in context of the overall circuit, they do raise prices for this year.

If SCA does replace qualifiers with regionals in the future rather than just adding them to the circuit, that will absolutely reduce costs and negate this point entirely.

Yearly Format Changes Are Barriers In Themselves

New formats and costs every year make it hard for potential competitors, judges, volunteers and competitor-sponsoring companies to know what to expect and budget, so these changes alone act as barriers.

For the last few years, SCA has been in a cycle of yearly reactive rule and structure changes. It is absolutely crucial to always look critically at your own structures and never let something that isn’t working stagnate, and I very much respect SCA for that willingness. With that said, yearly format changes have been based on feedback SCA receives after announcing changes. There are a lot of great people with a lot of great ideas, and sometimes those ideas aren’t heard when they need to be heard to effect real change.

I fully understand that creating a sustainable format based on feedback is not as easy as it sounds, but I wish that there were a way for more people to actually help and be involved in the process. For example, this year’s panel to increase accessibility was highly competitive and only had a few spots for new voices.

Big, complex events require dialing in, and I do appreciate that. I just want us as an industry to be able to acknowledge that this kind of inconsistency is in itself an access barrier.

Lab Access Advantages

I don’t see this as a huge issue, but there is a potential unfair advantage for people who work in or have easy access to the certified spaces used for regionals. If they can easily prep on the equipment, they will have an easier time working with a compulsory coffee.

Compulsory Coffee: Plus or Minus?

I think that the use of a compulsory coffee may be the most controversial part of the rule changes this year. As a perpetual Cup Taster, I don’t have too much personal stake in the subject, but my objective assessment is that there are pluses and minuses.

Potential Benefits

Many have critiqued coffee competitions as “buying competitions” or “gesha competitions,” because while many can do an excellent job brewing coffee, excellent (expensive) coffees still score higher simply because they taste better.

A compulsory round not only frees competitors from the burden of spending money on the very best coffees, it also evens out flavor bias in scoring and makes the competition purely about brewing and technical skill.

Potential Detriments

Dialing in a unknown coffee on unfamiliar equipment is definitely a challenge even for seasoned baristas.

Competitors who work with a spread of different coffees in their day job (at various roast levels, rest levels, etc.) and a spectrum of machines will have an advantage going in. Also, depending on the selected coffee, competitors who just happen to work with similar coffee or machinery will have an advantage.

So, a competitor who happens to work a lot of catering events with unfamiliar coffee on random setups will be uniquely prepared for this format. That situational advantage doesn’t necessarily make that particular competitor a more skilled barista. Similarly, if the compulsory coffee is a dark roast blend and the grinder is a Peak, a competitor who just happens to work daily with a dark roast blend on a Peak will have an advantage that doesn’t necessarily correlate to a higher skill level.

Logistical Questions

Will competitors get a chance to sample the coffee beforehand? Will the coffee be selected from a non-competing company to prevent bias? Will competitors still be expected to craft a routine around the coffee, or will they be judged purely on flavor and technicals?

I’m excited to see how the logistics of this new challenge play out.

Looking Forward

I’m excited to see what other edits roll out this year, and am going to list a few things I hope to see.

Make Info Sessions More Accessible

Informational sessions for competition are usually only held mid-morning, a time when many folks are working, a good example being the one at 9am PST this morning. Baristas and roasters can’t usually stop work or shift their hours in order to sit in on an info session, so I’d love to see a little more variety in the times these sessions are offered. It wouldn’t be too wild to, for instance, host one at 9am and one at 6pm just to cover more bases.

The session this morning was recorded and left up so that potential competitors and judges could watch it later, and that is an excellent step. But, it is important for participants to be able to ask their own questions and be as involved as possible, and more varied info sessions would help that cause.

Address Bias in Judging

We as an industry still have not addressed the fact that all people have inherent biases, and our judging pools are nowhere near diverse enough to counteract these biases. We actually need to start talking about them and calibrating for them if competitions are going to become a fairer and more honest reckoning of coffee skill, leading to more equitable representation in competition pools, judging pools, and industry leadership in general.

Address Flavor Bias in Scoresheets to Reduce Coffee Costs

As Pete Licata details in his post-USCC reflections, there is a huge amount of bias in current scoring standards toward coffees that are both higher quality and more distinctive in flavor, leading to a huge advantage for those who can afford the highest-quality coffee. Changing our scoring standards to put a greater emphasis on technical scores (over price caps or compulsory coffee selection) seems like the most practical approach to leveling the playing field in terms of coffee costs.

Progress and Momentum

I’m truly excited for these changes. I’m both hopeful and optimistic that critical engagement both from within and without the current competition establishment will continue to lead us forward in our journey toward excellence not just in coffee, but in our people and groups and communities.