The World Barista Championship: Is it time to reconsider judging & scoring?

The World Barista Championship: Is it time to reconsider judging & scoring?


The World Barista Championship is arguably the coffee industry’s most anticipated annual event. Not only does the competition showcase some of the highest-quality coffees available, it also allows baristas to flex their creative muscles and push for further innovation in specialty coffee.

However, the competition has also faced its fair share of criticism in recent years, with some arguing that the format of the WBC could be changed or updated, particularly when it comes to judging and scoring. Ultimately, it’s important to question whether the championship is truly assessing what it means to be the world’s “best” barista – and what that really means in the context of today’s specialty coffee sector.

To learn more, I spoke to Andrew Tolley, Director at Tolley Coffee & Tea, and Ryan Garrick, Head of Coffee at WatchHouse.

You may also like our article on why traditional varieties still deserve a place at the World Barista Championship.

The judges at the 2023 World Barista Championship taste drinks.The judges at the 2023 World Barista Championship taste drinks.

Addressing common concerns

Although the World Barista Championship is one of the most highly regarded coffee competitions, some in the industry have been particularly vocal about their concerns and criticisms of the event. One of the most prominent is that its format is inherently exclusionary and inaccessible to competitors from certain countries – particularly those in the Global South. 

With baristas from over 50 countries taking part every year, the overwhelming need to have access to exclusive coffees, high-end equipment, coaches, and sponsorship can create an unequal playing field.

As well as working at Tolley Coffee & Tea consultancy, Andrew Tolley is also a Specialty Coffee Association board member.

“The WBC rules have to reflect the realities of many different countries and the national competitions that they run,” he says. 

Given that some countries and national SCA chapters can struggle to secure funding more than others, this could leave some competitors at a disadvantage. 

“The resources available to competitors are different based on their experiences, how successful they may have been in the past, and which companies and organisations may be supporting them,” Andrew says.

The judges panel at the 2023 WBC assess signature beverages.The judges panel at the 2023 WBC assess signature beverages.

The challenges of judging the WBC

While most of the criticisms of the World Barista Championship are aimed at how competitors can be excluded, being a judge also comes with its own set of challenges.

Becoming a WBC judge is a huge commitment and investment. Not only are judges unpaid, but they are also responsible for their own travel and accommodation expenses. Andrew tells me that it’s an intensive volunteer role, too, as judges need to focus solely on the competition for several consecutive days.

Moreover, judges need to meet a strict set of criteria to qualify to take part in the competition. You must have at least two years of national judging experience to certify as a WBC judge, and need to pass several tests and take part in sensory calibration sessions prior to every event.

Despite these measures, criticism still remains about a lack of objective and unbiased judging. This is a seemingly difficult task, as every aspect of a competitor’s performance could be scored based on personal preference – including the coffee and the overall theme of the presentation.

Another concern is the deliberation process itself. After each performance, the judges typically spend between 30 and 40 minutes discussing the routine to decide on final scores. Adding or dropping one point, however, could be the difference between qualifying for the semi-finals or finals.

This raises some questions about whether judges should hand in their score sheets immediately after every routine. While Ryan agrees that time for these discussions is important, he believes it could be more beneficial to directly engage with the competitors in a question and answer style format to test their knowledge even more.

A judge marks their score at the 2023 WBC at World of Coffee Athens.A judge marks their score at the 2023 WBC at World of Coffee Athens.

Narrowing down the rules

Even with an extensive set of rules and regulations that are regularly updated, WBC judges expectations aren’t always clear.

“What do we want the World Barista Championship to achieve?” Ryan asks. “Do we want to find the world’s most skilled barista or do we just want to highlight the ‘best’ coffee or the best presence on stage?

“I believe one of the big challenges is that the competition is too open to interpretation,” he adds. “Judge calibration is really difficult, so I think we should assess competitors under given parameters. These could include what type of milk they use or which topics they want to cover in their routines, for example – although these factors don’t necessarily contribute to being a good barista.”

In their presentations, competitors can talk about a wide range of topics, such as:

  • Controlled fermentation and processing
  • Their relationship with the farm they sourced their coffee from
  • Sustainability across the supply chain
  • Elevating the consumer experience

However, not only is it difficult for competitors to gauge whether the judges will resonate with their topic, it’s also challenging for the judges to compare unrelated topics. 

“You watch a lot of presentations, and you’re ultimately comparing topics that are very different,” Ryan explains.

Using the same coffees & ingredients

Another interesting proposal to reconsider how to judge the World Barista Championship is to provide competitors with a specific set of coffees to choose from. In theory, this would allow the judges to become more calibrated with one another for each specific coffee, and potentially improve the accuracy of providing flavour descriptors for the judging panel.

What’s more, providing all competitors with the same coffees then reduces the expectations and pressure to spend money on sourcing more exclusive varieties and lots – thereby improving accessibility and lowering barriers to entry.

“It’s very difficult to compete unless you have access to resources and a solid network, so I think providing the coffees would help a lot,” Ryan says. “All the baristas taking part would then know that they have a chance at winning.”

The same rules could also apply to the milk and signature beverage courses, with competitors given specific types of milk and certain ingredients to use. It’s important to point out, however, that while this could lead to more objective scoring, it could also stifle creativity and innovation – two things that the World Barista Championship prides itself on year after year.

The 2023 New Zealand competitor serves espresso at the World Barista Championship.The 2023 New Zealand competitor serves espresso at the World Barista Championship.

The ongoing evolution of the WBC

Despite the continuous challenges that organisers face, we must give credit where it’s due – the World Barista Championship has definitely evolved alongside wider changes in the industry.

“In the early days of the competition, innovation stemmed from using a good blend or a slightly lighter roast – that was considered a big deal back then,” Andrew says. “But in 2007 when James Hoffmann used a single origin as his espresso, there was a big shift towards focusing on processing, and then competitors started to use varieties like Gesha.”

In more recent years, one of the biggest changes that we have seen as to how the competition is judged is the inclusion of plant milks, which has certainly reflected specialty coffee’s growing acceptance of oat milk specifically.

Further changes to come

“We’re seeing this continuous evolution of competition and it makes it incredibly dynamic,” Andrew says. “I think the industry has grown with the competitions because they are able to change, and also reflect changes in the wider industry.

“Now, we’re at the very early stages of one of the biggest shifts in terms of evaluating coffee quality,” he adds, mentioning the SCA’s new Coffee Value Assessment.

Effectively, the new cupping form and protocol take a much broader range of factors into account when assessing coffee quality – and sure to also impact how judges score competitors and their coffees at the WBC.

The judges at the 2023 World Barista Championship write down their scores.The judges at the 2023 World Barista Championship write down their scores.

The WBC clearly plays a huge role in shaping the coffee industry. If we want its impact to remain positive overall, however, it’s important to reassess the judging and scoring formats.

Ultimately, it’s difficult to balance creativity and innovation with remaining objective and fair. But by questioning how we can improve the format of the competition, we can get closer to achieving this goal.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on the story of the World Barista Championship.

Photo credits: Specialty Coffee Association, World Coffee Events

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!


Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *