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“Traditional” coffee varieties still have a place on the World Barista Championship stage

“Traditional” coffee varieties still have a place on the World Barista Championship stage

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The World Barista Championship (WBC) is the coffee industry’s largest and most prestigious competition. Every year, coffee professionals from around the world come together to compete for the title of world’s best barista. 

Over the past few years, there has been a clear shift towards using increasingly rare and exclusive coffees at the WBC. And this has been especially notable during the espresso and signature beverage rounds of competitors’ routines.

While this can certainly make for an exciting event, some argue that it can take the spotlight away from more “traditional” coffee varieties – which certainly still deserve their place on the industry’s biggest stage.

To find out more, I spoke to David Jameson, founder of Danelaw Coffee, Dale Harris, coffee consultant and trainer, and Kendra Sledzinski, World Coffee Events sensory judge.

You may also like our article on what to expect from the new rules for the 2024 WBC.

Sampling a competition entry before judging it.Sampling a competition entry before judging it.

Understanding the rules of the World Barista Championship

Before we take a look at why more exclusive and rare varieties are so common at the WBC, let’s break down the rules of the competition.

The World Barista Championship is judged by a panel of four sensory judges and one technical judge. The competition rules are designed to evaluate technical, communication, and customer service skills, as well as wider knowledge about coffee. 

Furthermore, judges award points for beverage presentation, flavour, and aroma for three different rounds: espresso, milk beverage, and signature drink.

To achieve the highest possible score, competitors will naturally choose a coffee that they believe will receive as many points as possible. In recent years, this has led to an increase in the use of rare and exclusive coffees – and a corresponding shift away from more “conventional” varieties.

As well as being the founder of UK roaster Danelaw Coffee, David Jameson is also a former WBC judge and a two-time UK Coffee in Good Spirits Champion.

“The way that the scoring works for many World Coffee Championships is that if you want to do well, you need to choose a variety that will score highly across the board because of its perceived quality,” he explains. “Ultimately, your decision needs to stem from the score sheets.”

Testing the water content of raw coffee on a farm.Testing the water content of raw coffee on a farm.

Exploring the use of more “conventional” coffees

Despite more exclusive coffees – such as Gesha, Sidra, and Pink Bourbon – often receiving high scores at the World Barista Championship, there have also been many instances of more “conventional” varieties performing well at the competition.

For example, in 2014, Japanese competitor Hidenori Izaki won the WBC using two different Costa Rican coffees: a honey-processed Typica and a natural Red Caturra. Three years later, representing the UK, Dale Harris won the WBC with a SL28 from El Salvador. 

Dale tells me he chose this variety during a blind tasting which included coffees from several different countries and origins – including some Geshas, Ethiopian lots, and washed and natural Kenyans.

He feels, however, that the reason for competitors choosing more exclusive coffees is largely down to their mindset rather than the score sheets.

“I don’t believe the rules and judging criteria are a huge issue,” he says. “Judges are crying out for different experiences, and the WBC score sheet encourages the use of a diverse range of coffees.

“The biggest challenge is the culture and mindset of many competitors who are looking for a safe starting point by using expensive coffees with great competition pedigree, whereas there are some great opportunities to really showcase the flavour clarity of many different varieties,” Dale adds.

Two judges sample World Barista Championship coffee at a competition.Two judges sample World Barista Championship coffee at a competition.

Are exclusive coffees “hurting” the WBC?

Competitors often benefit from working with a team of professionals when sourcing their coffee for the World Barista Championship. These teammates can help baristas to better understand how to select the “best” coffee and how to prepare for competitions.

However, working with a team isn’t always realistic, especially for competitors with limited resources. Additionally, exclusive and rare coffees are usually very expensive – which only a few can afford. 

“The current trend of using very expensive coffees creates an accessibility issue for competitors, particularly those who have less access to these coffees or the resources to afford them,” Dale explains. “It also creates a barrier where baristas believe they won’t succeed without spending a lot of money, so they might not even apply to compete – which impacts whose voices are represented on stage.”

A re-focus on more “traditional” coffee varieties could open up the competition to more baristas, and in turn, create a more level playing field for those who don’t have access to rarer coffees. It could also push baristas to explore the potential of more commonly grown varieties in order to make them stand out on the competition stage.

“There is a need for a further evolution of the rules and judging to reward those kinds of coffees,” Dave says. “But is that what we want the World Barista Championship to be? Isn’t there a place for high-end varieties somewhere? And if it isn’t at the WBC, then where is it?”

A barista prepares World Barista Championship coffee for judges.A barista prepares World Barista Championship coffee for judges.

Looking beyond our expectations

Rare and exclusive coffees most definitely deserve their spotlight at the World Barista Championship. Not only do they introduce a global audience to new and unique flavour experiences, they also help to push the boundaries of specialty coffee even further.

However, by showcasing a more diverse range of coffees, the WBC could attract an equally diverse variety of competitors. 

As one example of many, at the 2022 competition, Japanese competitor Takayuki Ishitani placed fourth in the world using a Gesha and robusta blend. Moreover, Takayuki’s presentation focused heavily on sustainability in relation to why he chose to include robusta in his routine.

In addition to being a World Coffee Championships sensory judge, Kendra Sledzinski has worked as a green coffee quality specialist. She points out that seeing other species than arabica at the WBC shows that the competition – and the wider industry – is evolving.

“I was inspired by Takayuki’s presentation and how his use of robusta was intertwined with reducing coffee waste and the overall push for sustainability in the years to come,” she tells me. “In my opinion, that is what pushes our industry forward. 

“Seeing species beyond arabica on the WBC stage shows the evolution of our industry and the inevitable ways we will have to adapt in response to climate change,” she adds.

Ripe cherries on a tree on a farm.Ripe cherries on a tree on a farm.

How can the WBC better reflect consumer preferences?

Although WBC competitors often spend a lot of time talking about consumers during their routines, consumer preferences aren’t always necessarily represented or reflected on the WBC stage. In many cases, highly complex competition coffees may not suit what most coffee shop customers or home brewers are looking for.

“The more we reflect the broad diversity of coffee’s potential, the better we can improve the success of all supply chain actors,” Dale says. “But we can also better reflect the diversity of consumer preferences – not every customer values a floral, high-acidity coffee in the way that many industry professionals have been trained to.”

Dave agrees, saying: “It elevates the pinnacle of specialty coffee into something unattainable and mythical. It can make it more challenging for everyday coffee drinkers to identify with specialty coffee.”

Theoretically, it could also make it harder for some producers to reach a wider audience. Many specialty coffee farmers who have the resources draw inspiration from the varieties (and species) they see succeeding at the competition – but that doesn’t mean these coffees can be grown successfully and easily.

Offering solutions

As a way of improving coffee diversity, Dale thinks the first step could be for national competition bodies to partner with local importers to help competitors have access to and taste coffees they might not otherwise find by themselves.

“Role models in the industry and experienced competitors could also take a different approach by using more accessible coffees to show others that it’s possible,” he adds.

In the long term, the benefits of highlighting more “traditional” varieties could extend much further beyond the competition, too.

Bowls of coffee lined up at a cupping session.Bowls of coffee lined up at a cupping session.

Between barista accessibility, climate change, and more accurately reflecting consumer preferences, coffee competitions could certainly benefit from a renewed focus on “conventional” varieties.

At the same time, however, rare and exclusive coffees still deserve their place at the WBC as well. Ultimately, they play a crucial role in pushing the boundaries of specialty coffee. 

But by starting a conversation about this issue, we can begin to bridge the gap. It’s a delicate balance, but with the right mix of coffees – both traditional and high-end – we can develop a more inclusive and diverse future for the competition.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how producing countries took centre stage at the WBC 2021.

Photo credits: Specialty Coffee Association, World Coffee Events

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