It's happening. It's almost here. The 2014 Big Eastern Barista Competition invades Durham, North Carolina this coming weekend, bringing with it barista competitors from Florida to Brooklyn, Pittsburgh to Athens, GA. For some Sprudge readers, the barista competition circuit is highly interesting; for others, it's a sideshow, proof that speciality coffee exists in its own special world that can be hard to understand and follow. We agree with both of these sentiments, and that's why this season, for the third consecutive year in a row, we'll be traveling to all of the United States Barista Championship events, exhaustively covering the proceedings and doing our darndest to bring these coffee competitions to a wider audience.
Here's a preview of the competition weekend, including links to schedules, a rundown of the extracurricular activities, and some of the plot lines we'll be following closely at this year's event. But like great coffee itself, Sprudge.com's coverage of the Big Eastern does not just magically happen. It's made possible by the partnership and direct support of several key players. The Big Eastern is hosted this year by the folks at Dallis Bros. Coffee and Counter Culture Coffee, who have also sponsored our coverage of this event with their direct support. For the second consecutive year, the entirety of our worldwide barista competition coverage – US regionals and nationals, plus the World Barista Championship this summer in Italy – has been underwritten by direct support from Nuova Simonelli. And we're also proud to be partnered with the Speciality Coffee Association of America, whose professional and enviably poised staff are responsible for putting on these extraordinary events. If you enjoy our coverage this weekend, please feel free to thank these companies.
Over the next few days our site will shift into an ESPN-like mode of competition coverage, with daily routine recaps, photos of every competitor, and an on-the-ground coverage team at the event in Durham. We call the barista competitions live on Twitter, using our @SprudgeLive Twitter handle in a manner derived from the great baseball radio broadcasters of yore. No matter where you are in the world, you can keep up with the events in Durham by following @SprudgeLive. We also publish competition schedules with Twitter handles for each competitor and his or her cafe. Twitter has become integrated into how the speciality coffee world follows the competition circuit, and we believe that it's the perfect medium for this particular sport, like TV for football or cricket on the radio. It's an advancement in competition coverage that we're proud to have pioneered at Sprudge.
If you're playing along at home, be sure to surf over to the SCAA's spiffy new competition hub site, at USCoffeeChampionships.org. There you'll be able to find more competitor info, plus Livestream video of every barista competitor (the Livestream link is here – we'll be Tweeting it out again all weekend, don't worry).
Here's your quick reference schedules for all three days of the Big Eastern:
This year's US Barista Competition format is a bit different than years past. We broke the news of those changes back in July 2013, and have now had a chance to see them in action. Big Eastern is the second of three regional competition events here in the United States; Big Central came first, back in November of last year. The new format has done away from the two-round format of old; gone are the days of Finals Sunday, when the top six baristas from Day 1 and Day 2 would compete for final placement. Now the format involves one large field of at-large competitors from two distinct regions. Each barista competes just once. A top six are selected from each region on Sunday, and are then eligible to compete again at the 2014 United States Barista Championship in Seattle. The top two finishers from each region are afforded an automatic bye into the second round of competition.
There was a little bit of uncertainty, and perhaps a flash of angst, when these new rule changes were announced. We ourselves weren't totally sure how it was all going to play out. However, having covered the first 2014 event already, we're confident that the new format changes make for an exciting and inclusive barista competition weekend. Yes, there will be some routines you wish you could see twice, but the electric energy that this new format creates during Sunday announcements simply cannot be beat. We came into Big Central slightly dubious, and left as sincere fans of the format change. Watch Big Eastern closely this year and we're sure you'll agree.
The barista competition kicks off at 10:30am on Friday, January 15th, and then again at 11:30am on Saturday the 16th and Sunday the 17th. Brewers Cup compulsory and open service rounds happen throughout the weekend, and are not Livestreamed – we'll call all finalists live on Twitter as they're announced, and give you in-depth brew recaps on the winning routines for each Brewers Cup region.
But in addition to the competitions, these weekend events also form a kind of grand social function for speciality coffee professionals and enthusiasts. A gathering of the tribes, if you will, with all the attendant cultural, personal, and yes, even romantic interactions that phrasing implies. The parties are always fun, and we think it'll be especially lively this year, as baristas from the South East and North East Regions have never before been forced to mix together quite like this.
Here's a rundown of what's on this weekend in Durham:
Thursday: A 7PM meet & greet at The Pit (321 W Geer St, Durham, NC 27701) for competitors, volunteers, judges, and sponsors. Pick up a lanyard for special discounts around Durham this weekend, and enjoy complimentary food & beverages.
Friday: Beginning at 8pm there's quite the social occasion being thrown. Meet up at the Hilton Garden Inn for a free booze cruise from Durham to Raleigh, where you'll be treated to an epic reception party at Joule Coffee. Then wander the charming Raleigh downtown with your favorite coffee friends, goofing off and having fun while also hopefully maintaining some sense of professional decorum (unless your competition time was earlier that day, in which case, you're done for the weekend so you should really cut loose). Pick up your FREE tickets for this event here via EventBrite.
Saturday: A massive dance party is being held beginning at 8pm at The Armory (220 Foster St, Durham, NC 27701), featuring the musical stylings of DJ Pez (Lemuel Butler) and DJ Sprudge (Jordan Michelman). This event is free, and there will be regular shuttle service between the Durham Armory and the Hilton Garden Inn. We hear the whole thing is going to be 80s / Under The Sea themed, so uh, watch out.
If you've read this far, you're clearly deeply into the whole Big Eastern situation, so let's review some of the plot lines to watch this year. Mentioned briefly above, this year will be the first time that the North Eastern and South Eastern regional divisions have competed together at a unified event. Expect a lot of “hey, we've never met, but I follow you on Twitter” conversations and a general sense of folks sniffing around, similar to what you might see at your local dog park.
Here's some competition threads to follow.
*New Northeastern Finalists: Last year's NERBC finalists were Jordan Barber (Intelligentsia), Brian Gelletly (ReAnimator Coffee), Anne Cooper (Dallis Bros.), Mike Morgenstern (Joe NYC), Tamara Vigil (Irving Farm), and eventual winner Sam Lewontin (Everyman Espresso). Of that group, only two – Gelletly and Vigil – have returned to compete in the 2014 Big Eastern Barista Competition. This means a wide open field for the North East top six. It's anybody's comp.
*Little Shops Making Waves: At the Big Central event last November, barista Patrick Burns took second overall in the South Central region, representing his shop Palace Coffee from the tiny town of Canyon, Texas. For the South Eastern region this year, we'll see competitors from places like Cary, North Carolina and Roswell, Georgia. Will they move on to compete at the USBC in Seattle?
*Will NYC's Dominance Continue? Since 2008, the Northeast Region (formerly the MARBC region; don't ask) has been dominated by competitors from New York City. Let's go back through the list, shall we? Sam Lewontin in 2013, Katie Carguilo in 2012, Phillip Search in 2011, Danielle Glasky in 2010, and Amber Sather in 2009 and 2008 – all competitors representing New York cafes, working as baristas in New York City. Will the Big Apple's dominance continue? Or is it finally time for someone from Philly, or Boston, to take home this title?
*Florida Rising: This year there are 5 competitors from the great, much-maligned state of Florida, which is by far the most Floridian competitors we've ever seen at a regional.
*Todd Carmichael In The Brewers Cup: While it won't be Livestreamed, expect a sizable crowd during the open service portion of the North East Brewers Cup competition, when TV host and La Colombe founder Todd Carmichael will compete live on stage. We can't wait to see what happens.