Over the weekend, the 2024 US Barista Championship took place at the Klatch Coffee Lab and Roastery in Rancho Cucamonga, California. 24 of the best competitive baristas from across the country came Inland for their chance of being crowned the victor, and in the end Frank La of Be Bright Coffee in Los Angeles won the day.

But the US Barista Championship is more than just a competition and it is certainly about more than just the winner. It offers a chance to see what is new and cutting edge in coffee, to see what innovations are going to begin trickling out into mainstream cafes. Much like how our Build-Outs of Coffee summer series gives us a glimpse into the state of the cafe as it currently stands, the USBC is a snapshot of where it is headed.

When we take a broader look at this year’s competition, it doesn’t take long for a few striking trends to emerge. Some are ready-made for cafe implementation. Others less so. Each course has its own peculiarities, and the ways competitors are electing to tackle them is coming more and more codified. Going course by course, we can better understand where barista competitions are in 2024—and mostly likely where cafes will be in 2025 or 2026—and what are some of the most prevalent trends in the USBC. Let’s dive in!

Sprudge’s coverage of the 2024 US Barista Championship in Rancho Cucamonga is presented in partnership with Third Wave Water

West Coast Bias

Maybe it was home field advantage, but the deeper the USBC got, the more and more it looked like a Californian was going to be going all the way in their home state. Nine of the total 24 competitors represented the Golden State, four of the final six. Including the four Seattle competitors, 15 of the baristas represented the West Coast.

Still, there were other pockets. The Raleigh/Durham/Wake Forest area of North Carolina, bolstered by competition staples Black & White Coffee, produced three competitors. And Rogers, Arkansas, home of Onyx Coffee Lab, accounted for another two to three (depending upon how you count Morgan Eckroth, an Onyx competitor who calls Portland home).

usbc coffee chart

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The Coffee

When it comes to coffees used in the US Barista Championship, the trend has always shaded toward experimental coffee. And for the longest time, that meant Geshas. To some extent it still does; 40% of all coffees used were in fact the Gesha variety. Though that paled in comparison to the major theme of competition coffee this year: anaerobic fermentation. Of all the coffees used at the USBC this year, a whopping 80% of them underwent some sort of anaerobic fermentation process.

When we combine experimental processing with Gesha production, there are two origins most poised to capitalize: Colombia and Panama. Colombia has been on the forefront of experimental processing for years now, and the same can be said for Panama with Geshas. Colombia led the way with 43.3% of all competition coffees, with Panama taking second at 16.7%.

barista competitor puts the finishing touches on a beverage with a garnish in front of the panel of sensory judges.
Hugo Cano and frozen spheres

The Espresso Course

Cold was hot this year in the espresso course. Whether it was to bring it to an ideal drinking temperature or to trap in volatile aromatic compounds, folks were cooling their espressos in record numbers. 11 of the 24 competitors implemented some means to bring the temperature down. Some went old school and stirred with frozen spoons, some chilled their cups, but the real innovation this year was the use of frozen spheres. Pulling shots over these little chilly balls was said to lock in aromatics, and one-third of all competitors this year elected to use them. One barista who didn’t? Frank La.

We probably won’t be seeing frozen spheres at cafes any time in the near future, but their prevalence may have some coffee shops seeking out practical alternatives. My prediction: cafes are going to start keeping a bin of spoons chilling in the fridge under the bar to serve alongside espressos.

Milking It For All Its Worth

As with last year, the milk course was the most exciting course at the Barista Championship. Competitors were goosing the fat content of their milk left and right via freeze-distillation, cryodesiccation, even caramelization. And thanks to a rule change allowing for alternatives to dairy, the milk course has never been more creative and bespoke.

usbc milk

Every milk used this year, save for one, underwent some fat boosting measure, but the real innovation this year came from the alternative milks. We saw oat milk, macadamia nut, coconut event. Lactose-free and A2 milks gained a footing, thanks to their perceived increase in sweetness. And folks were blending, often up to three different milk varieties, to create their own unique flavor profiles.

Like with frozen spheres, there are practical issues with bringing freeze-distillation to a busy cafe. But cryodesiccation on the other hand, this could be done with relative ease and consistency, and coffee shops looking to bring some facets of competition to their own bar could find a solution in cryodesiccation.

The Signature Beverage

If you thought the espresso course was cold, the sig bevs were downright frigid. To a person, every single competitor’s signature beverage was served chilled. Except Finalist Rafael Levy Diner, who had the audacity to steam together the components of his drink. (In truth, much of Diner’s routine was a bucking of modern competition trends, refreshingly so.) 10 folks even hyper-chilled some or all of their beverage components.

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Dakota Graff’s signature beverage in an apple serving vessel
a signature beverage from morgan eckroth sits at the judges table, with a judge looking on. the beverage fogs dramatically from dry ice.
Morgan Eckroth’s signature beverage at the 2024 US Barista Championship

Looking Ahead

One emerging trend we saw that doesn’t fit neatly into any one category is the increase in espresso-making implements. Distribution tools like the WDT, pressure calibrated tampers, scales that measure the exact dose and volume: they all point to a larger trend in competitions toward the consistent and repeatable, and arguably the safe play.

In a lot of ways, major aspects of many routines are starting to look really similar. This technical sameness—which has been a part of the USBC for a long time, though maybe not quite to this extent—could be due simply to baristas getting really, really good at competition. The rapid evolution of barista competitors utilizing the ingredients and tools that maximize the USBC scoresheet is undeniable, but is the shift prioritizing points accrual over the excitement of innovative, risk-taking routines?

Some argue we are removing a lot of the barista-ing from the Barista Championship. To put it pugilistically, we’re seeing more Mayweathers and fewer Tysons. Baristas who prioritize point-scoring tactics versus taking big swings with high-risk, high-reward routines. Anaerobic coffees have big flavor notes that are easier to detect, and extra-fat milk can cover up a lot of imperfections in a shot. These all make for safer plays on the scoresheet.

Yet points have always been the name of the game at the US Barista Championship. Compelling routines make for good viewing but it’s the technical scores that win titles. This is not a new phenomenon nor does it imply that competitions have somehow regressed. On the contrary, competitors across the board are consistently performing at higher and higher levels. Baristas have cracked the scoresheet code, and we may be reaching the singularity that is the perfect routine.

Sprudge’s coverage of the 2024 US Barista Championship in Rancho Cucamonga is presented in partnership with Third Wave Water

Zac Cadwalader is the managing editor at Sprudge Media Network and a staff writer based in Dallas. Read more Zac Cadwalader on Sprudge.

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