It's happening. This week in Kansas City, Missouri the Specialty Coffee Association of America will present the 2016 US Coffee Championships Qualifying Event, a major exhibition of competitive coffee prowess the likes of which the United States has never seen. That's because for the first time ever, every single competitor who wants to advance to the United States Barista Championship will be competing in the same preliminary event. Let's learn more about it using the handy Socratic method.
What's a barista competition?
Fair question! A barista competition is the gamification of coffee, turning the art of making beautiful and delicious coffee beverages into an outright sport. It is governed by a byzantine set of rules and regulations, overseen by a trained class of judges. It happens in dozens of countries around the world; winning your national competition means you get to move on to compete at the World Barista Championship. More on that later, but for now we're focusing on the national competition here in the United States, where roughly half of you Sprudge readers live.
If you really want to know more about what a barista competition is, or you have never heard of such a thing before, we recommend the recent Sprudgie Award winning documentary film “Barista” (available now on iTunes) which follows the trials, trainings, and triumphs of a crew of competitive baristas in Los Angeles over the 2013 season. It's a pretty good movie and you'll learn more about this than we have time to explain here now.
What is the US Coffee Championships Qualifying Event?
It's a big old battle royale of competitive coffee making, happening this week in Kansas City, Missouri. Think of it as the opening rounds of a tournament: this week 100 baristas (50 from the Eastern Conference, 50 from the Western Conference) will compete for just 36 spots in the next round of the tournament, which happens this April in Atlanta, Georgia. An exact breakdown of how this all works is available here via the SCAA.
But that's not all! The barista competition is just one part of the action this week. There's also the Brewers Cup tournament, which will field…
Wait a minute—you mean there's a whole other competition? The Brewers Cup?
Goodness, yes! The Brewers Cup applies a similar mode of gamification to the art of manual coffee brewing, what you might call “pour over” or “slow coffee.” While not quite as old as the Barista Competitions, which started in 2000, the Brewers Cup has been part of the competitive coffee landscape since 2010. It has its own set of rules and regulations, and it also feeds into a global tournament. Learn more about all that here.
Okay, I'm interested in all this, but I can't make it to Kansas City. How do I follow along with all this stuff?
Thanks to the wonders of technology, and our current media-savvy coffee landscape, it has never been easier to follow along with some hot barista competition action. This year in KCMO the entire thing will be broadcast via Livestream by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, in a broadcast sponsored by Pacific Foods.
The SCAA also partners with a number of independent media companies to provide coverage and promotion for these events. Sprudge has been one such media company since 2011, during which time we've developed a multi-pronged coverage style that we hope you find to be comprehensive and fun. Our coverage team will be reporting to you live from Kansas City all week long, producing live Twitter coverage, daily recaps, photos of every competitor, and some special surprises we have in store for this season. A lot of that coverage (including stuff like daily schedules and party guides) happens over at SprudgeLive.com, our sister site in the Sprudge Media Network that is your home for all things coffee competition. Our LiveTweet coverage of the event happens via the @SprudgeLive Twitter feed, which, with 100 folks competing this year over 96 hours, is bound to get a little weird and wooly (while also being thorough and fun and all that). So give us a follow and say hello.
All our 2016 coffee competition coverage, here at Qualifiers and around the world, is produced in partnership with Urnex Brands, who invite you to keep it clean.
I heard stuff is a little different this year for the Qualifying Event. Do you know the deal?
There's a couple of big differences at this year's Qualifying Event. The biggest, at least for us in the media, is that there's just *one* Qualifying Event site before the USBC main event in April. In past years there were typically 3 regionals, or going back a ways, as many as 6 regional events happening all across the country. This year everybody is meeting in the middle here in Kansas City.
For competitors, the big difference is that the Qualifying Event happens with new timing standards and a new judges array. Instead of a 15 minute routine, competitors will present just a ten minute routine; and instead of 4 sensory judges (the folks who taste the coffee), each competitor will be judged by just 2. These probably seem like small differences from the outside, but for competitors it's been a total rethink for how to approach competition, and we're really excited to see how this plays out on the competition stage. Will it favor certain styles over others? Will new stars emerge when old pros can't adapt? We shall see!
Oh, and this year there's live scoring! That's about as much as we know about what that will look like. It's been tried in other parts of the world, but never here in America before this week. It'll be a hot topic at the event and we'll be Tweetin' about it and stuff, so really, follow us at @SprudgeLive and we can chat more there.
Why should anyone care about any of this at all?
What, the international gamification of a professional beverage service skill set in line with a set of ever-evolving rules and standards doesn't just make you want to jump out of your seat? That's fine—we get it, not everybody is as geekily into this stuff as we are. But these competitions matter for reasons beyond anything happening on stage. Coffee, you may have noticed, is having something of a cultural moment right now, and there's more noise and buzz and hype around the coffee world than ever before. This Qualifying Event, and events like it around the world, are where all the hype and buzz gets put to a real-world test. This is where the best coffee brands and coffee professionals go to really prove themselves. It's still hard to make a full-time career out of coffee, but a lot of people now with those normal jobs and adult wages in the industry got there, in some way or another, by standing out in these competitions.
There's what you see on stage and then there's everything else. We can't tell you what to care about, but for us—a media company that covers coffee culture around the world—we are positively compelled to attend and document every last detail of these things. That's why we're here at the 2016 Qualifying Event, and it's why we've covered every US Barista Championships regional, national, and WBC event live since 2010.
We hope you join us for an incredible week of competition from Kansas City! Follow @sprudgelive on Twitter and visit SprudgeLive.com for all the latest, and we'll see you there.