Is your barista worthy?

The Specialty Coffee Association of America is holding their annual convention in Charlotte, NC beginning April 7. One of the main events coinciding with the conference is the 2006 United States Barista Championship. From Business Wire: Barista Champion to Be Revealed from Among Nationwide Competitors; The Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 2006 United States Barista Championship, Hosted by Krups, Takes Place April 7-10 in Charlotte, N.C. (Since when did press release headlines become novellas?)

Baristas are facing an uphill battle for legitimacy. Making a fine espresso is a lot like gourmet cooking — it demands quality ingredients, quality equipment, temperature, pressure, timing, skill, and consistency. And in a number of places in Italy, for example, being a great barista is an artisan craft with a legitimate career path.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of Starbucks in this country has publicly equated the profession with little more than a minimum wage McDonald’s fry cook. And as Starbucks needed to hire thousands of new employees to fuel their growth, they hired more of what was cheap and available in the marketplace: employees with less skills and lower wages. This progression was also largely facilitated by their widespread switch to push-button Verismo machines that a monkey could operate.

Bam! Goes the Weasel

Events like the USBC (and, ultimately, the World Barista Championship) help to elevate the profession and recognize the commitment and skills of those who truly are masters of an art … and science. Other advances include the recent introduction of Barista Magazine (to which I subscribe as a pro bono amateur barista myself).

Some baristas hope to one day see public legitimization of their profession reach the level of the “celebrity barista” — something of a public representative for the specialty coffee industry, not unlike the way that the Food Network has crowned many a celebrity chef (deserving or otherwise).

But despite the achievements of the world’s greatest baristas, I don’t see them ever making good television. Although they’re not accountants, baristas aren’t exactly known for having the most, shall we say, effervescent of personalities. (And I’ve probably been served by more baristas than anyone in SF over the past three years.) And while espresso machines are proliferating in the home, there’s a huge difference between the maestro with a three-group La Marzocco FB-70 … and someone at home, watching on TV, struggling with their Krups machine and pre-ground coffee pod.

It makes great espresso … once you change the light bulb

Speaking of Krups machines and seeking legitimacy… did I read that press release headline correctly? “Hosted by Krups”? And for the third year running?

I wrote about general experiences with Krups espresso machines in a previous post. I simply cannot imagine any self-respecting, professional barista doing anything less but snickering at the association of Krups with this competition. It’s like having the World Pastry Cup hosted by the Easy-Bake Oven.

Both the baristas and the sponsors are clearly hoping to use this event to reach out, educate the public, and improve their image. The only question that remains is who will win this tug of war: the champion baristas pulling up Krups’ image, or Krups pulling the image of the profession down with them?