Speaking of Nick Cho recently…

Last Fall, Nick won the Southeast Regional Barista Competition (the press always wants to say “Championship”, but it’s “Competition” at the regionals). Congratulations, Nick. (No, seriously!) This means that Nick is headed down to Long Beach, CA to compete for the national title at the SCAA’s 19th Annual Conference & Exhibition in May: Nation’s Best Baristas Take a ”Shot” at U.S. Championship Title.

Yes, it’s that time of year again. So if I may return to my regularly scheduled curmudgeoness… Ho hum. Another year, another series of competitions, another national and world barista champion. I’m not sure why barista competitions suddenly seem so trite and tiresome to me this time around.

It’s not Krups — who have done more to humiliate the home espresso than any single brand I can think of — and how they’re sponsoring the U.S. Championships for the fourth year running. Rather, I think it’s the format of these competitions. There’s too much emphasis on espresso gymnastics in a way that’s far removed from the things I really enjoy about having a great espresso.

What’s Love of Espresso Got to Do With It?

Sure, I love the quality of great shot. But do I really care about trace milligrams inside the grinder after the barista finishes my shot? Do I really need to inspect the spent coffee puck for firmness afterwards? Do I care if my barista can make an espresso cocktail using tamarind and Ruby Port, precipitously balanced in chilled glasses on a bed of kaffir lime leaves? None of this has anything to do with reality — with what I enjoy so much about espresso.

And as far as I’m concerned, all great baristas toss out shots — something that the competitive format does not allow with the clock running. The first time I had an espresso shot pulled for me by Sammy Piccolo, a long time Canadian barista champion who made frequent appearances among the top three baristas in the world, he tossed the first two attempts before he deemed his creation as “adequate.” (Thus another reason I scoff at super-automated espresso machines.)

Lifelong master Italian baristas never seemed to have a need for this sort of thing. So maybe the culinary art and the barista profession need to be elevated and respected. But when I want a great meal, I go to a good restaurant with good food. If I want to be entertained or if I want to see people scored on arbitrary criteria, I’ll turn on the Iron Chef or go watch some Benihana chef toss a shrimp tail in his hat for the 47th time — neither of which are very fulfilling, however.

It is no wonder why I find just the simple act of sipping great espresso with like-minded people as the best part of these events.