With Spring upon us, that means it’s time for the 2008 Western Regional Barista Competition (WRBC): ‘Attention to every detail’ at Berkeley barista contest – San Jose Mercury News. Starting this past Friday and ending today (check out their photo album), the 2008 WRBC performs a time-honored ritual to select a barista champ representing our region to send to the nationals, the U.S. Barista Championship (USBC), to be held in Minneapolis this May.

The WRBC is the biggest of the nation’s ten regionals and includes competitive baristas from California and Hawaii. This year they even drew in a couple of competitors from Seattle’s Zoka Coffee.

Entrance to the Gaia Arts Center - it looks a lot bigger than it is Heather Perry serves her espresso to the judges

But the big question was whether Coffee Klatch‘s (San Dimas, CA) Heather Perry, the WRBC’s “Iron Barista” of the past several years, could be unseated from her usual first place finish. Last year, Heather defended her WRBC title yet again, went on to win the 2007 U.S. Barista Championship (a feat she also accomplished in 2003), and then placed second in the 2007 World Barista Championship (to the UK’s James Hoffman).

But there was more at stake than just Heather’s streak. After spending a few years in Petaluma (where we reviewed the 2006 WRBC), this year’s WRBC moved to downtown Berkeley. And this year there were more seminars, training opportunities, and awards.

WRBC judges write down their scores and evaluations The WRBC's 'Kitchen Stadium'

Berkeley, we have a problem…

Many baristas and coffee fanatics in the Bay Area were enthusiastic about the WRBC’s choice of a new location and venue — including us. But when we attended today’s competition finals, we found both negatives as positives with the switch.

The good

  • Location, location, location — A block off of BART? In downtown Berkeley? In a town where Alfred Peet started his specialty bean and leaf business back in 1966?
  • An upper balcony, for viewing the competition from above — The Gaia Arts Center provided the public with more and better angles to view the competition.
  • Video projection — And where Gaia’s upper balcony views weren’t enough, the WRBC used video cameras and two projection screens to zoom in on the action — providing detailed, hands-level views to many attendees.
  • The Clover brewer at the 4th Machine — Introduced for the first time at the WRBC, just in time for Starbucks to buy them out, some area roasters featured Cup-of-Excellence-quality coffee. Maybe these machines have little place in a barista competition per se, but they have good company around coffee lovers everywhere.
  • Merchandising — Every event planner needs to raise a little cash to keep operations going and improve the event (especially at this price: free). The WRBC seems to have expanded beyond the T-shirt offerings and is now hawking espresso cups, cappuccino cups, tampers, shot glasses, etc. All of which seemed to be doing a brisk business at the entrance.

WRBC 2008 winners trophies The WRBC finally caught the merchandising bug

The noisy chaos above the competition at the 4th Machine The noisy chaos of cameras and judges surrounding the last finalist, Intelligentsia's Ryan Wilbur

The bad

  • Cramped facilities — Despite the location and the upper balcony, the facilities themselves seemed woefully inadequate. The space was too small, and crowds packed in the main competition area so much that some attendees had to fan themselves from the build-up of body heat. People crowded the stairs leading to the upper balcony just to find space for a better view.
  • No barrier between the competition area and the 4th Machine — “Kitchen stadium” (to use an Iron Chef term) was always at the mercy of the noise and distractions coming from all of the socializing by the 4th Machine — where attendees lined up for a free espresso, cappuccino, or Clover-brewed coffee. You couldn’t hear the baristas nor the emcees over the din.
  • No press box, no sponsored booths — The WRBC isn’t a conference. Or is it? There already are speakers, trainings, etc. But if this competition expects the media coverage it craves, it needs to think bigger. That will irritate many die-hard, DIY baristas as “too corporate” — the event still has the strong feel of their private, exclusive club or party. But coffee is also a business — it must decide to either continue to play coy with the real world, and favor their own anti-corporate Hipsters in its own private sandbox, or it has to reach out to play with and compete against the big boys in order to be taken more seriously.

Art shot atop the 4th Machine Barefoot's excellent cappuccino from the 4th Machine

Arno Holschuh of Blue Bottle Coffee behind the 4th Machine and Andy Newbom of Barefoot behind the Clover Barefoot's Andy Newbom finds a moment to read e-mail behind the Clover brewer

The ugly

  • Is there a steady cam in the house? — While the use of video projection was a plus, unfortunately very little of it was useful. Perhaps the cameramen had too many espresso shots from the 4th Machine to hold anything still, but we couldn’t help but feel we were watching The Blair Witch Project turned on to coffee.
  • The emcee — Maybe it’s just impossible to replicate the coffee street cred, public speaking skills, and infectious enthusiasm of Barefoot‘s Andy Newbom as when he emceed the 2006 WRBC. But emcee Sarah Allen was not terribly dynamic nor engaging in her role. Coincidentally, Ms. Allen is the editor of Barista Magazine — a magazine subscription we’ve recently let expire because, well, as much as we like the subject matter, we find the writing to be rather poor at best. (For example, most articles from the far corners of the world are activity logs rather than actual writing. With the exception of Ritual’s Gabe Boscana and a few others, good espresso artists aren’t always good writers. Public speaking isn’t far behind.)
  • The other emcee — While we did not have the privilege of hearing the other emcee for the event — Jana Oppenheimer, a regional sales manager for Franke — having a sales rep from Franke emcee a barista competition makes about as much sense as having an SF Muni official emcee a NASCAR event. La Marzocco GS/3 distrubution included. But given that Krups is once again sponsoring the USBC in May, this is one of the prices of going corporate while still keeping the event free to the public.

The 4th Machine line-up for Sunday: Finals Day Barefoot Roasters often shows up in the best threads

And the winner is…

Of the six finalists, half was a posse representing Intelligentsia‘s Silverlake (LA) location. But in the end, the “unthinkable” happened. The final results?:

  • 1st Place: Chris Baca of Ritual Coffee Roasters, SF
  • 2nd Place: Kyle Glanville of Intelligentsia, Silverlake
  • 3rd Place: Heather Perry of Coffee Klatch, San Dimas

Congratulations to all winners, all finalists, and all contestants…

The six 2008 WRBC finalists wait in anticipation for winners to be announced Chris Baca grabs his first place prize with relief, with runners up Kyle Glanville and Heather Perry to his right

UPDATE: April 4, 2008
Today NPR’s The California Report aired a radio segment on the 2008 WRBC, interviewing Kyle Glanville and Chris Baca: KQED | The California Report | Crowning the Best Barista.