While I’ll be checking out Barista Coffee in India, Minneapolis will be hosting this year’s U.S. Barista Championship during the SCAA conference this weekend.

Yesterday, the host city’s hometown paper, the Star Tribune, published a rather lengthy article on the event: The great barista battle is brewing. It’s a story that’s been covered dozens, if not hundreds, of times before. But besides the usual descriptions of contestants’ “espresso cocktails” (specialty drinks), they touched on an interesting point for the industry:

Caribou, after Starbucks the nation’s second-largest purveyor of coffee in terms of number of stores, is a major sponsor of the conference, yet has no baristas entered in the competition. Why don’t titans like Starbucks and Caribou participate?”

It’s a great question. The article quotes the new SCAA president, Mark Inman, who suggests that the barista championship is an underground cult and that the big, deep-pocketed coffee pushers are casing out the event before getting more involved. But that’s as much a load of crap as the self-serving “Third Wave” platitudes on the conference Web site.

Starbucks’ and Caribou’s Public Humiliation Championship 2008 — presented by Krups

Sure, according to Mr. Inman, Starbucks and Caribou should “have the resources to hire and train the best talent in the industry and sweep the competitions.” But it’s not because “they choose not to expose themselves to this arena”. What big corporation doesn’t want free PR and employees who can boast national awards? Particularly Starbucks these days, who are desperate to claim some kind of coffee quality relevance after selling their souls and taking the highway to fast-food hell.

Mr. Inman is being rather disingenuous — he knows better than that. Krups is once again sponsoring the competition, afterall — a company that profited for decades selling an armada of landfill-bound home espresso machines. The reason Starbucks and Caribou don’t participate is because they are incapable of participating and they are afraid of the embarrassment when that fact publicly comes to light.

The No Espresso Left Behind Act

The best baristas in the country are not lured to work for the big chains to prefect their craft and their love of coffee. And even if they were, Starbucks’ espresso delivery system™ would put their baristas behind equipment and supplies that place them at an extreme competitive disadvantage: no barista trained on a push-button Verismo or Mastrena machine, using pre-packaged beans purchased in bulk supply for chain consistency, would have a chance against the competition.

The truth is that Starbucks and Caribou don’t want an event to prove to the public how woefully inadequate their coffee standards are — especially when compared to the level of competition that comes to these championships. If millions of their customers realized how much coffee quality they were being cheated out of at $4 a pop, it would be a boon for many independent coffeeshops and it would scuttle corporate coffee with long-lasting damage.

Big corporate coffee may not be that great, but they’re not so stupid as to give away their dirty secrets. The coffee quality strategy of major chains like Starbucks and Caribou isn’t at the high end of the scale — i.e., to provide the best coffee possible served by their most talented staff. Instead, their strategies are focused at the low end — i.e., how to best elevate the worst coffee made among all their chain stores using the least-skilled staff available to them.