Coffee contest sponsors encourage up-and-coming baristas

The most imaginative ideas in the 2012 UK Barista Championship have been made by two of the contest’s sponsors. Both Union Hand Roasted and Cravendale have made new moves to encourage new entrants into the contest – and although the Union initiative has not gone down universally well, the company stands behind its attempt to encourage newcomers.

The idea from Union Hand Roasted is to introduce a brand new prize category, of Best Newcomer (Working Barista). The company, which is known for its worldwide sourcing of gourmet coffee, is offering to take the winner on one of its trips to ‘origin’, or coffee-growing countries.

When the new prize was announced, it did come in for some criticism on social networking sites – several familiar names commented unfavourably on it, and one asked why the prize was not being given to the winner of the overall barista contest. Union’s Alan Miller responded, in effect, that experienced baristas have quite enough of a target to aim for, in competing for a prize in the world championships – his idea was to intended to encourage the up-and-coming baristas at grass-roots level.

“We wanted something fresh,” Alan Miller told Coffee House magazine. “From my limited exposure to the competition over the last few years, it has always struck me as odd that only the top end of the trade was involved. And while you need excellent skills and talented people to make any competition exciting and worth its weight, why not encourage the new generation and those perhaps not so skilled to learn more and take part as well?

“A ‘newcomer’ is someone competing for the first time, but already working as a frontline barista. They could come from a niche coffee shop, or a contract caterer, but they will be talking to the coffee-drinking public every day. This is important, because they can spread knowledge, and the point of this is to spread coffee knowledge with consumer engagement.

“By ‘asking for newcomers’, we are certainly excluding some people – but for those who have competed before, they know the situation, they are prepared to enter a very daunting contest, and their big target is going for a place in the world championship. Sure, you have to have the top people in the national contest, but you also widen it and encourage the rest.

“So, how do you encourage newcomers to go in for a contest which is so daunting? You encourage them, with a prize for those who have no realistic chance of going forward to the world event.”

By remarkable coincidence, the contest’s milk sponsor, Arla Cravendale, has also made a move to encourage first-time entrants – it has picked two milk farmers from its own supply chain, and will put them through ‘intensive training and mentoring’ before they appear in the contest.

The two entrants are from roughly the same part of the UK. One of the farmers is Philip Halhead, from Lancaster; the other is farmer’s daughter Rachel Parker, from Garstang, who works at the Old Holly Farm café in Forton. The two are to be ‘immersed in to the world of coffee’ with regular training sessions.

The idea of a sponsor directly supporting individual entrants could raise ethical questions, if the contestants were thought likely to be in with a chance of winning the contest and going to the world finals – however, supporting first-time entrants will probably be seen as a constructive gesture, in encouraging up-and-coming baristas.

Elsewhere, the width of the contest has again been expanded by interest from outside the independent coffee-shop market. Some contract caterers always enter, and this year the training manager for the giant contract caterer Baxter Storey, Tim Sturk, has planned a minimum of four entrants, with the aim of getting one into the top twenty finalists.

Tim Sturk has already put a thousand baristas through his in-house training scheme, and last year he took drastic action – he competed in the northern heat himself, deliberately picking the farthest heat from where his own staff were competing.

“I wanted to understand the pressures that our people would be under and so be able to better coach them through the process. I competed in the Lancashire heat , where it was about 90 degrees in the room – I couldn’t get my grinder calibrated, so had to guess my dosage and my ice glasses for my signature drink melted too quickly. Ouch…. It was humiliating and also humbling, but I am pleased that I have no doubts that I can get one of our baristas into the finals for this year.”

Elsewhere, first-time entrants include two from Marks and Spencer, and the owner of a brand-new coffee house, Sarah Locke of the Studio Lounge in Plymouth, which has been open for only a couple of months.

The UKBC begins at the end of January, and the final will be at the London Coffee Festival.

This story, written by Scoop Malone of Coffee House, can be found among the top coffee trade news at the Caffe Culture Portal – http://www.caffeculture.com

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