A ‘year of change’ for the major UK coffee contest

There will be a radical change in the organisation of the UK Barista Championships for 2014. In the coffee trade’s major skills contest, the familiar format of regional heats will now give way to one single week-long ‘super-heat’, in Birmingham. Any barista who wishes to enter the contest will have to travel to appear at that central event.

The move is a last-minute rescue strategy devised by the temporary UK Co-ordinator of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, which organises the barista championships.  Without the ‘super-heat’, the qualifying stages of the contest could probably not have been held in time for the final, due at the London Coffee Festival.

The reaction of the coffee trade has been mixed – the concept of a single heat is not popular, but it is widely accepted that a radical decision had to be made, and there is much approval for the temporary Co-ordinator, Steve Leighton, having stepped up to make it.

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However, to the surprise of many, the SCAE has issued a statement saying that it is ‘thrilled to announce the merging of the regional UKBC heats’.  It has gone on to assert that: ‘it was thought that in previous years the regional heats have been diluted by competitors travelling from all over the country to compete, thus diminishing the prestige of the regional heat winners. By bringing the heats together, we can steer competitors to the correct heats based on their current places of work, and thus bring prestige back to the title of regional heat winner in the UKBC’.

This has been greeted with some incredulity, although in the latter part of the statement the SCAE may possibly be more guilty of clumsy phrasing than anything else.

What the SCAE may possibly have meant to convey, and did not make clear, was that in recent years the regional heats have not always been representative of their local areas. There have been many cases of competitors competing in faraway heats, for various reasons – occasionally, when one heat has been cancelled for lack of sufficient interest, the few entrants to have registered have been sent somewhere else. There have also been incidences of strategic entries to the heats which are latest in the calendar – the argument is that by entering the heat nearest in date to the semi-final and final, an entrant is more likely to remain ‘in competition mode’, whereas those who go through from an early heat will have gone back to their everyday work, and have to work themselves back into competition mindset.

This aside, the statement that the SCAE is ‘thrilled’ to have brought the heats together has been greeted with some derision. The ‘spin’ of presenting the decision as an exciting development might possibly have been greeted more sympathetically if the organisation had simply expressed relief that the 2014 contest is happening at all.

Steve Leighton, managing director of the coffee roaster Has Bean, is named in the announcement as the SCAE’s new UK Co-ordinator, but has stressed that he has accepted only a ‘temporary’ role, and that simply because nobody else would come forward to do it.

“I can tell you I am taking over a real, real mess,” Steve told Coffee House magazine. “Nothing, and I mean nothing, has been done and we have a competition to make happen in seven weeks. On my second day as Co-ordinator, I had to make a decision about how to keep the championship going. ”

The existing format already held several problems, he confirmed. Ever since the concept of regional heats was devised, around seven years ago, they have been under-attended – the hosting of these heats has always been generously handled by local trade companies, but the events themselves have gained little public attention.   The major sponsors, and invariably the machine sponsor, have had to trail around the country setting up equipment for events which are attended only by a few contestants and occasionally their workmates and relatives.

“Heats have been fairly depressing places, with the echo chamber of the industry talking to each other,” Leighton remarked.

His options, he told us, were limited – with no time to repeat the regional formula, and with little expectation that the regional events would improve, the option was to take a radical decision in the knowledge that he would almost certainly be faced with a storm of criticism. The decision that the Co-ordinator and his colleagues reached was to bring the entire contest together over several days at one venue, where he could also include other coffee-themed competitions utilising the same audio-visual and live-streaming facilities, and maybe incorporate coffee-related entertainment and events such as his well-known Tamper Tantrum debates.

As a result, while there has been a general lack of enthusiasm across the trade for the concept of a ‘super-heat’, this has been widely qualified with a large amount of sympathy for the position Steve Leighton found himself in. There has been unanimous agreement of the principle that in a crisis situation, one decisive move to get things going is preferable to hesitancy.

Early such support came from Jeremy Torz of Union Hand-Roasted, the event sponsor which created a special prize for the best performance by a first-time competitor.

“This is ‘a bit of a curly one’, as we say at Union!” Jeremy told Coffee House.  “Steve’s pulled a tough gig this year – he has picked up the poisoned chalice. All the organising that should have gone on in the summer had been held back, and for us sponsors, this was frustrating – but Steve has to be thanked for stepping into the void, and we will support him, whatever he decides, in what we think must now be seen as ‘a year of change’.

“After several years of very expensive regional events with very few people attending, this must be worth trying.  We have not seen any increase in the activity around heats, so what can we make this into? How can we make it a ‘pull’? “

A similar view came from Marco Olmi of Drury, another roaster who has supported entrants in the contest, although not as a direct sponsor. He was a quite typical commentator, seeing the point but worrying about the effects – he was one of many who worried about the average high-street competitor being able to reach an event in Birmingham.

“I can see the point of it, and I have a huge amount of sympathy for Steve Leighton, and a huge amount of sympathy for the sponsors – regional events must be horrendously expensive for them. We did have the chance of sponsoring a couple of years ago, but I realised that to do it properly would take the work of two staff for a few weeks.

“But, it is going to marginalise baristas, other than the stars and the ones whose companies have budgets behind them. Birmingham may be ‘central’, but if you’re in Glasgow, Aberdeen, or the west country, you’re still stuck. It’s OK for those who can afford the travel and the accommodation for a couple of nights, but not for the average joe barista – we’re going to see only the big companies and the superstars.

“I know that some people will say they only want the baristas who are really dedicated, but that’s not the point – what we really need are 200 competitors of all standards. We really want the high street baristas who say: ‘I know I’m never going to win, but I’m going to dip my toe in, and I’m going to learn something’.  They are now going to be far more wary of doing so than before, so numbers will be down.

“I sympathise with the reason for the decision, and I sympathise with the sponsors – but I think it means that many possible entrants will not bother in 2014.”

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It is here that opinions become radically divided.  One school of thought holds that a concentration of the event into a concentrated time frame will promote ‘excellence’ in approach, and an entirely contrary school of thought maintains that the one central event will deter the baristas who are the lifeblood of the high-street market, which should be seen as the most important sector of the trade.

“As soon as I read it, my heart sank,” remarked former champ Hugo Hercod, who runs the Relish deli in Wadebridge, north Cornwall.  “I may be proven very wrong, but it doesn’t sound like a good idea.

“From a business-owner  point of view, I can’t possibly afford to support any of my baristas for a week away – none of them will want to take a holiday and fund it themselves, and I certainly wouldn’t give a week of my life for the 15 minutes of weirdness that is a barista competition!”

Far more severe criticism came from others in the farther-flung regions – although, to be fair, the most extreme opinions were expressed in response to the SCAE’s announcement that it was ‘thrilled’ about the super-heat.  One comment from Scotland was: “ridiculous, short sighted, naive, foolhardy and damaging to the competition”, and several questioned whether baristas really would travel to Birmingham.  Many later opinions were more temperate, as it became clearer that Steve Leighton’s decision had been made in a crisis situation.

However, those who support the concept of barista contests as promotional events for the high-street trade argue strongly that events actually held in the regions provide the most valuable PR for the coffee-house sector, and should be reinstated as soon as possible.

It has been suggested that the value of a local heat in the regions is actually far more than the UKBC organisers appreciate – indeed, one sponsor of the national contest said to Coffee House: “it had never occurred to me how much press is achieved at local level…”

“If you win the south west heat at an event in Exeter, in front of audience made up of local cafes from across the region, this is far more gratifying and prestigious than winning in front of a group of baristas from around the country,” remarked Tom Sobey of Origin roasters in Cornwall, who has hosted regional heats three times.

“I also think it isolates baristas down here and will make competition less accessible for newbie baristas in remote areas. We have seen in the past even if they don’t do that well, the quality of coffee served at their establishment definitely increases, which must surely be the end goal of the competition. I can see the theory behind it, but it will all but end the association with the competition on the high street down here… I cannot imagine that anybody will travel from Cornwall to Birmingham to watch ‘the south west heat’!  This is not great for the South West.

“However, they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t… they will never please everybody.”

Similarly, barista Alex Sargent of Strangers coffee bar in Norwich, a top-twenty finalist in the 2013 competition, stressed how much press and broadcast publicity his business gained from the event.  It required a little effort, but he was featured in half a dozen papers, and on two local BBC news programmes.  There was an extremely long local story about his signature drink, the Apple Mac, and when he later in the year went to compete in the Union Hand Roasted contest, two other baristas said: ‘oh, you’re the one who did the Apple Mac – we’ve read about you!’

So, he pointed out, the publicity gained by local events does have a positive effect.

In the future, suggested Marco Olmi at Drury, the solution might be a smaller number of better-run regional events, and Steve Leighton has made the same point in a blog, in which he wrote:  “in an ideal world I think three well-run heats would be amazing – one for the south (London to the south-west), one for the north, from Newcastle to Scotland, and something in the middle. But this year we have time, resources and energy for one.”

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The other main school of thought comes from those who might be considered the elite of the trade, with competition success on their CVs.

A former champion, Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood of Bath, made the point that one ‘super heat’ may improve the competition, with regard to the way it is judged.

“My primary interest is the quality, efficency and integrity of the competition itself – is the competition itself as good as it can be? In terms of consistency and quality, I think this move has the potential to really improve the competition.

“I have always wondered about the possible differences heat to heat, with many consisting of completely different judging panels and head judges…  would I have been scored differently in one heat over another?  As for judges’ feedback goes, if none of the judges judging me at a heat will be judging me at the final, then how should I interpret their feedback from a heat?

“There’s also the issue of the heats seeming, in my opinion, to sometimes be treated more softly and less seriously than the semis and the finals.

“I have an issue with the way heats are treated – they are often presented as a sort of barista jam, encouraging  competitors to take part and have fun. I don’t think this is actually that good for the competitors – I have often seen many competitors turning up with little preparation or understanding of the competition, which doesn’t benefit them or the competition. They get a score of three hundred and are often despondent and unnerved by the experience.

“I think one ‘super heat’ will result in a better quality of competition, and is that not why competitors are taking part?  The UKBC competitions are supposed to be the pinnacle of our industry, not a barista jam.”

At Taylor Street Baristas and Harris and Hoole, Nick Tolley had a member of staff placed very highly in the 2013 UKBC, and sees advantages in a ‘super-heat’.

“I appreciate the concerns… that said, I can’t help but think the move is fairly sound. From a barista’s perspective, it has a number of benefits, including a fairer competition because all competitors are evaluated with the same conditions – the water, stage set-up, the prep area, the equipment, and judged by a more calibrated judging team.

“Organisationally and operationally, it’s beneficial because multiple heats cost more and involve a lot more time, and are challenging to always deliver consistently and at the highest level.

“Barista skill development and the promotion of speciality coffee are the primary reasons for the competition. The bigger the profile of this event, the greater the potential sponsorship and promotion for the industry, which should in turn result in raising the profile of the barista craft.

“New Zealand has been running one heat for the past couple of years. I am led to believe that, as a result, they have found that they get more committed baristas who attend the event and increase the quality and profile of the competition overall.”

The UK’s first world barista champ, James Hoffmann of Square Mile roasters, was also cautiously optimistic.

“I can understand why many people would be extremely frustrated with this, but I see it somewhat differently. The incoming committee is dealing with a huge challenge and has very little in the way of time or resources. The fact that there are going to be heats in any form this year means that a small group of people are going to have to work very hard indeed.

“If there is only one opportunity for one single mass heat, then I think it is excellent that it is outside London. Many can travel without the need for an overnight stay, and those that do stay will find Birmingham far cheaper than London.

“I think running an event that has other attractions for the wider industry is a great idea. Watching barista competition is not, by and large, particularly compelling or engaging. Having talks and workshops is going to be a big draw.

“I’m going to do the best I can to support the new UK Chapter as I think they have the coffee industry’s best interests at heart, above self-interest (as we’ve perhaps seen in the past).”

A fresh point of view comes from Tim Sturk, training manager at Baxter Storey, the contract caterer. He is unusual in that he is the first man from such a business to take up a Co-ordinator role with the SCAE (he is jointly in charge of the education activity) and also the first to put a serious collection of contract-caterer entrants into the UKBC. He is also a former competitor.

“I am one of those who have used the timing of heats to my advantage in the past – I competed in Lancaster and in Scotland myself, and I have had baristas from London competing in Cheshire, Scotland, and Norwich!

“This year, the date of the London Coffee Festival, where the final is to be held, is what has triggered all this – they have moved the date three weeks earlier, which hasn’t left a lot of time for anyone to plan, so the idea was put forward to run all the heats in one week.  My baristas will suffer –  between now and the competition, in a very difficult labour environment, we will only find very few days available to practise.

“I think the idea of the ‘superheat’ was not communicated well… but the good ones will still rise to the top as they have in the past.”

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A more promising aspect of the current situation is that the new UK Co-ordinator, Steve Leighton, despite his protests that he is only a ‘temporary’ officer, has already given the clue that he has wider ambitions for the role, and that the UK chapter of the SCAE will develop a more wide series of events and projects for the trade in general than it has done in the past.

“My role until the finals is just to make a competition happen – I have little other focus on my mind.

“But the day after the UKBC winner is announced, I start work on events for people other than baristas.  I want to bring the whole UK chapter together with fun events that are not just based around the competition season.”

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This story has also been reported, in a slightly condensed form, on the Caffe Culture news portal, the news site of the UK’s main coffee exhibition.  www.caffeculture.com

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