barista comps: profoundly compromised?

barista competitions, trade shows, jams, tastings

barista comps: profoundly compromised?

Postby bz on Wed Oct 24, 2007 6:29 am

having poured my brain into a blog post on the topic, i'd be interested in knowing why the third wave seems to constantly be producing events, publishing mags, etc. that are supported by sponsors whose product directly contradicts the coffee quality being espoused.

it's not a knock on any body or biz. but from where i sit, a syrup sponsor of a barista competition says to me that this whole thing isn't very serious -- exalting this kind of coffee in any meaningful way would hurt the syrup man's business. so it must be a game.

it's safe to say that this year's serbc was disappointing at best and a total catastrophe at worst -- from an event standpoint (not a reflection on the serious competitors). everything from miserable location to terrible promotion to nonexistent spectators to insulting speeches and performances by the locals ...

do comps need these people's money? how on earth is a professional competition to be taken seriously with such trappings? frankly, i'll never go back if the thing returns to florida.

i'm not trying to be a snob, or to rant (that part's on the blog), or to attack any individual company or person. i AM interested in a high-level philosophical discussion on why/how these quality messages keep getting mixed and garbled.

barista comps are incredible showcases of talent and beverage prep that could be used to capture the masses and advance the movement. it ain't happening. and in the southeast, we're going backward.
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Postby jmc on Wed Oct 24, 2007 8:35 am

until someone involves the audience in a more effective way with the comps, no one will come watch except industry folks.
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Postby bz on Wed Oct 24, 2007 8:53 am

jay: on the one hand, i agree. the missed opportunity to capture the drama and tee it up to the public is THE obstacle to overcome.

on the other hand, i keep going for some reason. and i'm nothing but an amateur junkie. there HAVE to be more people like me, who could be easily hooked with minimally improved production. that demographic alone could generate some buzz and crowd noise.
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Postby bz on Wed Oct 24, 2007 9:49 am

pulled from spencer's usbc thread:

... to establish a greater interaction between the barista and the consumer ...


that's a stated purpose of barista comps. look at this weekend's serbc, and ask: are we even close?
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Postby Troy Reynard on Wed Oct 24, 2007 11:30 am

Ben,

Yes we need their money, but I also believe there is a place for syrups in a 3rd wave coffee shop. I have a shop in a small town (25,000) next to a small college (2400). I need to be able to sell many "sorority lattes" (20 oz., Skim, with syrup) to be able to offer a high quality espresso and things like COE winners for the serious coffee drinkers. It's simple economics, I hold my nose, make the "sorority latte" and go to my happy place of small lots from Rwanda.
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Postby bz on Wed Oct 24, 2007 12:18 pm

troy: point taken. i mention on the blog that i have no beef with a company doing the obvious thing -- advertising at an industry event. events need sponsors and many cafes need syrup.

still, what's the effect on a general consumer -- on someone these comps are purportedly charged with engaging? it's the mixed message (most years) and the wholesale turnover of the event itself to these sponsors (this year) that's so startling, and that appears to undermine the event itself.

is the money that worth it? what if comps scaled back -- in terms of big-venue production costs, but NOT in terms of people and marketing. a more "grassroots" approach might eliminate the need for some of the deep pockets while better engaging the public.

that's admittedly vague ...
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Postby onocoffee on Wed Oct 24, 2007 12:53 pm

I wonder if the barista competitions will ever achieve their stated goals.

For as long as the competitions remain locked inside a trade-only event (I'm talking USBC/WBC now), I don't see how the general consumer will ever be able to "happen upon" the competitions and be inspired.

Of course, there's the concern that once they find their way to the competitions, they will be bored out of their skulls by the traditionally droll presentations by these so-called "Third Wave" baristas.

But, if they can make something absurdly mindnumbing (like poker) into a national cultural and media phenomenon, then we should be able to take the barista competitions and make them a little bit compelling.
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Postby Brent on Wed Oct 24, 2007 1:37 pm

In NZ at the coffeefestival they hold a transtasman comp - Australia vs NZ, where NZ is always gracious and allows the ozzies to win.

Haven't been over the ditch but here in NZ, with the exception of the drinks that had been judged / sampled, all the coffees made were handed out to the audience, which gave some participation and interest.

Not a perfect solution, but perhaps a start, and a lot less wastage than binning the drinks after...

Some form of mix between that and the "normal" barista comps?
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Postby scottlucey on Wed Oct 24, 2007 3:37 pm

bz wrote: what if comps scaled back -- in terms of big-venue production costs, but NOT in terms of people and marketing. a more "grassroots" approach might eliminate the need for some of the deep pockets while better engaging the public.

that's admittedly vague ...


i completely agree... which is why i am proud to plug the future GLRBC. we're (Alterra) taking care of our basics but at the same time really focusing on doing them in a way that is distinct to Milwaukee and Alterra. what's that mean? well, there's not as much pride in our convention center as there is in our brick warehouses, friday night polka fish fry, and desire to drink beer (or soda) and have fun (hospitality as a focus), which is what attendee's should expect. i think i can safely say this GLRBC will be a bit more than your competition in a box.

hosting events isn't easy, which is why when they happen, it's easiest to find the biggest companies with the most money so that you can just book a venue in the small amount of time people usually short themselves. it takes that extra time and extra work to scout out alternatives to convention centers, lodging, transportation solutions and other things to offer people other than the standard bag with tons of crap you're never going to really use.
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Postby bz on Wed Oct 24, 2007 4:01 pm

great stuff.

jay: it's the drama potential in barista comps that makes me think (a) it's just too good an idea to give up on, and (b) the public CAN be hooked.

brent: consumers actually tasting. what a novel idea. no normal person would consider attending such a taste-based event without the ability to see/taste/experience. yet that's what we ask them to do.

scott: nice move. some of us in greenville are trying to think way outside the box, and formulate an non-sanctioned event that would attempt to address a gamut of shortcomings.

for example:

it could be "hyperlocal" and smaller scale, making the production cost less, entry for the first-time competitor much less daunting and the time/money committment from small-time "real" working baristi more feasible. it could also provide a necessary break-in comp for those not really ready for the regionals.

it would engage home junkies and consumers by letting them taste drinks, bring their machines and basically party. we could have barkers drawing people in, shoving a cupping spoon in their hands, offering sips of the good stuff, explaining the nerdiness. and it could be in a mall -- open, public space.

it would eschew official sanctioning to allow us to tweak the rules as we'd like. crowd the bar, taste the beverages, engage the audience. the winner of the comp needn't be officially recognized, but he may get something like a paid trip to the regionals for his effort.

truly relevant media would be used -- aggressive live-blogging and web streaming.

other staples of coffee enetertainment/experience could be wrapped into the bash. cuppings, latte art smackdowns, consumers manning the portafilters, drinks being invented, etc.

such an event might flop. it might also put into the public arena, at last, some options for doing this a different way. you'd have the public thoroughly involved, you'd be creating a local "farm system" for official competitions, and you'd be leveraging the junkies and bloggers and pros, all three.
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Postby Mark Prince on Wed Oct 24, 2007 5:29 pm

The problem (as I see it at least) is, a lot of these ideas you present Ben have been floating around for years now.

This past year, I tried going the more formal route, including submitting a exploratory / findings letter, all formal like, to a WBC board member with a wide range of suggestions on getting the public involved and excited about these things. I sent this in a few months before this year's WBC. I didn't expect any changes at this year's WBC, but I'm also not holding my breath for next year's Copenhagen event.

I've been thinking for some time that it needs to filter down from the WBC - ie, the WBC leads the way in making these events more accessible, and then national events mirror these efforts, and regional events follow.

But as long as the WBC is a "novelty" thing (like it was this year in Japan - first time ever, and of course, it should draw big crowds) and they do get decent sized crowds (heard lots of bragging about how big the crowds were at the show, but not so much talk about whether the crowds were ultimately satisfied by it all - it'd be very interesting to commission a poll or questionnaire for the crowds about what they liked and didn't like).... as long as the WBC gets decent crowds, and the USBC gets crowds because of its tie in to the SCAA trade show, I just don't see any movement towards bridging the disconnect between these comps and consumers / the public.

So maybe it needs to happen the other way - the regionals kinda eschew any national or world "standards" and just have their own regionals, making it as consumer-oriented and friendly as possible. In the US currently the regionals don't mean much for the nationals (at least currently) - you can do poorly at the regionals or not compete in your region at all, and still go to the nationals. There's talk about this changing, and IMO, that'd be a good step. If you *have* to first compete regionally before going to the Nationals (and say finish in the top 3), then you'd have a lot more people competing regionally for one thing.

But as it stands now, the regionals in the US (and Canada for that matter) don't matter much for standing in the national comp, except in most cases for a paid trip to the nationals. So why not just throw it wide open to a different kind of competition and staging and rules and audience participation and FUN.

Idea / Example: Why not hold the event in a tent or showroom at a major car dealership? A really upscale one too. Get them sponsoring, get them involved. It worked for BMW for a year or two in Australia with their travelling Barista show idea.

Another Idea / Example: Why not contact a medium to major sized mall in the area the regional is taking place, and get them to host it in one of their various rotundas. They love this kinda stuff - creates heaps of traffic. And you reach the public! But there better be something in place to make sure the random public is satisfied by what they're seeing - and TASTING...

Back on subject, the curmudgeon in me says radical attempt to bridge the disconnects between comps, sponsors, and the general public won't happen at the world or national level, and I don't see it happening much at the regional level either - I may be wrong on this but I don't see the concept of a radically different (in rules and how it happens) competition at the regional level getting much support from the USBC / WBC. :( So this trend in decline of interest in regionals may be a growing one. It'll be interesting to see how the NWRBC does, given its conjunction with CoffeeFest, and the Millrock thing. A compare and contrast would make a good scholastic paper.

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Postby Troy Reynard on Wed Oct 24, 2007 5:49 pm

Ben,

I think this year's SERBC was in many ways an anomaly. I've been a participant in two events, and a spectator at two, and I didn't feel that any were "turned over" to sponsors. The MARBC and NERBC held this past Spring were fairly intimate, and community-focused. Attendance wasn't great, and I'm not sure how much it cost Murky and Gimme! to put it on, but anyone attending was made to feel welcome and had access to REALLY good coffee. The night between was great with the combination podcast/party which would have given great insight to someone new to the scene.
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Postby scottlucey on Wed Oct 24, 2007 6:02 pm

Mark Prince wrote:
So maybe it needs to happen the other way - the regionals kinda eschew any national or world "standards" and just have their own regionals, making it as consumer-oriented and friendly as possible. In the US currently the regionals don't mean much for the nationals (at least currently) - you can do poorly at the regionals or not compete in your region at all, and still go to the nationals. There's talk about this changing, and IMO, that'd be a good step. If you *have* to first compete regionally before going to the Nationals (and say finish in the top 3), then you'd have a lot more people competing regionally for one thing.

But as it stands now, the regionals in the US (and Canada for that matter) don't matter much for standing in the national comp, except in most cases for a paid trip to the nationals. So why not just throw it wide open to a different kind of competition and staging and rules and audience participation and FUN.


i believe this has changed. future rules will require a regional participation before entering the USBC... could a USBC member back me up on this?

Mark Prince wrote:Back on subject, the curmudgeon in me says radical attempt to bridge the disconnects between comps, sponsors, and the general public won't happen at the world or national level, and I don't see it happening much at the regional level either - I may be wrong on this but I don't see the concept of a radically different (in rules and how it happens) competition at the regional level getting much support from the USBC / WBC. :( So this trend in decline of interest in regionals may be a growing one.


changing the rules of the competition format is an entire different ballpark... getting the current competitions to be more interesting for consumer public is more so what i feel ben is addressing. that is merely up to the host.
i don't think there would be problems with hosting a comp. in the potential venues you suggested mark, as long as everything can happen smoothly. i feel the matter here is more do-ers and less talkers.

Mark Prince wrote:It'll be interesting to see how the NWRBC does, given its conjunction with CoffeeFest, and the Millrock thing. A compare and contrast would make a good scholastic paper.

Mark

i know that the changes in rules and changes in when and how many competitors pour at the millrock will make things really interesting (finals in the evening)... but none-the-less, i'm thinking it may be similar to coffee fest chicago/glrbc 07. but that doesn't mean the great city of seattle and those who live there aren't going to wow everyone with extra trouble to get into after the comp. that's surely going to be one of the highlights.
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Postby Ryan Willbur on Wed Oct 24, 2007 6:50 pm

Mark Prince wrote:
Another Idea / Example: Why not contact a medium to major sized mall in the area the regional is taking place, and get them to host it in one of their various rotundas.


Mark


Mall of America for 2008!

On the same line of what you are going to do, Scott. Last years NWRBC was a fine example of what can happen. The competition was no where near a trade show. The venue was perfect, but the surrounding press was what made it work. I still hear from people who just randomly stopped by to check the whole thing out. Oh, and the element that needs to be expanded upon and never ditched... the 4th machine.

Like you said, things should start at the WBC level. At this point, competitors know they are competing and know what they are getting into... what if a 1-2 hour bar shift was added in... with the idea being that each countries champion would bring enough ingredients to serve their signature drink (Or a modified, easier version).

Above all else, keep in mind, things are getting better. A year ago, competitors were still setting their tables within their 15 minutes... Cups that were acceptable were more specific, and we were all bitching about that then...
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Postby bz on Wed Oct 24, 2007 7:49 pm

troy: i'll agree that it was an anomaly. and yet, this year is sort of an extreme case of comp abuse that points up the more fundamental problem. we've got a framework that favors more of an insider show than a publicly compelling drama.

i'd hate to see the competition return to counter culture's purview, only for everyone to think it's been "fixed." the debacle here should be taken as a clarion call, imo, that the current formula is somewhat broke.

remember, there's the charge "to establish a greater interaction between the barista and the consumer."

anyway, an anonymous coffee insider just promised that "this host will not be hosting the event in the future." regardless, that's an improvement.
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Postby bz on Wed Oct 24, 2007 7:58 pm

The problem (as I see it at least) is, a lot of these ideas you present Ben have been floating around for years now.


well then, the problem is that these insider factions are still duking it out, and no one is finding a way to move the ball.

I've been thinking for some time that it needs to filter down from the WBC ... So maybe it needs to happen the other way - the regionals kinda eschew any national or world "standards" and just have their own regionals ...


either way, my attitude is simple. for the scale of event we're talking about, who needs sanctioning? no disrespect to the bodies that exist, but if what we do is successful and provides a model for dealing with some of these age-old problems, then we can just keep doing it and let the powers that be decide what to do with us.

Another Idea / Example: Why not contact a medium to major sized mall in the area the regional is taking place, and get them to host it in one of their various rotundas. They love this kinda stuff - creates heaps of traffic. And you reach the public!


that's exactly what we're talking about. in our case, it's for a very simple reason -- greenville's shannon hudgens runs a counter in the mall just in front of a convenient open area. it's a tough place for a retail establishment, but a great one for a public event.

getting the current competitions to be more interesting for consumer public is more so what i feel ben is addressing. ... i feel the matter here is more do-ers and less talkers.


word.
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Postby JaanusSavisto on Wed Oct 24, 2007 11:29 pm

Mark Prince wrote:
Another Idea / Example: Why not contact a medium to major sized mall in the area the regional is taking place, and get them to host it in one of their various rotundas.


Mark


The past two Estonian national barista championships along with the three comps surrounding it have been held in Tallinn`s most central big shopping mall and i have to confess: the drawing of audience is anything but difficult if you do have a good and entertaining master of ceremonies and some good barista-material behind the stations. The number of spectators that, in my opinion, never get too close to the coffee biz was vast in both of the events.

Disclaimer: the following is mostly, if not everything, only hearsay. The author of this text has no relationship whatsoever to SCAE Estonian chapter. So don`t be too hard on me if it doesn`t happen in that way.

For this years comps, i hear, the estonian national body is thinking of a joint event with flair-bartending. I sort of agree with the change. With what i`ve heard the flair prelims and latte art and coffee in good spirits and cup tasting will be held in the first two days and the finals for flair and the main barista event on the third day with competitors from either final going in turns: first barista, then the first bartender, then the second barista and so on. so the gaps for judges calibration will be filled and the audience always has something to look at. The event is possibly going to be held in a big discotheque :shock: , during weekdays.

I doubt this would gather much interest in the general audience but this is a good chance to have some involvement from other F&B staff (waiters, bartenders, sommeliers). I have to say, i have a number of aquintances in these fields and not all of them are indifferent about good cup of joe.


edit: some typos, sorry
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Postby Mark Prince on Thu Oct 25, 2007 1:10 am

Basically anything that gets espresso, cappuccinos, and signature drinks into the audience hands works for me as a start.

And don't friggin' charge them either, unless ONE HUNDRED percent of the proceeds go to a charity or barista fund or something.

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Postby luca on Thu Oct 25, 2007 4:51 am

Generally, I think that people get that there are a lot of problems and I have seen people try to work on it ...

At this year's Victorian barista championships, we had a machine set up and had the competitors bring an extra few kilos of their blend to make coffee to hand out after.

Our national latte art championship sold sponsorship of the audience's coffee: roasteries paid to have a few kilos of their coffee extracted and handed out to the audience by volunteer baristi. Similarly, our national barista championship had coffee provided by a roastery that was also sponsoring it.

Personally, if the event were attracting a fair chunk of the general public, I would love to see a "pepsi challenge" of sorts - get people to taste the difference between fresh coffee and coffee that has been left to sit for two months.

The common thread with all of these things is that you need people to actually put their hands up to organise it and to do the work.

And don't friggin' charge them either, unless ONE HUNDRED percent of the proceeds go to a charity or barista fund or something.


Given the huge investment that baristi make in competitions, I don't think that it would be unreasonable to charge a small amount per cup and give that to the regional winner to help diffray the costs of travelling to compete in the nationals.

Cheers,

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Postby bz on Thu Oct 25, 2007 7:05 am

speaking for the south carolina hinterlands, i can say that many baristi just want to get out from behind the bar. do something scintillating. be a part of something bigger.

there are no such opportunities here, and driving to clearwater -- even just to watch the regionals -- was never an option for the working stiffs. the tight, four-man cafe rotations keep anyone from straying far.

you DID have an unusual number of south carolina baristi in this year's regional, and i think those types need a hyper-local event for a different reason: they just weren't ready for a high-level competition. some of the routines were embarrassingly bad, and more than a few seemed to not really respect the seriousness of what the competition takes.

instead of discarding them as outside the club, however, they would also be ideal to engage with a less formal local event, allowing them to get their feet wet with the competition format and official rules.
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Postby Sandy on Thu Oct 25, 2007 7:41 am

Minnepolis 2008:
The "Fourth Machine" will be at the BGA booth, which also by the way, will be very close to the competition stage.
Barista Competitors as well as Non competing Barista's will have the opportunity to work in shifts preparing sig drinks, capps and lattes for the crowd.

Ya'll ready to sign up?
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Postby cremaquest on Thu Oct 25, 2007 8:46 am

I believe this has changed. future rules will require a regional participation before entering the USBC... could a USBC member back me up on this?


Correct Lucey. In order to compete at the USBC in 2008, a competitor will need to have competed in a previous USBC or regional competition. There will be no first time competitors at the USBC. (It doesn't require that it was this competition year however.)

The fourth machine is ALWAYS an option for the host. Some hosts choose to use a fourth machine, and some don't. (Not sure why you would not, except that sometimes there are logistical/space/power limitations.) How it is used, where it is placed, and how it is promoted will impact how effective it is. The NWRBC and WRBC are the two best users of the "4th Machine" that I've seen. (There's always a long line to get drinks at the WRBC and many eye-opening moments with first time consumers.)

At the championships in Mexico, runners put the competitor drinks into paper cups and pass them to the audience. (However, these drinks have already been tasted by the judges, so that's a bit gross.) Also, the finalists prepare drinks for the audience while awaiting for the announcement of the winners.

There are ways to do some of these things. The event hosts have lots of options.
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Postby barry on Thu Oct 25, 2007 10:37 am

there are no such opportunities here, and driving to clearwater -- even just to watch the regionals -- was never an option for the working stiffs. the tight, four-man cafe rotations keep anyone from straying far.


This will be an issue no matter when/where the events are held. Someone, somewhere, will always miss out because they have to work, can't travel, etc.

they just weren't ready for a high-level competition. some of the routines were embarrassingly bad, and more than a few seemed to not really respect the seriousness of what the competition takes.


Clearwater isn't the first instance of this, and, in part, this is one of the reasons there are regionals. Many first-time competitors have no idea what to expect or what is expected of them. The situation gets better each year, but first time competitors will always be a bit of a wildcard. That is just fine, imho. I think the Midwest is going to be a bit that way this year. To be overly harsh on these newbies is to essentially tell them to "go away" or "don't waste our time", and that is an attitude that we cannot have with the competitions (especially the regionals). Do your show; learn from it (no matter how poorly you did); come back next year and do better. Without novices, there is no future for these comps.


instead of discarding them as outside the club, however, they would also be ideal to engage with a less formal local event, allowing them to get their feet wet with the competition format and official rules.


You're probably about five to ten years ahead of reality. If the regionals have problems filling the competition ranks, then you'll certainly have problems filling out a local competition. The Barista Jam structure, however, could be an excellent format for local events, and can certainly contain a competition element.

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Postby Sandy on Thu Oct 25, 2007 10:52 am

IMO- the USBC should be only for qualified competitors. No newbies. Newbies should begin in regionals.

I totally concur with Barry's statements. First timers need to compete in order to succeed. Sure, the routines are not comparable to a well rounded competitor that has competed in six regionals and ten nationals. (my exageration)

Just think, without that first opportunity of serving a flaming smores drink in a cowboy boot, Heather Perry would have never made it to two time US champ.

You gotta start somewhere. Usually the beginning is where that is.

As much as I hate to bemoan this same sentiment again and again, how can we raise the bar without letting people at least try? Sure, they are going to suck. Maybe. Maybe not. Didn't a first timer make it to the finals in the US this year? There are only so many Billy Wilson's and Pete Lacata's in the world. Regionals are where it's at. It's the beginning for a lot of Baristas to hone in their skills and use the score sheet as a tool guide for practicing technicals in their own shops. Aren't we the ones complaining that we can't get good coffee just "any where"? I thought that was the original intent of the Barista Competitions, to raise the standard of coffee competancy?
Sandy Hon
supervisor, coffee bar operations
Johnson County Community College
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Postby bz on Thu Oct 25, 2007 12:05 pm

barry, sandy: don't get me wrong. newbies have to be involved. the tent should be big. we should expect some people to suck and be ready to let them learn. i have NO interest in creating a snob's club.

there are no such opportunities here, and driving to clearwater -- even just to watch the regionals -- was never an option for the working stiffs. the tight, four-man cafe rotations keep anyone from straying far.



This will be an issue no matter when/where the events are held. Someone, somewhere, will always miss out because they have to work, can't travel, etc.


possibly. but i'm talking about something just for south carolina, or even one region of south carolina. no driving/flying necessary. that's a major door-opener, when your only option before was driving 10 hours to the floridian peninsula.

instead of discarding them as outside the club, however, they would also be ideal to engage with a less formal local event, allowing them to get their feet wet with the competition format and official rules.



You're probably about five to ten years ahead of reality. If the regionals have problems filling the competition ranks, then you'll certainly have problems filling out a local competition.


i disagree. we gotta think in different terms, and give up some of the large venue/major expense notions. we're talking about a hybrid jam/home junkie throwdown/latte art comp/public cupping/barista competition/general carnival. six barista competitors would be more than enough, all local. it's not gonna draw from beyond this corner of our state. no one needs recognize our winner. but he'll have gotten his feet wet, according to the offfical rules, and would then have an easier time getting to the SERBC -- both from a confidence and practice standpoint and because his way will be paid.

all we'd need for this is one or two machines. three or four credible judges willing to volunteer. that's it.
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