The World of Barista Competitions

It’s like best in show (with plenty of coffee)


Coffee is a curious craft.

In a rather meta way, every cup we brew is like engaging in a form of combat, in which we wage battle with a delicious, yet ever-changing opponent, using only the most rudimentary tools. To make matters even more complicated, the final outcome is determined by a single, ephemeral cup of steaming, dark liquid. This sensory battle is perfect fodder for a spectator sport, and it’s one with a proper name and a legitimate place in society: the Barista Championship.

For those of you who have not experienced a barista competition up close, they’re at once pretty straightforward and incredibly complex. A competitor is given a stage on which to prepare three rounds of espresso drinks for a panel of Sensory Judges. There’s one round for straight espresso, one round for an espresso-and-milk drink, and one round for a signature beverage, for which the barista can incorporate any number of ingredients or esoteric preparations.

At the U.S. Barista Championship, baristas are given a narrow 15-minute window to make these three drinks, all the while being closely watched by a Technical Judge who observes how cleanly and efficiently they operate. The guidelines are fairly basic, but they inspire countless drinks, approaches, styles, personalities, and expressions.

The competition has been around since 2002 and its format and rules have evolved each year to bring it to its current state. The early days of the event were not that dissimilar from the early days of artisan shops—there was an overdose of smoothie blenders, cloying syrups, goofy outfits, and a lot of lofty and virtuous over-explaining.

Over time, the competitions matured and have advanced a lot of new thinking in the industry. Baristas are hungry to hone their craft, and these competitive forums have led to many unexpected practices that now seem commonplace—like putting timers on grinders and serving single origin coffees as espresso. There’s still a lot of showmanship, and an un-ironic, “best in show” style pageantry, but there is also rigor, dedication, and real breakthroughs in technique and presentation.

The U.S. Barista Championship is split into Eastern and Western Conferences for the pre-qualifying event, and placement in that round determines who gets to attend the national competition. The winner of the national event goes on to represent the U.S. in the World Barista Championship (something that I was lucky enough to do in Atlanta in 2009 and again in London in 2010, where I managed to win).

At Blue Bottle, we’re currently in the midst of our In-House Barista Competitions, and the excitement has been building region to region. We hold these events in New York, the Bay Area, and Los Angeles every year, to help us decide who will get Blue Bottle’s coveted spots in the U.S. pre-qualifier.

There are a lot of reasons why baristas compete in these events. Some seek a forum in which to hone their craft; some want to see how they stack up against their colleagues; and others want to experience a nerve-wracking challenge, to revel in the pressure, and push their will against the palpable energy in the room.

A Barista Competition can feel like a hapless battleground or a sensory minefield, but it’s also almost always filled with genuine camaraderie and goodwill. It’s a gentle battle we’re waging after all, and one with bracingly delicious results.

Interested in barista training?

Receive some barista training of your own at one of our cuppings, brew classes, or roastery tours. Want to represent Blue Bottle at a Barista Competition someday? Apply for one of our open barista jobs.

Blue Bottle’s Competition Results

New York, In-House Barista Competition
Jonathen Liu, the Training Manager for New York, took top honors. Jonathen is a seasoned competitor and coffee professional who has worked in the industry for many years. His signature drink was a balanced and intriguing mix that incorporated barrage and sorrel.

Bay Area, In-House Barista Competition
Kelly Sanchez, a Retail Trainer from the Oakland department, took top honors in the Oakland In-House Barista Competition. His upbeat energetic routine focused on sweetness, acidity, and bitterness across all drinks, culminating in a chocolate-inflected, tropical twist on our Guatemala Huehuetenango Esperanza as his signature.

Los Angeles, In-House Brewers Cup Competition
Los Angeles rounded up seven eager baristas to compete for the Brewers Cup. For this competition, baristas use the same unknown coffee, and prepare it on the brewer of their choice, to their own specifications. Kaelen Howardemerged victorious using a technique where she brewed coffee in a clever dripper then filtered it again through a Bonmac. Kaelen is a newly minted Lead Barista at the Arts District cafe.

Our three winners will go on to the pre-qualifier event in Kansas City, Missouri, February 2–5. More details about broadcast and live stream here.