Note: This review does contain many spoilers. But, if you already know who won, then you will probably not mind.
More than 50 baristas walk into the World Barista Championships (WBCs). Six are chosen as finalists. One is crowned the champion. The baristas must each prepare twelve drinks in a period of 15 minutes: four espressos, four milk-based drinks, and four signature drinks. Baristas must not only prepare drinks but put on a show for the judges who evaluate them. Baristas explain how they made their drinks. I can only imagine how stressful competing in the tournament is.
Baristas focuses on the WBC from end to end. The documentary starts with an introduction to four people, Kyle, Niall, Miki, and Claire. This section sets the scene. A brief interlude informs us of what the competitors are up against: the drinks they need to prepare and the basic rules. It is clear that the WBC is an intense competition and I could already feel this within the first few minutes of the documentary.
It turns out that the WBC is not just about preparing drinks. I think of it more as a performance. Competitors do not spend the months leading up to the tournament just perfecting their coffee, although that is important. They prepare every detail. They need to write and memorise a script so that they know what they are going to tell the judges. They need to practice their timing.
I did not know how much baristas were expected to do until I watched this documentary. One scene featured Miki, from Japan, in a meeting where they discussed how she wanted her menu cards to look for the competition. Competitors prepare plates on which their coffee is served. This is very much a competition of detail. I understand why baristas need to do so much. Coffee is not just about the drink. A great coffee is everything from the vessel in which it is served to the experience you have when drinking it.
Later in the documentary, I found out that some competitors work with speech coaches to help them refine what they are going to say and how they will say it. Baristas must tell the judges about their drinks. But that’s not all they have to do. They have to tell a story. As I saw later in the documentary, the competitors explained the origins of their signature drinks and why they chose the ingredients they did. They spoke about how coffee makes them feel. The speech coaches helped the competitors build their confidence. Miki, from Japan, had a teacher who helped her prepare for giving her speech in English.
Signature drinks were the star of the show throughout the documentary. Miki planned to use liquid nitrogen for her signature drink. Niall sourced plants from his native land of Ireland. Kyle got interested in how he could use hops to bring a bit of his homeland, North Carolina, to the performance. Claire had a special shaker machine to prepare her drinks so she could keep her eyes focused on the judges throughout the competition.
The WBC does take a toll on all participants. One contestant said they were waiting for the competition to be over so they could return to their regular life again. They had spent time away from family and friends to prepare for the competition. All throughout the documentary, it was made clear that the WBCs required meticulous preparation. Every detail matters. Claire was re-writing her speech right up until the day before the competition started. One scene showed Claire under a tree revising her lines for the competition.
One of the people who helped Claire said that they were making a mental list of all the things that Claire done to annoy him which he would recite after the competition. It was clear that a lot of tension was built up in advance of this competition. But, as the documentary made clear, nobody can compete alone. You practically need a team of people to guide you through the championships.
Toward the end of the documentary, the spotlight was focused on the competition itself. A few scenes showed what it was like in South Korea, the hosting nation. It was then time to see the competition. Over 50 people competed in the competition. The documentary showed quick scenes from a few competitors which reminded me how many people devote their lives to coffee. The focus was put on the competitors the documentary had been following.
Tension started to build as the 15 minutes for which the competitors had been preparing for months had finally come. Both Niall and Claire were eliminated in the first round. A scene showed Claire relieved that all of the work was finally over. I thought that all four competitors would get to the final. I liked this touch because it showed that there are people who do not advance. For every winner, there are many people who will leave as competitors.
Miki’s liquid nitrogen spilled before the first round. I thought that she would not make it into the finals. She was clearly worried about the spill. Miki managed to put on a good enough show to be advanced to the finals, but only by a few points. I would have been on the edge of my seat had my cat not been lying on my lap at the time I was watching the documentary. Kyle also advanced into the finals.
Kyle’s competition clock did not work. I wondered whether he would get to restart his performance but he just kept going anyway. There was a competition official on the side who had a stop watch but it was not visible to Kyle. The clock is not necessary for the competition but as Kyle said it is useful for pacing. I thought the very end of his performance was a bit rushed, which is probably how I would react if I didn’t know how much time I had left.
Baristas was the right mix of entertaining and educational. The competitors put so much work into their performances, from designing menu cards to preparing all of the equipment they will need for the tournament. All for 15 minutes. The competitors said that what goes on in the competition helps advance the coffee industry as a whole. I tend to agree. The focus on mastery is clear but there’s something equally important to the industry that is not as clearly mentioned: creativity. Competitors push the boundaries to figure out what it is that works best for them.
The documentary lasted a total of 1:30 which means you could fit it into an evening (like I did) if you plan your time.