In addition to reading about coffee, I have spent some time watching coffee documentaries. The latest I watched, Barista, was released a few years before Baristas, which I watched a few days earlier. Barista chronicles the journeys of five people racing to become the barista champion of the U.S.. Intrigued by barista championships and competitive coffee, I knew this documentary would be in my wheelhouse.
Like Baristas, Barista started with a cinematic introduction which made me appreciate to an even greater degree the art of coffee. To the people in the documentary, coffee was more than just a hobby or a profession. It was, as many of the contestants said, a craft. Every participant participated in the competition to showcase their craft to the world; to demonstrate how they view coffee.
After the cinematic introduction, I was greeted with a primer on the rules of the competition. I should have watched Barista before Baristas because the explanation of the rules was clearer in Barista. Participants must prepare three rounds of four drinks, for a total of twelve drinks. The drinks are served as espresso, cappuccino (which I used to think could be any milk-based drink), and a signature drink. The signature drink is an opportunity for the baristas to show their individual takes on coffee. I’ll get to this in a minute.
Whereas Baristas was very focused on the signature drinks, Barista spent more time talking about life as a coffee professional. Most of the people who participated in the U.S. Barista Championships had some affiliation with a coffee shop. They were not just practising their craft; they were representing a coffee shop. This makes sense because the people participating wanted to make being a coffee professional their career. Baristas at Intelliginista, a famous craft coffee shop in the U.S., frequently participated in the championships.
The documentary made clear that being a barista is not an easy job. One of the participants said that baristas are paid similarly to someone who is flipping burgers, which I disagree with because coffee is a complex art. Pouring an espresso shot in itself may not be difficult but pouring the right one takes time and focused attention. Then there is everything else that goes into making coffee: preparing the machinery, dialling in, sampling coffees, educating customers.
Throughout the documentary, I got to see the personal and professional lives of the contestants. I got to see how the professionals prepare for the competition, which usually takes months. Some competitors used testing labs. One competitor had a practice bar set up in the coffee shop for which they worked where they would practice routines for customers who would assume the role of a practice judge. Contestants devote months to practice.
It is clear that the championships are a performance. One scene showed one of the contestants picking out music for their competition. Baristas revised their lines to make sure they could say exactly what they wanted to say in the given period of time. Coffee was of course important but contestants are evaluated on a lot more than just coffee. Professionalism is a key consideration when it comes to the competition. Poise and clarity can make a great competitor.
Like in Baristas, the competitors followed by the Barista documentary were not averse to making their signature drinks complex. One contestant used liquid nitrogen to prepare an affogato (which is an espresso shot poured over ice cream) in his competition practice. Another contestant used distillation to create a distilled coffee, using the same process used to create distilled alcoholic drinks. As a result of distillation, the coffee took on a clear colour.
I felt throughout this competition that coffee is an art and that being a barista is not just a “mid-way” point in someone’s life. Contestants wanted to make a living out of brewing coffee. This is why many people competed in the competition. Being a barista championship finalist or winner opens up career opportunities. Some people use barista competitions as an opportunity to scout people for jobs in coffee. Being able to say that you are a barista champion is an excellent wedge into owning a craft coffee shop. Many of the contestants saw the championships as the next step in their careers.
Later in the documentary, the focus turned to the competition itself. It was a bit different from Baristas because this documentary focused on the U.S. championships instead of the world championships. There were 41 competitors in total, out of over 1000 who had participated in the regional championships. I got to see a few minutes of each performance from those who the documentary was following. The entire documentary was leading up to those performances where baristas could showcase their skills.
I did learn in this documentary that judging is much more complex than I thought. Contestants can earn a maximum of 800 points and how those points are given is determined by not only the four sensory judges who taste the coffees but also a head judge and other judges who examine the performance itself. The documentary does not go too deep into the rules and maybe this is for the best. There appears to be a lot of them. Interestingly, this documentary showed scenes from judge training courses. One of the contestants in the competition was even a judge, which she thought gave her an edge.
Some of the baristas the documentary followed got to the finals whereas others did not. That is the nature of the barista competition: six people emerge as finalists and take home a trophy and the rest go home as competitors. I felt tense watching the documentary toward the end because I wanted to see everyone win. All of the contestants had spent months of their lives refining their performances, but of course only a few could become finalists.
While this documentary, clocking in at around one hour and forty-five minutes, was much longer than Baristas, I did enjoy watching it. I took a few short breaks because it was a longer documentary but it was well worth the time I spent watching it. I learned, once again, how passionate people can be about coffee. I learned how hard people are working to make coffee something more than just a milk-based drink.
I saw people push the boundaries of coffee with liquid nitrogen and distillation and more. And I learned how many baristas are not paid enough for their work. Being a barista should be more than just something that comes before what you do “next.” It should be a viable career for those who want to transform our cups of Joe into a magical experience.