Disclaimer: I currently have had no official relationship with the US Barista Championship or the World Barista Championship. In the past, I have served as USBC Chairman and on both the WBC and SCAA Board of Directors, I’ve competed few times over the years, emceed here and there, and helped with some of the online broadcast production. What follows is my personal commentary alone. Take none of this as any official, approved, or sanctioned anything from anyone.
This past week, the barista competition fans and participants in the US were on Twitter, discussing the just-released 2013
US World Barista Championship rules and scoresheets. I was glad to see it.
EDIT: See the bottom of this blog post, but these are apparently the 2013 WBC Rules and scoresheets we’re looking at. Most of this post is still valid, except the conclusion. Carry on.
Let’s be completely clear here. The 2013 Rules are nothing short of an official divergence from the World Barista Championship Rules & Regulations and scoresheets. This is many years in the making, but I think it’s worth acknowledging what’s going on here, and celebrating the USBC Head Judge committee for their courage in the matter.
Over the past 12 years, the WBC has been the crown-jewel of the specialty coffee world. Aside from a few hard-working and devoted staff people, it’s completely volunteer driven. While this sounds great ‘on paper,’ it comes with some significant challenges, not the least of which is that the rules and judging tend to be plagued by a certain amount of group-think effects. It’s something I’ve observed since my first involvement with the organization back in 2005.
Today, the WBC is better organized than ever, with a talented and hard-working staff, an engaged Board of Directors, and the best crop of committee volunteers the WBC has ever had. However, it’s very difficult to wrangle something like the WBC for anyone. There’s more to say about this, but let’s leave it at that.
For anyone who is intimately familiar with the WBC competition format, you know that the most significant scoring elements are the times-four multiplied elements: espresso taste balance and tactile balance, cappuccino taste balance, signature drink taste balance, and overall impression. The format and scoring clearly indicates that the most important thing is the taste of the drinks (overall impression score also includes an assessment of the taste scores).
What it doesn’t do a very good job of is articulate what “taste balance” means.
This has been a foggy area of the judging since its inception. I don’t know who came up with the idea of “taste balance” as the name for the qualitative organoleptic evaluation of the beverages served, but I would suspect that it was the product of some discussion and ultimately a compromise of sorts. How about “taste quality?” Flavor? Deliciousness? Any one of those is brow-furling for sure. If one espresso is more delicious than another, who is the arbiter of that scale? How does this adequately account for diversity of roast degree, coffee processing styles, etc.?
So we’ve been stuck with “taste balance” and “tactile balance.” These are both terms that require interpretation, which in turn means that the interpretation is potentially different depending on who’s doing the interpreting. Even with further elucidation like “harmonious balance of sweet, acidic, bitter,” or “a harmonious balance of rich sweet milk and espresso,” it still leaves a whopping 55% (if you include the overall impression score) of the total score to how the judge interprets the concept of “taste balance.” Don’t get me started on “tactile balance.”
This fogginess has been brought up within the WBC rules and judging management in the past. I’m not privy to more recent discussions, but when something has been so nebulous for so long within an institution as large and diverse as the WBC global community (which includes all of the national organizations, regionals, etc.), raising the issue reveals just how nebulous it is. So foggy and disparate that it’s perhaps too big a topic to handle.
The trend over the years within the WBC has been to move more and more in the direction of supporting the barista competitor. This has meant clarifying rules, eliminating or changing scoring elements that were arbitrary or redundant (like the shape of the cups), and a general culture of transparency and good faith within the judging and within the organization. At the risk of offending anyone in particular, I’ll share that this cultural shift has really been led by the efforts of the American, Australian, and New Zealander representatives.
But the “taste balance” thing still persists.
In 2009, when I was USBC Chair, we took it upon ourselves to take things one step further and we developed a Rules & Regulations Supplemental document, which sought to further clarify or amend certain rules. One of those was a clarification about “taste balance.” The score would be determined by an average between the “taste balance” of the drink, and how accurately the barista’s taste description matched the taste of the beverage. With the rules as written and the way they were being implemented in competitions, it seemed the best way to go. Publishing this supplement to competitors and enthusiasts alike helped everyone be more on the same page, with everyone being subject to the rules as written.
This approach was shared with the WBC judging leadership of that time. Suffice it to say, it was not well-received. It was clear that while there wasn’t direct opposition, the topic was simply too big to be able to address in such a clear-cut way. Too many judges from too many countries were unwilling to budge from their own interpretations of the rules.
Now in 2009, when the USBC rules supplement was developed, it was implemented as a “supplement” rather than actual edits to the WBC rules, in order to try to soften the impact of what amounts to a vote of no-confidence in the rules as they stand. This year, for the 2013 USBC, the powers-that-be within the USBC leadership have taken that extra step. No supplement this year, kids. No mere the-way-we-interpret-it-in-the-US. We have a distinct USBC Rules & Regulations and Sensory Scoresheets.
Take that WBC Rules & Regs!
I haven’t spoken to any of the folks within the USBC leadership about this, but I already know why they did it: for the barista competitors. In order to have a fair and open competition, you need as much transparency as possible. The more rules interpretation-ing that happens behind the scenes, the more disconnected the barista competitors are from what actually scores points.
Again, there’s much more to say on the topic, but let me close with this: Congratulations and bravo, USBC leadership. The barista competitors here in the US owe you our gratitude, as you’ve stepped up to the challenge and chosen the difficult option of a bold move. Sure, it’s a small thing… it’s no life or death situation. But it’s in those small things that you see character and courage.
EDIT: So, I’ve been informed that I’m a dummy. Apparently, these are the new 2013 WBC Rules & Regulations… just an advanced preview via the USBC. That said, it’s still a great achievement, and arguably the most significant change to the competition since its inception. It’s a continuation of an ongoing evolution of the WBC, and a welcome one to be sure. It is a little odd that these rules are being rolled out like this… it’s unprecedented, hence my erroneous assumptions… but regardless, it’s great that the WBC leadership is able to accomplish this (again) small but meaningful accomplishment.