World Barista Championship 2011: Bogota

If you were going to choose a city half way across the world to visit with the sole intention of watching people make espresso drinks, Bogota, Colombia would seem to be an odd choice. Although Colombia does produce some of the finest coffees in the world, almost all of the good stuff is bound for export. What's left for domestic consumption is generally pretty bad-- bitter espresso with scalded milk, lots of stovetop moka pot coffee served with generous amounts of sugar. A cafe in Bogota is a social place, not a destination for a carefully crafted espresso made from specialty-grade coffee.

World Barista Championship 2011

So, Bogota for the World Barista Championship? Seemed like an odd choice a few months ago. Now, I understand that it was a brilliant, if logistically-challenging, move. By all accounts from judges and participants who have been attending WBCs for much longer than I have been involved with the coffee trade, Bogota 2011 was simply the best WBC event ever staged. For most of the baristas participating, the week's events started with a coordinated visit to a number of coffee farms outside of Colombia's Armenia growing region. If you are a barista, working for barista wages at a shop in Europe, North America, or Asia, a trip to origin is only something that you dream of as you count your tips at the end of the day. Sure, you love coffee. If you are participating in a barista competition at the national level, you have pushed yourself to the limits of your craft and your resources. Making that additional step of visiting a working coffee farm, of tasting the fresh fruit from the tree and truly grasping the difficulty of cultivating, harvesting, and processing quality coffee-- well, it's just something out of reach of not only baristas, but most shop owners as well.

All of this is to say that by holding the WBC in Colombia, the dynamics of competition changed. Baristas were still visibly charged-up from their farm trips. Instead of a crowd of (somewhat) jaded "industry professionals" from the retail side of the coffee trade that you find at US events, a large swath of the people attending the competition were directly involved in production at origin. Farmers, exporters, cuppers and graders all got a chance to see, for the first time, what some of the most skilled baristas can create with their crop. The event was well-promoted in Bogota itself. General admission was only $2 and included free Cup of Excellence coffees brewed by Chris Owens and Tyler Wells on Chemex, AeroPress, and V60 coffee or free espressos and cappuccinos with coffee from an amazing array of roasters, overseen by Lem Butler and Brian from Counter Culture on machines located at the entrance to the competition arena. By the semi-finals, people were waiting for a half hour to be able to find a seat to watch the competitors.

As for the competition itself, I can only say that it was an honor to be included as a sensory judge. Bogota's altitude of 8700' proved to be a challenge across the board-- brew temperatures, crema consistency, and milk steaming are all altered by the thin atmosphere. Even with the added degree of difficulty, the field of competitors were able to rise to the challenge with a very consistent presentation of skill and quality. Scores were very close, with most of the top 12 changing places at every stage of the competition. Colombia's own Lina Zea held the top spot at the end of the first day with a score of 643; in a heart-stopping moment before a roaring crowd of Colombian nationals, Lina went a few seconds over in her semi-finals performance, just enough to knock her out of the finals. For the last round, three countries with previous champions (the US, UK, and Australia) went up against first-time finalists from Spain, Japan, and El Salvador. When the last score box had been ticked off, El Salvador's Alejandro Mendez became the first barista from a major coffee producing country to ever win the World Barista Championship. Alejandro's presentation was, in turns, equally creative and precise. National pride at seeing Pete Lacata represent the US with a brilliant turn aside, it was no surprise to anyone in the room that Alejandro was the odds-on favorite to win. As the scores were announced, the entire building erupted in cheers. Everyone was proud that the scrappy first-time WBC competitor from El Salvador had taken the high score.

The day felt epic. All of us involved in the competition want to see coffee get better, everywhere. Having a barista like Alejandro represent the industry this year is a significant change from past years. He's shown that a country with no established cafe culture-- no supporting infrastructure of shops with expensive machines to practice on, no roasters with significant resources to select competition coffees or cover training costs-- can step up and produce talented coffee professionals on par with anyone else. (Meanwhile, I should also mention that Alejandro received roasting support from London's Hasbean, which just goes to show that collegiality lives on...) You also can't underestimate the importance of having a young, motivated Spanish-speaking representative from a producing country as the face of the specialty coffee industry. The next, most important step in improving the quality of coffee exported from countries like Colombia and El Salvador has to come from the farmers and exporters. When you don't drink quality coffee, it's all very abstract to consider how coffee variety, harvest ripeness, and precision in processing impact the quality in the cup. Alejandro's victory makes these sorts of abstractions very tangible, and adds a dash of national pride and competition that hopefully will help to foster more quality at the cafe level in producing countries. It is a lot to put on the shoulders of a young guy who just wanted to make great espresso, but Alejandro has the potential to be a solid bridge between producers at origin and the cafe world.

In all, it was a very good year to fly halfway across the world to drink coffee in Bogota.

If you are interested in reading or hearing more about the WBC 2011: