I've spent the past couple of weeks after Brewers Cup reflecting on everything - the scores, the comments, the techniques I used, and how I can do better is one thing, but I've found myself continuously coming back to the why.
I think the world of coffee competitions has so many pros and cons. On one side, it makes you better at what you do. It makes you explore and read and learn. It helps you break down discussing coffee and flavours. It helps you sound less condescending. After I bought a ticket I heard stories of how Onyx Coffee Lab, April Coffee Roasters, The Cupping Room in Hong Kong take pride in helping their teams grow and get better. These stories inspired me and continue to do so while I'm sitting here reflecting.
Conversely, I think the world of competitions is unnecessarily elitist, classist, and promotes some really unhealthy standards and relationships in the coffee world. It's hard to feel like you're getting 'anywhere' as a barista if you're not competing or doing your own thing. But competing favours expensive coffee, and expensive coffee can support some really shaky relationships with growers. I've heard stories of tonnes and tonnes of past crop gesha from Ethiopia sitting in storage because it was grown for competitions but didn't cut the mustard. I've heard stories of coffee companies asking growers to try certain techniques with fermenting, and upon not liking the flavour, the companies not buying the coffee. I'm sure on the whole it's just a few bad eggs, but in the niche of competing unhealthy habits leave a bit of a stench.
Last year after placing third in NSW Aeropress, I decided I wanted to try my hand at Brewers Cup. I'd only been with Sample for a couple of months but I found working with better coffee than I ever had before really opened my eyes to how simple it was to brew good coffee. It also made me a little cynical - I felt more attuned to underextraction and to roasty coffees. I thought that if people can do well in all areas of the industry with what I saw as a more average product, then surely an outstanding one would be enough. Brewing good coffee felt empowering, and I wanted to see how far I could get. I rode that wave of hubris until May this year.
Brewing Coffee Is Brewing Ideas
In January, my attitude began to change a little bit while me and my partner Laura went to the USA for a 5 week trip. I had my lists of coffee shops, roasteries and the like in every city, and wherever I went I found a super strong and supportive community. Cities and towns had so many events, everywhere we went. Sponsors were varied but never tinged the tone of local comps, speed dating or talks. Events were inclusive too, focusing on women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ people everywhere we went! I spent a lot of my time listening to Boss Barista, Keys To The Shop, I Brew My Own Coffee and SO many other coffee podcasts and I loved the energy, the hustle to share and help people out. It helped me conceptualise so many issues that are in the industry today, I found I was growing the network of the people I followed and the voices I listened to and recognised. I'm not a perfect ally, but over this time I felt like the me shifted to us.
By the time May had rolled around and Coffee With April was in full swing, I couldn't help but find myself thinking less about how much the 'skill' and 'art' of everything in coffee mattered. Who cares how good you are at what you're doing if you're not treating your workers right? Who cares about your authority or reputation if you're not using it to help prop up the people who need it? Why do we go to cafes that underpay workers? Why do we let this happen? Why can't skill and being an active member of the community be hand in hand? Getting to rest in your tower of skill seemed just more and more pointless. I heard from somewhere "brewing coffee is brewing ideas" and that summed up just about everything I'd heard and learned.
I want to compete because I want a platform. I know there are other ways to go around it, but I have the privilege and for the most part the energy to do it right now and I want to tap into that. I want to do well because I want to be in a place where I can challenge and discuss and help facilitate ideas about the industry. I don't want to be a part of an industry that is complacent.
Another reason I wanted to compete this year was because I wanted to learn as much as I could about brewing coffee. I had no idea about manual brewing, but I knew it was a style of brewing that was susceptible to underextraction. At Sample we use really long extractions for filter and espresso, trying to highlight acidity. I wanted to try and apply whatever theory I had learned to picking up a whole new style of brewing coffee. If I could do it, talk about it and share what I'd learned, maybe I could inspire someone else to do the same. I'm very proud of the amount of knowledge I had going in to compete, and I definitely feel like I have so much to learn.
To me, competing serves as a means to an end. If I can stay inspired and keep working hard and learning more about coffee, if I can use times where someone might listen to me, then maybe I'll end up helping in some way. If I can facilitate sharing some information that really helps someone down the track, then that's my job done. If I can help make some new platforms, events and talks to help share information for everyone in the industry, then I'm going to be super happy. If I can do well, I can help others do well.
Going down this path is only one way to get where I want to. Learning more is always empowering, and I want to be able to use and share that knowledge as it comes. Plus, sharing knowledge fits the mold of competing: the introspection, the late nights, the constant writing, reflecting. But it won't be the be all and end all of what I want to be doing in the industry. For now, competing fits (pretty) well.
Do you compete? Do you hate competing? Leave a comment or send in some thoughts! How good is communication! Jimmy xx