SERBC: buying the presidency

September 25, 2006 – 10:27 pm

someone wondered aloud a mere five months ago if the prospect of sleeper barista champions was dwindling with the times. of course it is. you know the drill: to be a champeen barista person, it takes dedication! passion! a calloused distribution finger! and money, it turns out, is the proxy for all of those. the question is, how much are you willing to spend?

for all we know, lem butler may have dramatically bumped up his scores from last year’s southeast-leading routine — and from the spectator seats, he did. he was tight, very crisp, the model of a working, engaging barista. last year, his win was a bit of a surprise for the watchers. this year, he looked like he had seriously learned a thing or two from the nationals. plus, there were the full-on granny specs along with the massive twist of dreadlocks.

but pit a mainstream everyday barista, no matter how dedicated, against two longtime industry insiders — the kind of people who work for trendsetters and who have enough time to pad a two-hour podcast — and you assume the infinite connections, beefier research capabilities and daylight hours away from a bar would produce a winner. this year it produced the top two winners. it all takes money.

i got no quibble with nick’s placement. all the kudos are richly deserved for a coffee presentation that was scintillating, highly accessible to the most pedestrian of spectators, simple and mouth-watering. as a polished representative of a demanding craft, it was sweet honking action to watch a melon-honey coffee fusion unfold around an oddly desireable espresso and cappuccino course — each made with different coffees. could lem have done what nick did, and done it as well? sure, theoretically. but would the working-wage baristi, on average, have what it takes to invest in a training process to rival the gurus? ‘course not.

steroids won’t make you a baseball player. but it’s enough to make some baseball players 73-home-run-hitters.

whether this is good or bad for barista competitions, i don’t know. and i’m not taking a position. the irony, though, is that as the establishment attempts to raise the living standard of the barista — through competitions, among other things — the working class baristi have less of a chance at seriously competing. the performances look better and better, true, but their relevance to monday morning’s bar shift seems more and more tenuous. at the nationals in may, we had a bunch of top placers whose jobs have long moved past pure bar work. several were regular baristi, albeit serial competitors with business backing, yet the uphill battle for them stay in the game each year is all too obvious. (UPDATE: don’t believe me? read the comments.) do we want competitions that could eventually require nascar-ian sponsorships to seriously enter? how do you push for the highest performances without inadvertently making it an elitist dog and pony show?

it sort of boils down to this: why did nick place so much higher than all his own employees (two this year, two last)? one would assume the espresso-making standards shouldn’t be that different.

it would seem that there’s a trade-off. because, you know, the southeast made a miserable showing at this year’s nationals. no one higher than 21st in any round. sorta makes you wonder if nick and daryn didn’t compete in part out of embarrassment, to ensure a better showing for the region next year. would that be the right way to do it? is a region bound to be weak in which only the shifters compete?

if i were lem, i’d be ridin’ high — best working barista in the southeast. lena too, who finished second in the regionals last year and may well have improved as well. she looked it. but we won’t know, because scores and places beyond third were not announced. billy says his bar-working status was his consolation prize in april. on the way home this weekend, the blogwife asked if the competition was rigged for the frequent emcee, industry insider, friend of all judges and oft-followed east coast espresso guru. my response was swift: i got no problems believing nick is that good. but if the man in the suit changes into an apron and walks away with the competition, where’s the motivation for someone at, say, a certain quality-focused, tight-budget start-up in charleston, s.c., to enter? on the other hand, i got a feeling nick is capable of laying down some serious smack at the nationals — particularly given the room for improvement on the espresso round — and i’m looking forward to it. but then, some people just want to know where to go for an actual taste, in an actual shop, from the hand of the competition-seasoned pro.

in the southeast, you’d probably have to settle for third place.

typically, the serbc draws nary a competitor from my state. this year, there were two, from a cafe i had never heard of in the capital. neither placed in the final round. for the future, i don’t hold much hope that it will change.

p.s. thus ends the stubborn dour note! i got outsidery commentary on the routines, but i’m changing up the order, like a sig-spro-capp routine.

UPDATE: just when you thought i might have been a bit, er, overwrought, you see this comment. paid d.j.s? workout regimens? training arenas? and this spreads espresso gospel to the masses how?

UPDATE: yeah, there are 60 comments and counting on this post. yeah, it’s a lot of tangential. but if you only read one, make it this one by michael m, whom i do not know. the current third-wave club would not appear to be helping this man, and people like him. and it seems to me that barista competitions, or permutations of them, could do that very thing.