SERBC: selling its soul?

October 24, 2007 – 1:45 am

at this rate, there may not be an audience for next year’s southeast regional barista competition. you could just hold the thing in my back shed. at one point during a compelling and unpredictable final round, i counted 13 people in the seats. thirteen. i met most of them, and they very possibly won’t be back. it had nothing to do with the competitors.

i almost wrote off barista competitions the first time i saw one, in 2003. i was confused. the wife had agreed to drive an obscene length of time to witness an event i didn’t really understand. it was about coffee, obscenely good coffee, and i thought for sure i’d find like-minded junkies who had caught the espresso disease and would rock my world with some good stuff. you know, something i could gape in awe at, maybe put in my mouth. alas, the turn-offs were twofold: the competition was more like some hipster smoking club, and no one was interested in speaking to a member of the general public. and then there were these banners hanging everywhere. for … flavoring syrup. mediocre coffee vendors. hokey commercial products.

wait, i remember thinking. i thought the point was the coffee. what’s the syrup for?

in 2007, it’s the same scene on steroids, and it made clearwater, florida’s version of the SERBC nearly insufferable. in essence, someone turned over the production of a coffee-making competition — a drama that hinges on a beverage, in its purest form — to a syrup company and a manufacturer of roasters. this doesn’t just create cognitive dissonance, when, say, the sponsorship banner proclaims the virtues of a product that directly undermines the beverages being crafted. it also, apparently, gives the organizing gurus an excuse not to support the contest they’ve paid to bring to florida. which raises a sober sort of question: why would the syrup people and the roaster people and even the offbeat coffee people feel free to loiter in the halls as this year’s bash is nearing its climax?

oh, right. “return on investment.” that was the phrase, friends, uttered by some guy (i know not his name) who speechified as the finalists nervously awaited their awards. there was no talk of advancing quality coffee, or engaging the public, or honoring the best of the barista craft. it was about — say it together now — maximing profits on sugary subtances.

i got no beef with specific companies doing what’s smart — paying for exposure at an industry gathering. obviously, events need sponsors. cafes often need syrup. you can’t get around either one of them, and when it comes to underwriting a free public parley i’m all for a big money tent. indeed, given the proliferation of such contradictory sponsorships in trade publications and on the masthead of events nationwide, one might even assume you can’t do anything in specialty coffee without mining the pockets of the sugar peddlers. but what does this say about the movement? and what is the cost of this approach?

for an eager fanboy like me, in 2003, it told me the so-called “third wave” coffee craze wasn’t that serious. the competition was just a game — wink, wink — because the company paying for the gigs couldn’t possibly want the people crafting these beverages to succeed. not really. because introducing the world to lem butler’s cappuccinos would mean the end of the sugar business as they know it.

this year, the visible fallout of industry insiders throwing this sort of backyard party became profoundly painful.

* basic efforts to spread the word — to make the competition accessible — were apparently neglected. even if you drove 10 hours, across the southeast, to a peninsular location for this gig — with maps! — you’d have a hard time finding your way into ballroom A on the third floor of a small convention hall marked only with tiny fliers. it turns out one competitor had relatives in clearwater, who had a vested interest in the competition and who scoured the local papers and calendars for any word. nothing.

* the allocation of resources appeared, ah, non-logical. no purse money for the winners as in years past, no equipment or perks beyond the plexiglass trophy and a trip to the nationals for first place. instead, there was a professional video crew beaming images on a big screen to spectators. all 13 to 20 of them. that, and the rental of a major league baseball field for evening softball.

* the competitors affiliated with florida backers were, frankly, a waste of time. none advanced to the finals, and most completely flamed out, disqualifying themselves or walking off the stage in embarrassment. some brought rowdy fan contingents, then immediately disappeared after the obligatory routine. an insult to the deserving performers, basically. a sophomoric joke.

each year, it’s a bit more work finding something to get excited about. each year i go back, hoping to see something amazing, to find real drama onstage, to discover something that will catch fire and win over the masses. but it feels like this home junkie is scraping the bottom of his barrel o’ hope.

UPDATE: e-mailer “X” notes that once you culled friends and family or sponsor officials from this weekend’s crowd, the actual number of onlookers may have been more like five. we stand corrected.

UPDATE: we had no idea. nestled among the stated goals of u.s. barista competitions is this one … “to establish a greater interaction between the barista and the consumer, thereby developing a sense of community in which ideas and information about specialty coffee drinks are exchanged.”

who could have guessed?

UPDATE: alterra‘s lucey offers a scintillating spin on this year’s great lakes regional competition. it seems like a move in an appropriate direction. meanwhile, commenter “true” nails the “disconnect” and “tone deafness” that characterized his first exposure to barista competitions — without impugning any of the good guys! nicely done …

UPDATE: an anonymous coffee insider offers a promise in the comments: “rest assured that this host will not be hosting the event in the future.”

an improvement! but perhaps not necessarily a step toward fixing the basic problem … which is a competitive event that’s fashioned as an insider show instead of a public drama.

UPDATE: the head SERBC organizer person fellow responds. gulp. we’re starting to feel like beelzebub incarnate. still, we’ve invited him to respond here. we’ll see if he accepts …

UPDATE: the ire boils over here.