SCAA Cancels Regional Barista Competitions

Why we’re gravely disappointed in the SCAA’s decision to eliminate regional barista competitions ”and the method by which they made the announcement

BY SARAH ALLEN, EDITOR
BARISTA MAGAZINE

The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) announced today that regional barista competitions will cease to exist beginning with the 2016 competition year. Barista Magazine is extremely disappointed at this news. In a geographically enormous country of 300,000,000+ people, only 35 baristas total representing at most 35 coffee companies will be able to compete in the United States Barista Championship (USBC) every year, per the SCAA’s new USBC format. Does that seem like an adequate representation for the breadth and depth of specialty coffee in the U.S.? This move hampers not only the growth of the barista profession, but also the number of new people brought into the exciting world of competition. Where does one go for her or his first competition? How do new people judge barista competitions for the first time?

Based on conversations I’ve had with members of the SCAA board and the Barista Guild of America Executive Council (BGAEC), it appears the decision to eliminate regionals was made by the SCAA staff ”not by the board, not by the BGAEC, and certainly not by SCAA members.

I served on the SCAA’s original United States Barista Championship committee when it was founded in 2003. On that committee with me were Tracy Allen (current SCAA president, and owner of Brewed Behavior), Jeff Babcock (owner of Zoka Coffee), Jeff Taylor (owner of PT’s Coffee), and other prominent members of the U.S. coffee community. Our objective was to grow the number of regionals ”then only the Western Regional existed ”to 10, and we got close to that goal at 7 just a few years later. The point of developing 10 regionals was to offer baristas in all areas of the country entry points into the specialty-coffee community.

It soon became clear that producing 10 competitions was more than the SCAA as well as sponsors could support. I agreed with the decision to shrink it down, and was pleased when we reached what I felt was a pretty ideal situation: the three œBig  regional events that were in place until now: the Big Western, the Big Eastern, and the Big Central, each of which hosted two regional barista championships, and qualified the six finalists in each competition for the USBC. I thought, œWhat a professional format.  Competitors told me how proud they were to have qualified at a regional, and how whether or not they won or even made it to the finals of the USBC, they felt incredible accomplishment at qualifying for the national championship for a country that has distinguished itself on the world level year after year.

Per today’s announcement, regional competitions will cease to exist. To compete at the USBC, competitors must either hold a BGA level 1 or 2 certification, or have been a competitor in regional or USBC competitions in 2014 or 2015. The press release states, œFor many competitors, this new system will also reduce the costs of competing by eliminating the expense associated with the requirement to compete at a regional event; by removing the regional requirement, most competitors can expect to see a less expensive path to the USBC.  But how is that possible, since now baristas who have no prior competition experience are required to spend hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars traveling to Barista Camp, and registering for and completing BGA certification classes?

Sprudge and the SCAA developed this pretty spare list of œtalking points  (posted at the  end of this editorial) to be used in response with the official release the SCAA planned on having Sprudge exclusively present, and present as a positive thing for the industry. Editor’s note: Sprudge editors contacted us with the following statement: “We did not develop a list of talking points with the SCAA. Barista Magazine’s publication of those talking points in an internal memo to senior board members was the first time editors at Sprudge saw them. Both we and our contacts at the SCAA can attest to this. This statement is false.  We never agreed to “present as a positive thing for the industry”, in writing or verbally, nor does the feature we published in any way make that claim. This statement is false.”

But we have a lot more questions:

  • How will people now qualify to become judges and how will the number of qualified judges grow for the future? We’re guessing there will not be a lot of first-time judges at the USBC, because the national championship usually uses the most experienced judges. So how are new judges supposed to get familiar with the competition and build experience?
  • Are we to assume there will be no more regional brewers cup events? Doesn’t this deserve to be addressed, especially as our U.S. Brewers Cup champion just took a very respectable fourth place on the World Brewers Cup stage in Sweden?
  • When was the SCAA planning to tell Barista, Roast, Fresh Cup, Coffee Talk, and other news organizations about this development? Will we have an opportunity to caucus with the SCAA about the decision, as Sprudge did?

To reiterate, we at Barista Magazine are gravely disappointed to hear of the SCAA’s decision to eliminate regional barista competitions. These sanctioned events of coffee professionals, friends, family, and the general public to a spectacle of coffee craftsmanship that was eons more approachable than a convention center setting, were where much of the heart and soul of our supportive, friendly, inclusive, and warm barista community lay. Further, regional titles have been visible testimonials of a barista’s accomplishments. We cannot express how saddened for the current and future coffee community we are that these forums will cease to exist.

We are also troubled by the method in which the SCAA chose to exclusively announce this information: through the mouthpiece of a website ”Sprudge ”that they vetted in advance to agree with them. Editor’s note: Sprudge editors contacted us with the following statement: “No such vetting or confirmation took place ”we did have preliminary discussions with the SCAA, but no formal commitment to “agree” with the decision was made, in writing or verbally, and our published feature in no way “agrees” with the decision. This statement is false.”

In the 10 years we’ve been publishing Barista Magazine, we have sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed with decisions made by the SCAA. We have, however, largely applauded the support it offered to those in our readership: professional baristas and café owners. With today’s announcement, and the way in which it was made, that has all changed.

The SCAA put out a press release today with this announcement, and yet they worked in tandem with Sprudge to let the website make the announcement first. In a memo yesterday to the SCAA board, SCAA staff member Tara Smith writes:

Sprudge will be making the announcement tomorrow on their home page, and Peter  [Giuliano] and I had a very positive call with Jordan [Michaelman, of Sprudge] today; Sprudge will be our ally and supports the direction 100% and is prepared to develop a positive perspective on this change. The SCAA Communications team is ready to manage the conversations that occur on our social media pages, as well as emails and phone calls, but we also wanted to share some talking points with you that may help you respond to any inquiries you receive.   The press release is also attached; this was developed specifically for Sprudge and will not be immediately released.

If you have any questions or concerns please let me know.  We expect the article to hit the home page early to mid afternoon tomorrow PST; I’d like to ask you to please keep this under wraps until then to retain the value of the exclusive for Sprudge and to ensure we can manage the conversations effectively on our end.

Last we checked, Barista Magazine was an official œmedia partner  to the SCAA ”same as Sprudge, same as Roast Magazine, same as Fresh Cup Magazine, etc. Why was Sprudge given an exclusive on releasing this news? Isn’t the SCAA a nonprofit organization that exists to serve members first? Barista, Fresh Cup, and Roast are certainly members. So are many of the baristas who compete in the USBC. So, then, the only reason Sprudge was given this “exclusive,” as far as we can see, was because Sprudge promised to agree with the decision and promote it as positive.

Was Sprudge paid to align itself with the SCAA? We don’t know. But if Sprudge worked with the SCAA to develop œtalking points  to defend the decision to eliminate regionals, we’re not sure what to believe. Editor’s note: Sprudge editors say they were not paid to support the SCAA’s position. We can assume, however, that Barista Magazine and the other established coffee publications were kept in the dark because the SCAA supposed we would not agree with the decision to eliminate regional barista competitions. That was unethical, to say the least.

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OFFICIAL PRESS RELEASE DEVELOPED FOR SPRUDGE (obtained by Barista Magazine)

SCAA Announces Changes to United States Barista Championship Program

Santa Ana, Calif. (June XX, 2015) — The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), the organization who produces the United States Coffee Championships, has announced changes to the prequalification system for the United States Barista Championship (USBC). Competitors will be able to register to compete at the USBC, beginning in the 2016 cycle, as follows:

  • Baristas who either hold a level 1 or 2 SCAA certificate or those who have previously competed in the USBC or a regional barista competition during the 2014 or 2015 cycles will be eligible to register on January 4th There will be 35 spots available, on a first come, first serve basis. Companies may enter up to 3 competitors.
  • Registration will open up to anyone interested in competing on January 18th, 2016. There will be 12 spots available on a first come, first serve basis.
  • The final 3 spots will be reserved for scholarship recipients; the SCAA will be releasing more information about the USBC scholarship program in late 2015.

In the last 5 years, barista-focused regional activity has increased dramatically. Barista Camp, an education focused event, was introduced in 2010 and has expanded by 400%. BGA Member Driven Events, community networking events, were launched in 2013 and just in the last year, we had over 150 MDE’s around the country. Currently, the SCAA is working closely with the Barista Guild of America Executive Council to identify new community event models that would further grow opportunities for members to learn, network and engage.     œWhile it is not easy to see the competitions change, the Barista Guild Executive Council acknowledges the need to ensure we are fulfilling the Barista Guild Mission and Vision with each event.  Stated BGA Chair Lorenzo Perkins. œIn light of these changes, we have been working closely with the SCAA to be responsive to the needs of Barista Guild members to ensure that we enhance the value of all events for members. By transitioning away from the current regional barista competition structure, competitions will become more sustainable for the long-term, and valuable resources will be freed up to create new and exciting opportunities to engage our BGA membership. The Barista Guild looks forward to a strong field of competitors at the US Coffee Championships next year in Atlanta and supporting our membership through expanded Barista Camp opportunities, Member-Driven Events, and new opportunities to bring together and strengthen the barista community.  The cessation of regional competitions in no way represents an end to regionally focused barista events “ rather a refocus on how best to allocate association funds to best serve the barista community.

œThe BGA has been so active in creating more inclusive events such as BGA Camps and I have loved seeing how many people they have been able to reach and the enthusiasm that has come from those events  said Heather Perry, SCAA 2nd Vice President and 2x USBC Champion. œI can’t wait to see what the BGA envisions for these additional resources and the opportunity to reach an even larger community of baristas. 

For many competitors, this new system will also reduce the costs of competing by eliminating the expense associated with the requirement to compete at a regional event; by removing the regional requirement, most competitors can expect to see a less expensive path to the USBC.

It was important to ensure that there was still a system for competitors to attend an informational,  competition-like  event to practice their routines and learn about the competition system.  To address this need, the SCAA is working with the BGA to develop a prep fest model that will be member-driven and will follow a event structure similar to regional competitions.    More information on prep fests will be available later in 2015.

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œTALKING POINTS  DEVELOPED BY SCAA/SPRUDGE (obtained by  Barista Magazine)
Editor’s note: Sprudge editors contacted us with the following statement: “We did not develop these talking points with the SCAA. This is a false statement.”

STAFF & BGAEC Talking Points “ RBC Announcement

  • Was this decided because the regionals didn’t make any/enough profit?
    • The SCAA is a non-profit organization so by definition we don’t make profit-driven decisions. However, it is critical that our programs and events be self sustaining, otherwise we are forced to allocate funds from other programs and events to ensure their survival. This was unfortunately the case with the regional barista competitions and despite several attempts to correct this issue, the event model continued to fail to produce enough revenue to cover the costs associated with producing them.
    • It’s worth mentioning that this change will likely have positive financial outcome for competitors too. Unless the RBC was happening in your city, there were travel costs associated with the requirement to compete regionally that will no longer exist for most competitors.
  • I’m a competitor ¦how am I supposed to practice my routine in a real competition environment now?
    • The SCAA is developing an event template for prepfests that would allow members to host and hold their own events that allowed for community engagement and offered a informational, competition-like environment. More information about prepfests will be released later in the year.
  • Why did the BGA make this decision?
    • The BGA doesn’t produce the USCC program or make decisions about program elements but they have always worked closely with the SCAA to represent the interests of the BGA membership. We know that the changes happening will feel like a loss to some, but we want to assure members that producing and supporting regionally focused events, such as Camp and BGA MDE’s, as well as providing vision and leadership to develop new event models that serve our membership continues to be a priority for the Executive Council.
  • So basically there are no more regional events for baristas.
    • Actually, there are currently more regional barista events than ever! The SCAA will continue to produce the 4 regional Barista Camps, as well as support Member Driven Events around the country (there were over 150 in 2015 so far). The BGA is also working on the envisioning of a completely new event model, designed for Baristas in the intermediate to advanced stage in their professional careers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Sarah 919 Articles
Sarah Allen (she/her) is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.

17 Comments

  1. Hi Corey,

    Yes, that was a real email that the SCAA sent to the Board of Directors. The SCAA has apologized for the way the decision to cancel regionals was announced.

    Thanks for reading!

    Sarah

  2. Sarah,

    A week later and it is still unclear to me if indeed Tara’s note is true or untrue. Any help ?

  3. I am deeply concerned with the announcement of canceling all regional SCAA barista competitions.

    Approximately 140 baristas signed up and competed last year for all regional events along with brewers cup participation, which was around 97 participants. In total, 237 cafes/roasters, 237 producers, and 237 baristas/brewers were represented, including 3 major regional venues for friends and families to gather, watch, and learn, and also stream for the world to see.

    That is a great deal of exposure.

    Now the world will witness a total of 50 baristas (+brewers cup participants, if any, tbd) exposing 50 (+brewers) producers, from 50(+brewers) cafe/roasters during one event.

    My biggest concern:

    It will likely limit the amount of exposure for coffee producers, since not all coffees will be at their prime during that one event that one week of the year.

    The market access these competitions have provided to producers over the last decade or more has been life changing for so many. I can’t fathom how the SCAA thinks these competitions haven’t been worth the costs, or haven’t been successful in driving the mission statement “to recognize, develop, and promote specialty coffee”, playing a critical role in the development of specialty coffee industry, at every level.

    Perhaps it is worth it to lose revenue in one area which may in turn help gain revenue in another?

    The regional events themselves may not be directly profitable when looking at a P/L statement, but the results of these competitions feed a great deal of membership revenue and have created international exposure to countless specialty coffee producers, even driving producers to experiment with specialty, improve quality, etc.

    I imagine barista camps and e-learning tools help recognize and develop specialty coffee, but what sort of consumer engagement will these camps entail? How will these revenue generating learning seminars engage the broader community,including producers, let alone the average barista making near minimum wage who will struggle to justify the costs involved? At least regional competitions have gained exposure making it into the mainstream, getting Starbucks on board!

    I believe these regional competitions are the best thing the SCAA has going for it. Too bad the SCAA is only looking at the direct costs, rather than the net worth, including an astounding community of progressive minded professionals these competitions have generated over the years.

  4. i literally grew up in the barista competitions. They are and always will be won by the rich companies who are popular with the judges. No secret there. This was handled with a seeming level of disdain and disrespect that litterally blows my mind. I was one of the six who formed the BGA. I know this was not their decision. But this is a big teeming pile of horse crap in the way this was handled. People should be fired from our member driven organization.

  5. My 2 cents

    I pretty much concur and agree that this is upsetting for a number of reasons, the most of which to me is the fact that just because you are Level I & II certified (Like I was my 1st & 2nd time competing), that didn’t mean I was at any advantage or even near qualified position to battle in the USBC, hence DQing and getting knocked out in my SOUTHWESTERN regional 2012 & 2013 competitions respectively, while all the well trained, incredibly prepared baristas made it to the finals. It is a shock to me that you can just buy your way into a spot in the USBC now without any preliminary, qualifying, quarter or semi final rounds involved. and speaking of “buying”, I easily spent just as much money, if not twice as much, on getting certified, and once your certified, that’s it – nothing new comes from it, versus each year is a completely new and innovated upon competition season.

    Plus now what does that mean for me as a sensory judge? Just one event? 50 competitors? How many did there use to be back when there were a half dozen regions, 150?

    Needless to say I had a WTF moment right when I heard the news. all I can think about is the spots filling up in a matter of minutes.

  6. It’s not often that I find myself agreeing with Mr. Caragay, but I certainly do agree with pretty much everything he wrote above, and have even voiced some of the same opinions (esp. regarding judges) in the past.

  7. Like many of my contemporaries, I spent my formative coffee years in and around the competitions, both regional, the USBC, the WBC and, eventually, national championships of nations other than the United States. We traveled across America to the different regionals and I met and got to know many amazing people through those. People who became mentors, friends, allies and even opponents. Those were heady times that led to many wonderful experiences, including being a founding member of the Barista Guild, working with the SCAA, teaching classes and just learning the craft and trade of barista.

    However, throughout those times, the competitions themselves never proved to be a profitable venture. They didn’t seem profitable to the host sponsor nor did they seem to recoup the investment of either that sponsor(s) or the SCAA. For many years, the organization of the individual regionals were left up to the host sponsor. Then the SCAA took it over and really realized what a money pit the competitions had always been.

    While this is a sad footnote in the history of the competitions, it was bound to happen. And I’m not stating this as some passive bystander. I’ve been intimately involved with the competitions throughout my coffee career as volunteer, station manager, machine calibrator, competitor and judge. To parlay our coffee vocabulary, the regionals just are not sustainable.

    From reading these reports, it seems that the SCAA is focusing on revenue-generating events that are profitable to the organization. Events like the four Barista Camps, which I understand charge a princely sum for the lowest paid members of our first-world industry, and the soon to be announced mini-events, which will almost assuredly come with a price tag.

    People bemoan the fact that it will cost money to be competitive in the USBC, but the truth is: it always has been expensive. Looking back over the years of the USBC and its regionals, we see many of the darling companies who spend untold thousands (perhaps even crossing the six figure mark) campaigning their competitors across the regionals and the USBC to the WBC. Winning the gold portafilter (now the big tamper) was never for the average financed barista competitor. We bemoaned that fact during my days competing and we bemoan that fact today.

    Unlike the SCAA during the foundation years of the BGA, the SCAA today sees great revenue potential in baristas and the BGA. Many events can be developed to capture those barista dollars and requiring competing baristas to be “certified” is another avenue to guarantee revenue generation for the SCAA. While I admittedly do not know the specifics, I’ve heard estimates of $2000 for Level 2 Certification and recently saw an SCAA graphic touting that certified baristas will make about $200K more than a non-certified barista over the course of their coffee career. As someone who is a Barista and hires and trains his own baristas, I look skeptically at that claim and wonder what kind of math has been done to generate such numbers.

    Sarah’s editorial asked how the USBC will generate and maintain qualified judges – again, this is another potential revenue source for the SCAA. By offering USBC Judge Certification courses, similar to that of the WBC, the pool of judges can be maintained. Of course, at some point in time, each of these judges will have to ask themselves about the profit/loss of their participation. Like the competitors, judges of the USBC fund their own path to the USBC. The SCAA offers nothing to help defray the cost of judging. The hope and opportunity here to capture and maintain quality judges is if the SCAA gets serious about staging a quality event and making serious moves to offset or absorb the costs of the participating judges – after all, Major League Baseball doesn’t expect their umpires to work for free.

    I know that some are griping that perhaps this is just Barista Magazine venting about their scoop going to another media outlet, but why shouldn’t they? Since it’s inception Barista Magazine has been an integral part of not only barista lives but of the USBC and its regionals. They’ve been the media sponsor printing untold thousands of Official Programs for the events and have devoted a cover a year to the USBC champion – to my mind, they have every right to feel slighted and I wouldn’t blame them if they walked away and washed themselves completely of the SCAA and the USBC.

  8. We appreciate your comment, Liam. We understand that Sprudge disputes the claims in the email we received, and we have posted their objections. However, we have not heard from the SCAA that what we reported is not correct. (We have calls out to them.) And there is the fact that, to our knowledge, sprudge was the only media partner to receive the press release officially, billed as an “exclusive” all of which is corroborated by the email.

    The decision to cancel the regionals affects many baristas and coffee professionals, and we believe is a step back for the profession and specialty coffee and that is our primary concern. The choice to favor one media partner over all others by the SCAA is also disturbing, however, it is minor compared to the loss of regionals and the way the decision was made.

  9. Sounds like they were paid off by whoever is running those camps.
    BTW, you should use strike through where you reported false claims about sprudge

  10. I suppose one might ask, what is the purpose of the competitions? I can think of two good and compelling reasons, there of course are more.

    1. Public awareness of coffee as a culinary art.

    2. Development of skills and techniques for purveyors of the craft.

    It seems to me that, this decision serves for the improvement of neither of these purposes.

    Perhaps a competitor may chime in with thoughts based on going though the process? Was the regional an important learning step towards the national and world comps? Did the regional attendees gather or learn something positive through the experience?

  11. Wanted to express serious Kudos to Barista Magazine and Sarah for publishing this and getting some hard hitting truth out there. I have a heck of a lot more I want to type on the SCAA and their award winning (award presented by the SCAA) mouthpiece, but I’ll just focus in on this:

    Sarah wrote, “We can assume, however, that Barista Magazine and the other established coffee publications were kept in the dark because the SCAA supposed we would not agree with the decision to eliminate regional barista competitions. That was unethical, to say the least.”

    While it’s not surprising that the SCAA recognized this was a negative development and wanted a positive spin on things, for me personally, it’s also not surprising how they decided to go about it. The SCAA has a lot of experience doing these things throughout the years. What I am genuinely surprised at is that this seems to be a staff decision and the board wasn’t really involved or knew about it.

    Of course, I am not surprised at all that their partner would be the public mouthpiece. I cannot recall the last time I’ve seen Sprudge author any kind of critical (or even balanced) “reportage” on any company they call sponsors or partners (or in this case, ally).

  12. I really don’t understand limiting competitors to level 1 and 2 baristas. Do they really not understand how hard getting that certification is when you’re making $9/hr??

  13. Thank you Sarah for sharing and bringing up great points. In 2015 140 baristas competed and developed their own skills. Hopefully the next year will bring lots of learning and be the basis for an even more effective USBC in the future.

  14. No one cares what I have to say about coffee anymore, but I support the SCAA, I support the guys at Sprudge, and I support Sarah, Ken and Barista Magazine. In this case, Barista Magazine is 100% correct, and I, too, am disappointed. I love the BGA integration, helped create both the barista camps and “Member Driven” events, and think this was handled totally wrong, and is the wrong direction. Might as well just do away with the competitions all together. And what of the Brewers Cup? I’m glad it’s not my battle any more, this is way too much drama for this homie.

  15. Sprudge is very much the Fox of coffee journalism. It’s the absolute worst “look at us look what we did” bullshit.

  16. From a journalism standpoint I’m equally disappointed in the decision to give Sprudge an exclusive even though SCAA has MANY media partners

    “Sprudge will be our ally”? What does that even mean? They were the highest bidder for an exclusive story?

    “Supports the direction 100% & is prepared to develop a positive perspective on this change.” Isn’t that known as “spinning” in journalism?

    I know Sprudge was originally a parody of DRUDGE and all, but spinning kinda sorta makes them the Fox News of coffee journalism, no?

    This whole thing, from top to bottom, is very dumb, indeed.

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