Why Attending Coffee Competitions Is Worth It

Judges gathered around a table at a coffee competition. A man holds up a clipboard.

Going outside your comfort zone, whether to compete, observe, or volunteer, is a great way to build community and expand your coffee knowledge.

BY TANYA NANETTI
SENIOR ONLINE CORRESPONDENT

Photos by @CoffeeAndLucas/ myMediaStudio except where noted

The rise of the specialty-coffee scene has brought with it the growth of coffee competitions. From fun events like latte art throwdowns to specific brand competitions (such as those for AeroPress and Comandante) to highly professional championships like those organized by the Specialty Coffee Association or the famous Coffee Masters, there’s always some cool event a coffee lover can attend. 

But what are some good reasons for participating in a coffee competition? And is there a wrong reason? 

Gian Zaniol, the 2017 Italian Brewers Cup Champion, has been based in Berlin since 2011. He is a barista, coffee enthusiastic, trainer, and (obviously) a bit of a coffee nerd. Gian shares his story and the reasons why he chose to attend a coffee competition.  

“Here in Berlin I discovered how cool coffee can be, and how much this field has to offer. A dear friend of mine (then also my boss), Nora Šmahelová, pushed me to compete, and I can’t thank her enough. Honestly, I didn’t really like competing and exposing myself, but at that time I thought it might be a good opportunity to learn more about coffee [and] myself and to meet new people.” 

Gian Zaniol presenting a V60 pour over coffee at a coffee competition
Gian presents a V60 pourover at a competition.

Learn More and Hone Your Skills 

”The decision to compete was one of the best [decisions] I made, not only because I won, but mostly for the journey to the competition. The very first time, I trained for four months every day, taking my shift at the café in the morning and training for the rest of the day in the basement of Chapter One. That period was simply magical for me: with Nora, who was also my coach, we did many experiments trying many different coffees, water [types], and recipes. I learned more in those four months than all the years before combined.”

Open Doors for Opportunites

”After winning my very first competition,” Gian continues, ”I had many more opportunities related to my job. I came into contact with new companies (some of which I still collaborate with), I expanded both my skills and my private business, I started my path to become a better barista, and met so many cool people that I can still call friends today.” 

Learning new skills, making friends, and opening doors for future opportunities are all benefits of attending coffee competitions, according to Gian.

A competition barista raises up his arm in the air, other hand on his chest, as time is called on his presentation.
Competitions help you hone your coffee skills so you can bring your best to the table.

Keep It In Perspective

So are those potential accolades the main reason someone should want to compete?

“First of all,” says Gian, “it is important to say that winning a competition is a starting point and not the final goal. Competing must be something you do for yourself to become a better barista, to learn more about the coffee and the job we choose, to expand your network and improve your skills. Visibility is temporary; skills and knowledge are forever. I think one of the worst reasons to compete is to appease your ego or to prove your worth to someone else.” 

Roukiat Delrue is a certified judge and WCE rep in world events and a former competition volunteer, originally from Belgium and currently living in Guatemala. Roukiat agrees with Gian on the first reason to attend a coffee competition: to learn more. 

“I strongly encourage attending a competition first and foremost, regardless of the role you have chosen—competitor, judge, volunteer—to learn. To learn how to do better, to learn industry trends, to be exposed to different coffees and processing methods, to learn about both the local and global industry.” 

Build Friendships and Make Connections 

By attending competitions, you can become part of the local coffee community, and meet new friends while sharing the experience. 

Roukiat continues, “(This) supports a strong sense of community and commitment in the industry and of being ‘through something’ together, again regardless of the role in question. Lastly, (there is) the sense of community that comes almost naturally with it, and the friendship factor.” 

A long-haired barista in a handmade apron prepares his coffee cart for presentation. One the plastic cart are scales, coffee cups, spoons and other barista tools for a successful coffee presentation.
David Ellis of Crema Coffee prepares a for the USCC Prelims at Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters in Denver last month. David placed second in the Barista category. Photo by J. Carlan.

So is there a wrong reason to compete in a coffee event? Roukiat’s belief is similar to Gian’s: “It is a competition, so of course no one openly goes into one without wanting to win—however, as a competitor, your purpose should be greater than that.”  

Support the Coffee Community 

Roukiat adds a different angle, reminding us that even when attending a competition—not as a contender but as a judge or volunteer—it is important to do so for the right reason.  

“If you decide to participate as a volunteer, or if you become a certified judge,” Roukiat concludes, “Don’t think only of yourself and your role, but—as we hope everyone does—remember that you are there to support the organization and the competitors.”  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tanya Nanetti (she/her) is a specialty-coffee barista, a traveler, and a dreamer. When she’s not behind the coffee machine (or visiting some hidden corner of the world), she’s busy writing for Coffee Insurrection, a website about specialty coffee that she’s creating along with her boyfriend.

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