Intelligentsia Chicago's Mike Phillips repeated at US Barista Champion, winning Sunday's finals with a score of 701. He won out over five other top baristas, two from Intelligentsia LA, two from Verve in Santa Cruz, CA and one from Kaldi's in St. Louis.
First off, congrats to Mike as while there are many great baristas out there, it would be hard to argue against Mike's skills, understanding of coffee and dedication to the craft, all of which were on display this weekend.
With each passing year, it becomes more apparent to us that we're not in a position to ever be amongst the six finalists. That might have been possible three or four years ago had we made it a priority (albeit still a long-shot), but it's all but inconceivable today. Belle's 2008 USBC semi-finals appearance (20th place) might be the best we ever achieve.
There are plenty of reasons for that. First off, the competition is tougher. Much more is needed in coffee knowledge, creativity and presentation skills than was necessary just a couple of years ago. The pattern seems to be that the top finishers in recent years all come from roasters. Thus they can shape their coffees with minor roasting adjustments until they're satisfied with the results. They make trips to origin (points for dedication) and have a good understanding of which green beans on the cupping table will make a great espresso. And they usually have co-workers competing, sharing ideas and providing motivation to do better. Some, not all, have considerable financial backing.
At this point, we don't really have any of that. Rich has started roasting, but as it's a partnership with another firm, Aldo Coffee isn't the focus and he's got to pay wholesale (not cost) for everything used. He can't spend endless time fine-tuning a competition espresso without that being a goal of the partnership. Rich might also go to origin (hoping for Monserrate in June), but he wouldn't be there as a barista, he'd be there as a roaster/buyer. And we can't afford to send baristas with him (nor would they be invited by the importer).
Most important is that someone here actually has to want to win. That requires hours upon hours of learning everything one can about their coffee and how it responds day-by-day to different preparations. It requires hours and hours of rehearsals to develop a 15-minute routine that conveys passion for the coffee along with mad barista skills - with room for contingencies in case something goes wrong.
Nobody here really wants to give up that much of their life over to winning a barista competition. If they did, we'd try to figure out a way. But even so, there's no longer the kind of support team there was back when Belle and Johnny were arguing over whether to pull Black Cat as fruity shots or chocolate shots.
This year Rich and Sonja spent about two weeks after hours to train for Sonja's performance - he was the only one to help and that was all the available time he had. There was no other help, save for Sonja's family. Everyone else had other things to do. Still, Sonja did really well, save for a bad decision at the end of her performance. But even if she made the finals in the regionals, it would've been closer to 500 points than 700 - that's how big the margin is between a really good performance and a national championship performance.
We can't really blame anyone for not wanting it that bad. It's a lot of work and unless you're planning on making your career in coffee, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.
As owners, our career IS in coffee, so we're still hopeful. This is one case where we disagree with the Vince Lombardi canard, "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
Yeah, it would be great to win one. The marketing value is off the charts. We'd get a new grinder and some other stuff for "free". Whomever wins would be the face of not just Aldo Coffee, but of all baristas everywhere.
But winning isn't everything. Barista competitions are one of those times when "you win just by showing up" (as long as you're showing up prepared).
We are now the single remaining shop to have competed at every Mid-Atlantic Barista Competition to date. We were almost going to sit 2010 out because we felt there was a lot of poor behavior on display in Cranberry at the 2009 competition. But Sonja missed last year's competition due to illness and wanted one more shot at it. So we went to New Jersey. And we were glad we did. Our faith was renewed. The competitors were wonderful, there was little if any signs of entitlement. The bigger egos didn't show up. It was back to being more of a supportive family atmosphere.
We didn't win anything. We'd be lying if we said we didn't want to win because it feels great when you do. But what will stay with us most were moments shared backstage, not on stage. A 50-something Rich sitting on the floor drinking a beer with 20-something Jordan Barber and finding common ground. Jake Liefer lending Sonja his clean apron - knowing full well that he might need it the next day for the finals. It was pretty much everyone being uber-supportive of Jeremy and Bethany Sterner, even though there was little doubt J was the favorite to win going in. Hugs before a competitor went out and hugs when they returned. It was more or less everyone helping everyone else as needed. The way things should be in coffee's bigger picture.
Some of our best friends in the industry are people we've competed against.
We've been to enough USBCs to know that for the most part what was true this year in New Jersey is also at the national level, even with bigger egos and much more at stake. It's rare that any competitor considers another competitor to be beneath them and not worthy of help or encouragement. Everyone there recognizes that it's hard to get to the nationals. There are only 60 spots and those spots have to be earned.
So while it's doubtful you'll ever see any of us among the six finalists at the USBC, there's still a desire to make it to the finals of the MidAtlantic regionals. Because those six finalists get an automatic spot at the USBC. And whomever makes it that far does win just for showing up.