Saturday, 2 February 2013

Pre-UKBC2013 thoughts

This is a post I shouldn't write. My wife will kill me, considering how much time, effort and money we have invested on the UKBC path.

I was a UKBC2012 competitor and I'm a 2013 one too. Last year I worked extremely hard to take on board what the competition is about. Every new competitor does, so I'm nothing special. I just put every bit of my heart and soul into it, and really wanted the whole thing to be a positive experience.  I took part. I volunteered. Afterwards I blogged about my experience, in a bid to analyse my learnings, and also help others. I spoke to some senior people amongst the WBC organisers, and wrote some stuff that was put online for others to read... helpful stuff I thought. I've become an SCAE member. I've been an active supporter.

Right now, as I'm about to take part for the second year, I'm very disallusioned with the whole thing. It feels like all the above was an exercise in optimism that failed to realise it's goal. I'm very disappointed. Truth be told, I've lied about my enjoyment of it all. I want to elaborate upon the many emails to SCAE staff that went unanswered. The misprepresentation of membership benefits that don't actually exist. The way competitors seem to be the least important variables in the whole equation. I mean, to take part in the heats I'm closing my business for a whole weekend, foregoing 4 figures of revenue, disappointing customers, and leaving staff short of shifts & wages, and in return I'm supposed to get excited about a shot glass that should be arriving in the post any day now. Seriously guys... thanks for that. I could go on.

Tsk. This feedback should go through proper channels, but all feedback so far has been met with defensive barricades. Closed ears. More broken promises. One man can't make a difference against this particular agenda.

I will take part this year despite everything (if I am allowed after this) because I am a stubborn bastard who believes in fighting for right and wrong, and speaking out to improve things.


  1. Mike, I personally am disappointed to read your blog. I recall, and in fact, kept a hard copy on my file, your comments last year which I thought really encapsulated the essence and value of participation in the UKBC.

    On behalf of the SCAE UK Chapter, I am sorry that you feel your communications have not been acknowledged or acted upon. I am not sure where they were sent but I wasn’t aware of any such communications.

    I see no reason why anyone would discourage your entry for a little bit of hearty criticism. What I would say though is that the SCAE/UKBC committee has taken seriously the input and feedback from competitors and meetings during the past year. We have, we hope, made on the back of this, some significant improvements and changes. However, there are only 5 people on the committee and we all have full-on businesses and jobs, so what we can do in our spare time is I am afraid limited by this and financial resource. This can also apply to correspondence, particularly at busy times. On that note, I am always positive to encourage anyone who feels strong enough to come forward and get involved.

    Of course I am not the committee, only one member, but I will make sure they have seen your comments.

    The first heat kicks off this week, so we will be on the road and flat out as from this afternoon, so I look forward to seeing you at the competition.

    1. Thanks very much for your response, Andrew. I know how valuable your time will be right now, which makes your reply so much more appreciated.

      As you will probably know, I've pulled out of the competition now. The primary reason was my lack of time over the past few months to put a set together that I felt was strong enough to justify closing my business for a Friday and Saturday. (Starting a new business means making tough choices timewise.) So that's 'my fault', and not due to anything the competition/industry bodies may have done or failed to do.

      But here's the thing. Last year I expressed frustration at it being unclear what the judges are looking for (see my extensive blog posts for more details). A year later things haven't changed. This is a worst-case scenario for me... exactly what I've been labouring to avoid. I was told the following by members of the WBC Committee:

      "One of the forthcoming changes is that anyone who wishes to can sit the National Body level judge training. Active barista competitors may not judge in competitions, but can sit the training. Other interested parties who want to learn about WBC (coaches, volunteers, newbies) can participate in the training and learn something without committing to judge (though we hope they do if they want to)."

      What has actually been introduced in the UK is a watered-down version of this. The info I received from the UKBC directorship said:

      "Competition TRAINING for judges and baristas alike will be going live in the coming for website updates et al.
      Judge CERTIFICATION courses are, as they have always for those who intend to judge and are NOT for baristas who will be competing within that same year"

      This is NOT what the WBC Committee said would be implemented. So actually, competitors are still not privy to how the judges make their decisions.

      So as we both know, what happens in reality is that competitors are COACHED by non-competitors who have attended the judges training and been certified as judges. This gives those competitors a vast advantage over entrants like me, who do not have a judge in tow, are striving and failing to understand what judges look for when they score.

      This problem existed last year and I made a noise about it. It still exists this year, in an even worse form since now even more coaching is going on. Looking to the future, what is the point (for me or for a new competitor) in considering entering next year unless we find a calibrated judge to coach us? This is a very real issue.

      I have a lot of respect for those who organise and participate in running the UKBC, the SCAEUK and the SCAE. This is not about criticising individuals, or whether you work hard. It is about sticking my neck out to provide feedback, because I do actually want things to improve... although I don't think I'm going to be very involved with these organisations any more.

  2. I understand your frustration here, Mike. A couple of years back I was helping one of ours to train. She had roasted what I considered to be one of the best espresso coffees of all time: a blend of one from Gethumbwini roasted two ways. It was exactly the sort of thing that I look for in a short black: slightly acidic, very sweet and just a kick of bitter with honey and strawberries dripping all over it. She took this amazing brew and over-extracted it for the competition after receiving the tip from friends who were coached by judges. She won the Scottish heats with a faded brew of what she could have poured because she was pulling competition shots, on a tip, for judges who were looking specifically for certain characteristics not privy to the likes of you, mate. That said, she's now a judge.
    Competitions are necessarily bastards of reality: a music exam will never approximate a concert and the UKBC will never be able to test how good a barista is working as a member of the true coffee elite: the squad moving fast and working together to slam out the brews during the crush while joking with the customers. The comps are not something I'm going to encourage in my businesses. Outside of a small bunch of (admittedly great) people the competition means nothing.
    I think the UKBC and WBC bunch have done a half decent job all things considered. However, if the competition wants to stay relevant it needs to focus on the competitors and what they're going to get out of it. What is in it for the baristas in the comp when they're not even honing skills that they can transfer to their work environment? When was the last time you made a flambé signature drink in your cafe?
    Why, out of interest, did you enter?

    1. Thanks for reading my post and replying. My main reason for getting involved in UKBC in the first place was to help me learn. Having a series of competition-related goals, and a timelime within which to achieve those, gave me a framework for self-education (I have never had a regular hands-on trainer/mentor as a barista, having transitioned from being a home barista to a cafe owner). Despite my frustrations with the UK competition, I do still believe it offers that benefit to anyone who is keen to learn more. For example, today I was training a new member of staff and I automatically defaulted to training him to adopt techniques which would score highly from technical judges. I think this is a good thing (as long as it also helps make the espresso taste better!).
      Your comment about relevance is something I very much agree with. My competition set this year was going to be about senses... how the five senses are inter-related. Synaesthesia. My plan was to influence the judges' experience of the espresso by proactively manipulate a sense other than taste, smell or touch. That left sight and sound, and I chose the former. Within my cafe I experimented with this idea with some customers (hence the relevance connection). I had them wear spectacles of different colours, and then drink their beverages. The results were positive, with the same espresso having different characteristics depending upon the spectacles worn. It was competition-based learning that I could apply to my day job to create interest amongst customers, and we still use the spectacles as a fun coffee-related talking point, despite my competition script having been moth-balled. (I see John Gordon did something with headphones in his set this year... I'd love to have seen that.)
      But all of this takes a lot of work, and for it to be worthwhile I have to assess that it is all at least somewhere near what the judges are hoping for or expecting when they score a performance. Sadly, the UK current setup does not help competitors make that assessment adequately. This frustrates me primarily because it reduces the competition's benefit as a learning tool. I can no longer use it as a motivator to help me learn. Not a big problem for me, because I find it easy to identify new motivators... but it is still a shame. I do think it would be good to know each competitor's reasons for competing.
      Anyway, since I have your ear I'd like to say thanks for what you and your team have done for Scotland's coffee capabilities. I attended the Glasgow shop's first V60 Club and frequently found inspiration from the passion for coffee shown by people such as Meg. If you're ever in Highland Perthshire I hope you'll pop in and see us at Habitat Cafe :)