Of the 18 World Barista Champions since the competition launched in 2000, only two —Alejandro Mendez of El Salvador (2011) and Raúl Rodas of Guatemala (2012) — hailed from traditional coffee-producing countries. Interestingly enough, 2011 was the only year in which the event was held in a producing country (Colombia).
There are some other glaring voids: There has never been a woman World Barista Champion; and, there has never been a world champion from coffee’s continental birthplace, Africa, where countries like Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya have consistently produced some of the world’s finest Arabica coffees.
Noting this latter gap, Durham, North Carolina-based wholesale roasting company Counter Culture Coffee is for the first time sponsoring a barista from outside the United States at the upcoming World Barista Championship. Current Kenyan Barista Champion Tonny Gitonga has been training with Counter Culture and will be using coffees from the company heading into the June 20-23 competition.
“It is a simple idea: If baristas at origin are pushing the quality boundaries and pushing the potential of what they do, it is going to inspire the producers of the coffees and lead to higher-quality products,” Counter Culture Founder and President Brett Smith said in a company announcement leading up to the competition.
Counter Culture head buyer Tim Hill facilitated the connection between the company and Gitonga, and said the initiative is designed simply to promote stronger partnerships with the communities from which the company buys, while hopefully celebrating a WBC title along the way.
As a roasting company, Counter Culture has been integral to the competition successes of numerous baristas over the years, supplying coffees for the WBC routines of past U.S. Barista Champions Katie Carguilo (2012), Lem Butler (2016) and Kyle Ramage (2017). Yet this is the first time the company has provided backing for an international competitor.
Gitonga, the grandson of a coffee farmer, sees the competition not as a platform for personal success, but for the cultivation of the entire Kenyan coffee sector.
“Competing is a way to inspire other people to join the coffee industry and the farms themselves, because we are running out of farms in Kenya… They are turning into housing developments or being sold to construction companies,” the Kenyan champion said in the CCC announcement. “We need Kenya’s coffee industry to be promoted, and Counter Culture is helping to do that.”
(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the 2012 World Barista Championship was held in Guatemala. It was held in Austria.)