The United States Coffee Championships have proven to be an effective way for baristas to raise their profile in the specialty coffee industry. Yet the costs to compete can be prohibitive for many working baristas, and success requires additional resources and training.
T. Ben Fischer, who works as a barista for Philadelphia’s Elixr Coffee Roasters and was the second place finisher at this year’s U.S. Barista Championship (USBC), wanted to provide a way for competitors from marginalized and underrepresented communities to find their own successes in the competition world. To this end, Fischer established the grassroots organization Glitter Cat Barista Bootcamp (GCBB), supported by Pacific Foods, offering free competition training to selected applicants.
“The coffee industry does not exist in a vacuum,” Fischer told Daily Coffee News. “It has the same overrepresentation of straight cis white men as most industries. Taking a closer look at what led to my own success at USBC this year, it came down to me having access to high-level training. I knew I could not sit back and watch as women, people of color, people with disabilities, non-cis men, non-binary folks, racial and ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQIA+ community continued to be overlooked.”
After an application and vetting process, 10 barista competitor hopefuls were provided with the opportunity to attend GCBB’s inaugural camp last week in Philadelphia, where they could tap into a network of experienced coaches and former competitors. GCBB trainee Rodrigo Vargas was crowned as the champion in a mock competition held on the final day of the event. Along with his competition partner Kendra Sledzinski and fellow GCBB trainees, Vargas will have the opportunity to travel to Colombia to visit the renowned coffee farm La Palma y El Tucan.
“Marginalization comes in many forms that is not always visible,” Fischer said. “We heard personal stories about immigrating to the States, displacement from hurricanes, lack of safety in hometowns or workplaces, aggression due to not looking enough like a person of color, and so much more. I got to watch as bonds were formed amidst intensive education and it was really special.”
With instructors such as 2014 USBC Champion Laila Ghambari, 2013 World Barista Champion Pete Licata, 2017 NY Coffee Masters Winner Erika Vonie, 2016 USBC Champion Lem Butler, and longtime competition judge and coach Holly Bastin, GCBB trainees were led through the finer points of barista competitions.
The first day of the intensive barista competition training program focused on analyzing the USBC rules and regulations, presentation writing, and espresso theory — including a deep dive into extraction and articulating flavor notes. Day two was focused on presentation, concept, and signature beverage development.
“There is nothing more important that I felt I could lend my experience in barista competitions to than supporting an eager group of diverse and deserving new and future barista competitors,” said GBCC instructor Laila Ghambari, director of education and training operations for Stumptown Coffee Roasters. “I desire to see more representation in coffee competitions, and it was an honor for me support these unique voices who all have something important to say.”
For the GCBB championship, held on the final day of the event, trainees were paired with a local barista and given 45 minutes to select a coffee or create a custom blend, and serve two judges an espresso, a milk beverage, and a signature beverage — all while providing excellent customer service and accurately describing the coffee’s attributes. Competitors were provided with 50 different ingredients to choose from for the signature beverage, ranging from simple syrup to pepperoni and tomato sauce, earning extra points for the use of more unconventional ingredients.
The top three teams moved on to a final round where they were challenged to dissect the ingredients in a signature beverage, created by the instructors using two coffees and five ingredients.
“Overall, everyone was thankful and excited,” Fischer said. “The instructors were passionate and shared all of their tips and tricks. The trainees were engaged, asked questions, and were constant learning sponges. It was so motivational and inspirational to watch. I am excited to get all of the constructive criticism to improve the camp for next year, which we are working to expand to include Brewers Cup and a judges training program.”