Barista Competitions are like an awkward hybrid of figure skating and spelling bee. Baristas get 15 minutes with a crush of technical and sensory judges to prepare 12 drinks consisting of sets of espressos, traditional cappuccinos, and a signature beverage of their own creation. In the weird world of high-end specialty coffee, these strange events have gained some prominence.
I have mixed feelings about barista competitions. On the one hand, many of my friends and respected colleagues put an enormous amount of time and effort into them. On the other hand, I feel like they often send the wrong messages to consumers. They further underline a common misperception that making a good cup of coffee is a pursuit best left to professionals and serious hobbyists - the don’t-try-this-at-home fallacy we rail against at Tonx. On yet another hand (three hands?), preparing a really good espresso isn’t an easy feat to pull off and takes training and skill to master. Maybe I’m just being a grump?
When a friend hit me up to support a new Kickstarter campaign for a barista competition documentary called Drip, I wasn’t terribly excited. Over the years I’ve been to dozens of these events and find it pretty tedious as a spectator sport. But eventually I stumbled across their video in an open browser tab and decided to press play.
Hey! This thing looks like it could be alright. It’s beautifully shot, and I see a few of my favorite coffee nerd folks in there. So I decided to chip in.
I asked director Rock Baijnauth a few questions over email about his team’s motivation for making this movie.
You didn't originally set out to make the film all about the competition... What was your original premise?
Originally, I wanted to do a film that would do for coffee what Sideways did for wine. Get people talking about this beverage that I love in a really romantic and poetic way. We still have that element, but the barista competitions helped us add human interest layer that took the film beyond mere edu-tainment.
If you were giving the stereotypical Hollywood elevator pitch for this film it would be…
Sideways meets Best in Show. It's full of passionate, quirky, lovable characters that are talking about something they love.
In recent years, the trend during routines has moved from baristas talking about their own craft toward talking more about the farmer (something I welcome). How much is being a good storyteller important to winning?
It's probably as important as the drinks they are presenting even if it's something unspoken. It's a competition about being a good presenter as much as it is a competition about making great coffee. You have 15 minutes to captivate the judges. Being a good storyteller is integral to that.
Any cringe inducing moments?
Whenever a barista drops something or goes over their allotted time. Your heart kinda sinks for them. You clench your fists and hope they recover as soon as possible because you know how hard they had to work to get there.
With all the baristas having their own soundtracks, does music licensing become a challenge for the film?
It'll all come down to how it's edited. In our last documentary, there was a Jay-Z song playing in the background that we got to use under fair use laws. It's a fascinating piece of law.
Am I wrong to be cynical about what these competitions mean to the greater coffee loving public?
I think anytime you can get people having a dialogue about something, regardless what side they are on, you're doing a good thing. These competitions get people talking. They open up dialogue. They introduce the average person to a world they probably wouldn't have known about otherwise.
You can learn more about Drip and follow the progress over on Kickstarter.