October 9, 2023

How have coffee competitions changed in recent years?


Many events take place in the coffee industry every year, but none are arguably more exciting than competitions. With a growing number of championships and contests in the specialty coffee sector, these events serve as platforms for baristas, roasters, and more to demonstrate both their expertise and creativity. 

As a way of keeping up with innovation in the industry, coffee competitions have changed significantly over the past few years. Whether it’s different formats, judging techniques, or prizes, the diversity of specialty coffee championships has been noticeably increasing.

To learn more – as well as to explore the potential future of coffee competitions – I spoke to Tristan Creswick, Business Development Manager at Dalla Corte and founder of the World Espresso Championship. Read on to find out more of his insight.

You may also like our article on whether there is space for new coffee competitions.

A barista extracts espresso using a Dalla Corte Zero.

Prominent competitions in specialty coffee

Now more than ever, coffee professionals have the opportunity to take part in a wide range of competitions. These include, for example, formal rule-based championships and multi-disciplinary inclusive events.

Some competitions, however, have more influence in specialty coffee than others – especially the World Coffee Championships (WCC) organised by World Coffee Events. The WCE currently hosts seven annual competitions:

  • World Barista Championship
  • World Cup Tasters Championship
  • World Latte Art Championship
  • World Coffee in Good Spirits Championship
  • World Brewers Cup
  • World Coffee Roasting Championship
  • World Cezve/Ibrik Championship

Each of the seven WCC focuses on a different set of skills and field of expertise. For instance, the World Barista Championship (arguably the most innovative of all WCC events) requires competitors to prepare three different espresso-based drinks for a panel of judges. Additionally, participants must showcase their technical barista skills, coffee knowledge, and creative flair – with many choosing exclusive and rare arabica varieties or different species to do so.

In comparison, the World Cup Tasters Championship tests competitors’ abilities to identify different sensory attributes in coffee, as well as their speed and the accuracy of their palates.

Different formats and judging styles

Across the sector, the format and judging style of competitions can vary greatly. But despite the differences, the majority of coffee championships involve competitors taking part in several rounds to be assessed by a panel of judges.

At the World Brewers Cup, for example, the competition is split into two rounds: a compulsory service and an open service. For the former, participants must brew three filter coffees with beans provided by WCE. During the open service, competitors choose their own coffee. They also need to deliver a ten-minute presentation to three sensory judges and a head judge.

The six competitors with the highest scores then go on to compete in the final round, which is exclusively an open service. One competitor from the final round is then named the World Brewers Cup Champion.

Danilo Lodi, Matt Winton, and Cole Torode attend a coffee competition.

How have coffee competitions changed?

With so many coffee professionals now becoming more eager and determined to showcase their skills and knowledge, the popularity of competitions has inevitably grown in recent years. In line with this, the events themselves have started to evolve, too.

One of the biggest changes in competition formats over the past few years has been a much more prominent focus on improving inclusivity and accessibility. Undoubtedly there is still more progress to be made, but an increasing number of competitions are becoming more reflective of the wider specialty coffee sector. This includes allowing plant milks.

Judging formats have also shifted to have a bigger emphasis on objective scoring. For instance, the SCA recently updated its cupping protocol and form to minimise “intersubjectivity” when scoring coffee. These new standards will also apply to judging criteria for some WCC events, too.

Addressing continuous challenges

It’s hard to deny the crucial role competitions play in driving innovation in specialty coffee. From renewing interest in “forgotten” varieties and species to introducing advanced processing methods, these events serve a unique and important purpose.

That’s not to say, however, there aren’t still issues to address in the competition scene. As one example of many, Tristan believes that these events no longer represent the realities of baristas’ and roasters’ daily work schedules. 

“Some of the participants that win or score highly in barista competitions don’t actually work as baristas,” he says. “Moreover, the chances of a working barista winning a competition without several years of coaching is incredibly low.

“Most barista competitions are about who can serve the judges coffee that they prefer on that specific day,” he adds. “It’s not really an honest competition if the judges have to compare apples and oranges. And this is especially apparent when you factor in the subjective nature of different sensory experiences.”

Tristan continues by comparing the assessment criteria for both coffee and sports competitions. He argues that while judges can objectively assess who wins a long jump or shot put championship, judges must agree who makes the “best” coffee in a coffee competition – a purely subjective decision.

To address this issue, Tristan explains that Dalla Corte launched the World Espresso Championship in 2022 at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo. The second event was held in Athens on 25 June earlier this year, with 2023 WBC second runner-up Jack Simpson announced as the winner.

As a means of mitigating subjectivity as much as possible, competitors are required to use the same water, coffee (including processing method and roast profile), and espresso machine. Participants are then allowed to tweak as many extraction variables as possible to try to pull the winning shot.

Junior Vargas is presented a cheque at the first World Espresso Championship.

Launching new coffee competitions

With so many competitions taking place in the coffee industry every year, developing a new event which stands out in its own unique way can be tricky.

Tristan explains that Dalla Corte developed the World Espresso Championship with two main goals in mind.

“Firstly, we’re hoping to create an innovative space that pushes the limits of espresso recipes by giving competitors a lot more flexibility with their brewing recipes, as well as having highly experienced judges taking part, too,” he tells me. “Secondly, we’re hoping the competitions have a fun atmosphere that fosters progression and creativity.”

As part of this, competition registration is only open to current national and World Barista and Brewers Cup Champions.

“We want to ensure the World Espresso Championship receives the right kind of recognition in the coffee industry, so only the top-scoring competitors can take part,” Tristan says.

What are the rules?

During each round, two competitors are randomly selected, and then must extract their espresso at the same time. Each competitor has 15 minutes to dial in their espresso. They then have six minutes to prepare, extract, and serve four single espressos. 

Similar to other competitions, all participants must use the same espresso machine – which in the case of the World Espresso Championship is the Dalla Corte Zero. Competitors are encouraged to use the machine’s Freestyle Extraction feature, which allows them to change a number of brewing variables.

“Baristas can change water temperature and flow rate, as well as the dose and basket size,” Tristan says. Competitors can also use paper or metal filters in their portafilter baskets.

No matter which extraction variables they decide to tweak, Tristan explains each participant must serve four single shot espressos. Moreover, these must be within a 15g to 30g dose and a 25g to 35g yield.

A panel of selected judges then blindly evaluate each espresso without using any formal criteria or scoresheets. They then select their favourite one on the count of three.

The winners of each round proceed to the next stages, with the overall winner receiving a cash prize of €4,000 (US $4,225.20).

Groupheads on a Dalla Corte Zero espresso machine.

So what’s next?

Given the pace of innovation in the global specialty coffee industry, we’re sure to see competitions evolve even further.

Tristan tells me Dalla Corte is using feedback from the first two World Espresso Championships to expand its competition format.

“In the future, we will start running national heats. Each winner will be invited to compete in the World Espresso Championship,” he says.

Maintaining objectivity in scoring will also be key going forward in coffee competitions. With so many different kinds of coffee available to use in championships (including variety, processing method, and roast profile), organisers will need to establish more comprehensive rules and guidelines.

Jack Simpson is presented a cheque at the second World Espresso Championship.

Every year, a number of high-level coffee competitions are held around the world – and the sector certainly pays attention to them. By following the various championships and contests, industry professionals are able to keep their finger on the pulse of specialty coffee.

While staying ahead of the latest trends in specialty coffee is important, it’s also clear that coffee competitions are evolving to better reflect the realities of the industry and create fairer scoring systems.

Ultimately, elevating the format of competitions will only help to serve the entire specialty coffee sector.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on carbon-neutral espresso machines.

Photo credits: Dalla Corte

Perfect Daily Grind

Please note: Dalla Corte is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!