SCAA Axes US Barista Regionals

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The SCAA announced today that it will discontinue the three regional barista competitions that lead to the United States Barista Championship (the Big Western, Big Eastern, and Big Central) and overhaul the USBC competitors’ field.

Beginning in 2016 the USBC will feature fifty competitors entered in one of three ways. The first, which accounts for thirty-five baristas, will include those with SCAA level one or two certificates and those who competed in regionals or the USBC in either the 2014 or 2015 cycles. There are no qualifications for those spots; they’re “on a first come, first serve basis.” Twelve more slots are available “to anyone interested in competing,” again, first come, first serve. Finally, three positions will go to SCAA scholarship recipients, who will be part of a program to be detailed later.

The announcement was made on SprudgeBarista Magazine reported, and we can confirm, the news appears to have been coordinated between Sprudge and the SCAA, though both Barista Magazine and Roast Magazine’s Daily Coffee News posted draft copies of the SCAA’s press release sent to them by people with early access to the release. It’s not often that coffee has a story involving leaked documents. (Sprudge, in a response to Barista’s claims that it helped craft the SCAA’s message, says it did not, though it was offered the story as an exclusive.)

Calls to SCAA for more detail were not returned. (The SCAA responded soon after this story was posted. Heather Perry, the second vice chair of the SCAA board of directors, spoke with Fresh Cup, her quotes have been incorporated into the article.)

“Just because regionals are done right now does not mean that regionals are done forever,” Perry says. “It does not mean that this is a done conversation.”

“This decision was made a little while ago, the board felt that we want all of the events and everything we do to be not necessarily self-sustaining, but definitely mission-fulfilling,” says Perry. Because the board simply votes on a budget, and the change was included in the budget, which was presented by SCAA staff, Perry says the board did not vote directly on the new plan. “At a certain point we felt regionals began to lose that. The reason we supported them for as long as we did is because they did fulfill a mission, a very important need within that community. Ten years ago, there was no BGA camp, there was barely a guild, there wasn’t a lot going on. Regionals was where baristas came together.”

Perry says the announcement was made now because the SCAA didn’t want regionals competitors to be blindsided to close to the competition. Even if this was more warning than it would have been in a few months, the changes came as a surprise to the competitive barista community and the social media reaction has been, on balance, decidedly shocked and leaning negative. (Some of the conversations on Twitter, below.)

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Writing at length about the history of the USBC and her experience helping develop the current regional system, implemented in 2013, Barista editor Sarah Allen  writes, “Based on conversations I’ve had with members of the SCAA board and the Barista Guild of America Executive Council (BGAEC), it appears the decision to eliminate regionals was made by the SCAA staff—not by the board, not by the BGAEC, and certainly not by SCAA members.”

While the particulars of the plan were news to even BGAEC members, who received the press release less than a day before the announcement, the council knew some sort of change was coming. Lorenzo Perkins, the chair of the council and a two-time regional champion in both barista and brewing competitions, said in an interview with Fresh Cup that he and four or five other members of the council were called by the SCAA in February and told that the regional competitions were not financially sustainable.

The Barista Guild of America, Perkins stresses, has never been in charge of the barista competitions, though it has been intimately involved with them as a nexus of barista culture. The USBC is the SCAA’s and this was SCAA’s call.

“This was a decision, as I understand it, that came down through the channels and said, essentially, that the organization could no longer—to make it graphic—sustain the massive hemorrhaging of funds that the regional competitions were,” says Perkins.

An eight-person task force, made of BGAEC and competitions committee members, worked from February to May on possible solutions before the SCAA disbanded it. Perkins, the chair of the Barista Guild, says, “Nothing that I saw in the press release was anything that was put forth in the task force, though I was reached out to individually by staff members and told bits and pieces of what the press release would be before the press release was written.”

He still views that process as an improvement from the past. “When they consolidated regionals and when they got rid of finals, that stuff we were literally told like a week or a day before it happened,” he says. “There is this perception that I’m seeing on my Twitter feed that this came out of nowhere and no one was asked about it. That’s not entirely true. Was everyone listened to? Sure. Were everybody’s ideas given consideration? Probably. Is this the end result we were all looking for? No. I don’t think anybody is sitting over here saying this is the best case scenario.”

He says, “I’m sure for no one on the board and no one on staff was this an easy decision to come to.”

After being asked if the new USBC (which theoretically could feature twelve competitors who have never touched an espresso machine) performed badly, Perry stressed that “these changes aren’t permanent. ”

“We’re stepping away from regionals for one year. This isn’t a we’re never bringing them back, and we are married to this decision no matter how poorly it goes. You take a break from it for a year and see how US goes,” she says. “If it is a huge bust for some reason, we bring back a vetting process of some sort next year. We talked about doing some sort of vetting process for this year, and it was one of those things that we just couldn’t execute. It would have just been thrown together.”

While the USBC changes had some specificity in the press release, what will step into the gap left by regionals was vague. “It was important to ensure that there was still a system for competitors to attend an informational, competition-like event to practice their routines and learn about the competition system. To address this need, the SCAA is working with the BGA to develop a prep fest model that will be member-driven and will follow a event structure similar to regional competitions.  More information on prep fests will be available later in 2015,” the release states.

That’s awfully unspecific in light of this shake up. But Perkins says, “We are not going to let it rest here. This is not the end. We’re viewing it as this is what we have been given to deal with, this is what we have been given to work with, so now let’s come together and try to reimagine what it can be and what it needs to be and make something really positive come out of this. We are disappointed, but determined.”

In a post in the online Specialty Coffee Chronicle, The SCAA welcomes feedback on the changes. Emails can be sent to events@scaa.org.

Cory Eldridge is Fresh Cup’s editor.