Coffee competitions lean toward one of two directions. There’s the hyper-regulated, stadium-seating events that time, check, and control every detail. Then there’s the neighborhood latte art throwdowns, where high-fiving and free beer turn nights into a milky blur.
Somewhere in between is The Barista League, the brainchild of Steven Maloney, an Australian native and Swedish transplant as of 2012. Maloney envisions a middle ground where coffee competitions can be interesting, inclusive, quirky, and all-around good times, while still celebrating technical skills.
No stranger to the hyper-competitive side of coffee events, Maloney was the Swedish National Barista Champion in 2016 and 2017. But instead of defending his title again in 2018, he has turned his attention to cultivating a new category of competitive coffee gathering where the focus is on creating community, rather than taking home top prize. (The Barista League does award prizes and trophies.)
“Our goal was to take a very detail-oriented approach to planning a coffee event,” Maloney says. “Having looked closely at what was missing or lacking in other events I’ve attended, I wanted to put together something that addressed those gaps, while still being a lot of fun.”
The first Barista League event took place in 2015 in Lund, Sweden. Twelve teams of two competed in three rounds of challenges: “Barista Skills,” “Sensory Skills,” and the “Mystery Round.” The rounds took place concurrently, keeping energy up and wait times down.
“Barista Skills” tests on-the-job dexterities, such as dialing in shots and preparing drinks. “Sensory Skills” challenges taste and smell, often while wearing a blindfold. The “Mystery Round” plays up the fun, handcuffing competitors together or asking them to wear goggles while making an AeroPress. Never taking itself too seriously is integral to the ethos of The Barista League.
“The most rewarding thing is hearing baristas, attendees, and participants saying, ‘This is the most fun coffee event I’ve ever been to—the best vibes, the most inclusive,’” Maloney says.
The Barista League provides a stage for working baristas to show off all sides of coffee. Positive feedback from attendees is what gives Maloney the energy to keep hosting Barista League events. “We’re making these events that bring the community together rather than just finding a winner. It’s not really about that,” Maloney says.
In 2018, The Barista League will head out on a US tour starting in Portland, Oregon (August 30); Kansas City, Missouri (September 1); Greenville, South Carolina (September 6); and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (September 8). Registration is first-come, first-served, and participation is free. Cumulative points from three different rounds determine the winner, who will receive an origin trip courtesy of Ally Coffee.
But the prize is secondary to the reward of having socialized with peers in the coffee community.