June 30, 2010

What Is A World Champion Barista? Michael Phillips At Intelligentsia Wins, But Why?

Intelligentsia's world champion barista could be serving at Lakeview cafe

Michael Phillips beat all comers in the 2010 World Barista Championships. What's that?

The article isn't about baristas or why he won. That there is a winner in such a world intrigues me, however. As much as I love coffee, there is a lot I am still learning. Your input is coveted.

First off, congratulations Michael Phillips. You took your job seriously, worked hard, and now have this laurel that I hope you can convert into more success.

What is a Barista?
A barista is the person who makes espresso and other drinks at a coffee shop. It can refer to anyone from the 16 year-old slugging cappuccinos from a machine that does everything automatically, to a highly trained adult who carefully pulls each shot to make a myriad of recipes. The term is gender neutral. It originates from Italy, where it means bartender. I'm not clear, as per the Wikipedia entry, if it includes all bartenders, like the ones at a wine bar, or just certain kinds.

Phillips, an employee of a leading Chicago-based roaster and retailer Intelligentsia Coffee beat the world in London last week. Not that I am not impressed, but I don't know what the criteria is. What makes him so good? I know what a mediocre barista is, but world champion? Maybe I have only enjoyed very good espressos but not world class ones? If a barista has good beans ground just so, using a good machine, isn't there a low ceiling? Outside of latte art and such, what divides the very good from the great?

Barista Brockeim 
I had a short stint as a barista in college, but, in all honesty, never learned a thing. I didn't drink coffee then. Great place, far beyond the ordinary shop. They sold beans from across the world, could seat 150 people (I'm guessing, but it was a lot), and could make anything. Eclectic to the nth degree, as groups of all flavors would meet peacefully. Any given day, you could see a Christian Bible study a few tables away from a GLT issues group, with the college Young Republicans in the back and the alternative newspaper staff in the front. They since closed and a new shop opened up that is essentially a vegetarian cafe that sells coffee, and the amazing social and coffee diversity has ended.

But I'm digressing. My point was to acknowledge I have, in fact, worked in a cafe, but never received real training, or lasted long enough to learn the trade. I have no doubt I made mediocre baristas look like the Julia Child of coffee.  

Cynical? Hardly
Don't get me wrong. I'm not cynical. I'm hopeful. Something makes Phillips better. I don't know what it is or what I, a lover of coffee would experience differently. I have enjoyed great coffee, based on great beans.

They have contests for these things. Bragging rights come with the honor. Maybe a promotion at his local cafe, or, as in this case, the guy became a trainer.

He wears the requisite black shirt, scruffy but trimmed beard and close-cropped hair on his head. Very cafe-chic. Maybe that's just the photo the PR people took. Looks the part, that kind of restaurant chef sophisticate style. They don't give prizes, however, for fashion.

According to the World Barista Championship (WBC) website, it looks a combination of skill and knowledge.

WBC Certified Judges from around the world evaluate each performance on the taste of beverages served, cleanliness, creativity, technical skill, and overall presentation. The ever-popular signature beverage allows baristas to stretch their imagination and the judges’ palates to incorporate a wealth of coffee knowledge into an expression of their individual tastes and experiences.

That's nice, but what's in it for me? I like the cleanliness part, but presume this as normal operating procedure for any barista. That is, if I ask for a wet cappuccino, a somewhat standard request, will Phillips' version be different than the one cranked out by Sarah, a diligent and friendly high school senior working evenings at my local Caribou Coffee? 

I looked the results of the 2010 competition, the one Philips won. See below. He is the first winner from the United States in an event strangely dominated by Denmark. 5,540,241 in their country, and four of them, at least, are champion baristas. Good for them. Truly a global event. I presume this means each barista beat many of their countrymen to advance to this stage. I don't know. All new to me.

1st – Michael Phillips (USA)
2nd - Raul Rodas (Guatemala)
3rd – Scottie Callaghan (Australia)
4th – Colin Harmon (Ireland)
5th – Soren Stiller Markussen (Denmark)
6th – Stefanos Domatiotis (Greece)

2010 London, United Kingdom Michael Phillips (United States)
2009 Atlanta, USA Gwilym Davies (United Kingdom)
2008 Copenhagen, Denmark Stephen Morrissey (Ireland)
2007 Tokyo, Japan James Hoffmann (United Kingdom)
2006 Berne, Switzerland Klaus Thomsen (Denmark)
2005 Seattle, USA Troels Overdal Poulsen (Denmark)
2004 Trieste, Italy Tim Wendelboe (Norway)
2003 Boston, USA Paul Bassett (Australia)
2002 Olso, Norway Fritz Storm (Denmark)
2001 Miami, USA Martin Hildebrandt (Denmark)
2000 Monte Carlo, Monaco Robert Thoresen (Norway)


  1. Where do I start? A great barista is more like a sommelier of coffee instead of wine. He or she has visited the coffee producing farm to understand the condition under which the bean is produced and the plight of the farmer. He/she understands the best methods of roasting the bean. He/she understands that the success of the specialty coffee is to recognize and assist everyone in the cycle "from bean to cup" to be the best. He/she is involved in improving the life of the farmer's family.

  2. Thanks, Dale. How would this play out in a cafe circumstance? A difference might be that the sommelier does not him or herself prepare the wine beyond chilling, corking and pouring. A barista is in a position to influence my drink more than the sommelier, don't you think?

    Although helping a farmer's family is admirable (and important), how does this improve the bean and, inevitably, my drink?

    This all fascinates me.