Introspection and reflection on the state of specialty coffee seems to be a common occurrence these days — probably fairly natural for an industry which, in some ways, is in its youth. Constant evolution and rapid growth in this segment of the coffee market means that there are regularly new facets to the industry, new staff and new situations which require examination and consideration of what we need to implement to jump to the next stepping stone on this caffeinated path. During these discussions with both new industry folk and the experienced professionals alike, I keep coming back to a mental picture of a 3D jigsaw — the challenge we have with progressing the specialty coffee scene is a multi-dimensional one, with various components needing to slot together, supporting each other as equally important pieces of a puzzle. Maybe a tower of pickup sticks is a more accurate picture? With each piece supporting the others which are carefully balanced above, creating a more layered, complex structure.

I’m currently en route to Brisbane, preparing to judge at the QLD state Barista and Brewers’ Cup Championships this weekend. I’ve been judging in Brisbane for the past few years and as I sit here, passing on the stewed airline coffee, I’m looking forward to seeing what progression the championships showcase. In fact, with each competition I find this is something that always gets my excitement piqued — what kinds of conversations, what coffees, what development will we see presented through the championships this time?

While the various competitions aren’t the be all and end all in defining where we as a specialty coffee industry are at, they do provide a valuable litmus test about the tone of the scene in a given region. They also provide, I believe, an important piece of the puzzle we’re trying to put together. The competitions stimulate excitement and fresh thoughts from judges, competitors and the public alike — there’s a platform there to talk about coffee in a way that you just don’t have when turning out hundreds of lattes for busy office workers. The common observation that limits and boundaries often force more creativity can be seen during the hours taken to train for these events — clearly defined scoring and assessment protocols require baristas to prepare the best coffees they can within a contained arena, and often, amazing results come of it!

As we continue to define what specialty coffee can be (or what we want it to be), we need to continue to prop up this progression, to educate and support the entire market to allow us to move forward. How do you get specialty coffee happening in a particular city, region or country? Barista competitions can be a great impetus for this. An objective assessment of quality and public recognition of ranking allows for market differentiation: coffee is not just coffee and all baristas aren’t the same.

It was an early start and the plane is now descending — I can almost smell the freshly roasted coffee from here, the need is so great! It’ll be great to taste the coffees this weekend in Brisbane and experience the latest iteration of the growing specialty coffee scene.

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