blog from the ceo & superbarista of phoenix coffee, home of the best baristas in cleveland, ohio

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The yoga of coffee

As a judge at the US Barista Championships in April, sweat broke out on my forehead when I had to enumerate each barista's weaknesses on their score sheet, so as to justify the scores I awarded. As a prep timer at the World Barista Championships in May, my eyes were wet with tears in genesis as I had to force an enthusiastic and sparkly competitor from Kenya away from the grinder, the base still covered with messy coffee grounds. Her time was up. After months of careful preparation, she had failed to allow enough time to properly adjust the grind before her performance started.

My close involvement with the barista competitions has given me the opportunity to look at my relationship to competition. Winning and losing. Comparison to others. My children go to a Montessori school, which means that they don't get grades. I read Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn several years ago, and have adapted my business practices to reflect the premise of the book: external rewards (the carrot and stick method) undermine intrinsic motivation. It is important to pay people well, and provide a secure, prepared environment for success. I have seen that short term competitions will undermine long term interest in the task itself (such as selling coffee beans).

As I have watched the baristas practice and perform, I have contemplated competing myself. I have contemplated having a Phoenix barista or two compete. I have contemplated judging at future competitions (Tokyo '07!!!). This also means that I have contemplated the logistics of all of the above... the expense, the time, and the potential rewards and paybacks, immediate, long term, tangible and intangible. The present result of my contemplation has been to identify the question: What would be the most appropriate role for us Phoenixers in these barista competitions?

On Wednesday, I sat with Julie Hutchison, proud proprietor of the Lakewood Phoenix, and her charming baby Gabriel, enjoying the warm vibe of the Lakewood Phoenix and discussed this topic. I told Julie that I have always been more interested in collaboration than in competition. I thought about my opinion that success seems to be a matter of making external circumstances and involvements jive as closely as possible with one's true inner nature, or essence. Success for Phoenix Coffee might not mean that we have to have a Phoenix barista win the World Barista Championship. That's probably not "us". That might be a job for Intelligentsia Coffee. Matt Riddle came damned close this year.

Julie was quiet for a moment. I was quiet, too. Then she said, "We're the yoga of coffee. We practice coffee, we don't compete." This statement rang so true to the nature of the Phoenix. Both Julie and I happen to love yoga. Yoga has no pre-defined outcome; the practice of it is what is so interesting and rewarding, all by itself. Espresso is the same way. When a barista invests attention, intention and love into the process of espresso preparation, and is backed by growers and processors and roasters who have also invested similarly, her tongue, heart and mind are immediately rewarded with dazzling sensation and soulful satisfaction.


Blogger Nick said...


"Yoga of coffee" doesn't inform anything about how coffee is a business... because it is.

Barista competitions have the potential to inspire true greatness and unmeasurable passion for coffee... but it's potential alone. It takes guidance, leadership, inspiration, and vision to help make the most out of the opportunities there.

Barista competitions can (and have in the past) also lead to disappointment, disillusionment, stress, and withdrawl.

But the same is generally true of almost anything in life, isn't it?

Know what else is generally true? There's usually only one way to find out, and it involves some risk.

Rant over. :-)

2:09 PM, June 03, 2006  
Blogger Sarah Wilson-Jones said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Nick!

I think the thing that you wrote that most resonated with me is the necessity of risk in order to truly discover and learn. That is so true. And the level of risk that all the competitive baristas take is amazing and earns a very high level of respect in my book. I think that's one reason that the competitions interest me, is that they feed my appreciation of risk taking; I get to live vicariously through the baristas for a few minutes.

6:03 PM, June 03, 2006  

Post a Comment

<< Home