Selling Coffee in the Coffeelands
How do you increase coffee consumption in a country that is filled with coffee plants? On Saturday, March 3, the Campeonato de Baristas (National Barista Championship) was held in a mall in the eastern San José neighborhood of Zapote. Six baristas, all men, competed for the chance to represent Costa Rica in the World Barista Championship, to be held in Vienna June 12-15. Organized by the Instituto Nacional del Café de Costa Rica (National Coffee Institute – ICAFE) and the Asociación de Cafes Fines (Specialty Coffee Association of Costa Rica – SCACR), the event attracted hundreds of people, from family members and friends of the competitors, to passers-by, to would-be coffeeshop owners and future baristas. At one point I counted more than 150 people in the crowd, and this number was sustained for at least two hours at the height of the competition.
Each barista has to prepare three drinks in fifteen minutes: an espresso, a cappuccino, and an original beverage. There are four sensory judges and two technical judges, plus a head judge ensuring fairness and consistency. Sensory judges mark the barista on taste, presentation, and style; the barista must not only be able to prepare four of each drink (one per judge) in the allotted time, but must also narrate the “story” of the coffee, describing the coffee’s flavors and notes in much the same way sommeliers do for wine. The technical judges do not taste the drinks, but instead watch for elements such as smoothness of motion, waste, cleanliness, and technique. Prior to judging, the barista has fifteen minutes to set up their espresso machine, including preparing their unique beverage ingredients, setting up the table for the judges, and checking the machinery for the proper grind and temperature.
While baristas were preparing, one at a time, the audience was invited to visit the different stands staffed by event sponsors and to try samples of cappuccinos, pre-packaged iced lattes, and flavored syrups. McDonalds’ McCafe, which now has 16 locations in the capital region, handed out promotional flyers, while Banco Nacional, which provides loans and development programs for micro, small, and medium-sized businesses, was happy to talk with anyone in search of financing. In these interludes, José Solis of SCACR was on the microphone, offering vendors a chance to tell the audience about their products and asking trivia questions for the chance to win coffee, T-shirts, hats, mugs, and coupons.
The World Barista Championship began in 2000 with competitors from twelve countries; this year’s competition will host 57. Costa Rica sent its first competitor in 2004, and it was not until 2011 that the championship was held in a coffee-producing country – Colombia. It was also the first year that a barista from a producing country (El Salvador) was crowned. That champion, Alejandro Mendez, was in attendance on Saturday, commenting on and explaining the events and demonstrating some of his own impressive latte art while the audience waited for the judges’ decision. In a conversation with José Solis, the two agreed that ‘coffee comes from passion, from love’ and that ‘coffee makes the world smaller.’ With El Salvador’s win in 2011, Mendez stated, to wild applause, that “producing countries have begun to say, ‘Here we are!’
The competition is about much more than simply pulling a pretty and tasty shot of espresso, however. The emphasis throughout the day was on increasing coffee consumption in Costa Rica – an interesting notion, considering that coffee is already an important part of daily life here, and the average Costa Rican consumes more than 3 kilos of coffee per year. When asked by Solis whether she liked coffee, the Banco Nacional representative replied that ‘as a good Costa Rican, of course I like coffee.’ Costa Ricans take great pride in the quality of the coffee they grow, and most social interactions start with a cafecito, a cup of coffee.
So with so many people already having their cafecitos several times a day, ICAFE and SCACR were promoting more than just any old cup of java. What they hope to increase in Costa Rica is consumption of specialty coffee, properly prepared by a professional barista on specialized machinery. What exactly makes specialty coffee so special is, even for the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), difficult to define. After offering a number of definitions their website concludes that ‘In the final analysis specialty coffee will be defined by the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean or prepared beverage and by the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all of those involved in its cultivation, preparation and degustation. A coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved is truly a specialty coffee.’ It seems that specialty coffee is like pornography: you know it when you see it. Or in this case, taste it.
Given the number of people in attendance at the Barista Championship, and the quality of the baristas in attendance, specialty coffee consumption in Costa Rica has indeed been building over the years. Yet it is still rare, particularly outside San José and the tourist regions , to find a place that offers takeout coffee, and those that do are usually bakeries with an automatic machine. To coffee purists, this is a far cry from the complicated mix of art and science that accompanies the proper espresso “pull.”
Not only does the beverage have to be skillfully extracted from the beans, but in specialty coffee, origin matters. The properly trained barista can discern flavor notes within coffee, so much so that in competition they must explain to the judges why they chose the varietal they did, where it was grown, and what the judge will taste in the espresso. While most coffee drinkers do not have the palate to describe such variation, they often express a preference for a certain varietal, or a particular blend; people know what they like even if they don’t know why they like it.
In non-producing countries, this regional variation is emphasized to highlight the “special” nature of specialty coffee: instead of the undifferentiated mix present in Folgers or Nescafé, this coffee comes from the highlands of Guatemala or the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In Europe or North America or Australia, specialty coffee marketing thus attempts to connect the consumer to the place, to educate them about the processes involved in growing great coffee, and to build a connection, albeit one-way, between consumer and producer. This is especially true for coffee certified as Fair Trade, whose marketing materials frequently depict smiling farmers whose lives have been improved by your purchase. (See, for example, Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International.) Paul Rice, the CEO of Fair Trade USA, calls Fair Trade “a story,” that is, the story of farmers and how their products reach consumers.
The pros and cons of such marketing techniques are the subject of another post entirely, but they are important a part of specialty coffee as the taste and presentation. To be a true specialty coffee consumer, one must know something about the coffee one is drinking, even if only that it was grown in Guatemala; after all, as the SCAA notes, specialty coffee should add value to all the lives along the supply chain, not just to those at the very end.
Yet what I saw at the Barista Championship, and what Alejandro alluded to in noting that producing countries are saying, ‘Here we are!’ at competitions, is that this entire aspect of specialty coffee marketing is unnecessary in places like Costa Rica. No one here needs to be told the story of coffee; they know what it is. The six baristas competing on Saturday each had some personal tie to coffee farming, and one was a farmer himself, choosing the ingredients for his original beverage from his own farm.
ICAFE and SCACR are trying to give the story a different ending. Instead of only tasting this beverage, grown with so much love and care and effort right in your backyard, as it comes out of your coffeemaker, it is time for the “potentially wonderful gustatory experience” that is “locked up as a possibility” until a skillful barista manages to extract it. ICAFE and SCACR seemed to be saying that if you like coffee that much at home, imagine how much better it could be when it is prepared on professional machines by professional, world-class baristas – charging, of course, professional prices.