2011 World Barista Championship - Alejandro Mendez, Campeón!

This past weekend, the 2011 World Barista Championships took place in Bogotá, Colombia. For the first time ever, a competitor from a coffee-growing country won first place. El Salvador’s Alejandro Mendez won the competition, beating out the US’ Pete Licata, who finished second after having the highest score in the semi-finals.

Mendez put on an impressive display of coffee knowledge, enthusiasm and creativity. For his signature beverage, Mendez combined flavors from all parts of the coffee plant. He made an infusion from dried coffee flowers (that he had collected himself), one from the mucilage (the fruit pulp), another from the cascara (dried skin from the coffee fruit) and combined all of them with an espresso made from the roasted coffee beans. His goal was to give the judges the entire flavor of the coffee tree. The commentators (yes, the broadcast has commentators, much like golf) thought that this was the first time anyone had combined all of these elements into a beverage (you can see the video here. Mendez’ finals performance starts at about 1:30 into the video and lasts 15 minutes).

If you watch the video of the performance, you will notice Mendez’ deep knowledge of the coffee, his attention to detail and his willingness to try unconventional techniques. Mendez tells the story of how he tested his espresso at the same altitude as Bogota and found that 14 days post-roast was the best day to use it for the competition. He also made a very bold move when he had the judges strain off the crema from the espressos before they drank them. Personally, I question whether this should be allowed, because the crema is an integral part of the espresso experience. However, the judges allowed it, and it certainly helped to make his performance memorable.

Mendez’ win is more impressive because he was competing in English, which did not appear to be his first language. Imagine if the other competitors had to learn the language of the host country in order to compete—that would make it much more challenging. That is what the competitors from non-English-speaking countries have had to do for years.

The 2011 competition was the first time the championships have been held in a coffee-growing country (excluding the small amount of coffee that is grown in Hawaii), which was a big deal for the coffee industry. One of the biggest social issues involved with coffee production/consumption is the fact that for years, coffee producers in developing countries have not benefited from the increase in value of coffee as it was roasted, brewed and sold to customers at high markups.

Coffee-importing countries placed tariffs and quotas on roasted coffee in order to protect their own roasters, which hampered the development of a roasting industry in coffee-growing regions. The system led to much of the value of the coffee crop leaving poorer countries and moving to richer countries.

Today, the specialty coffee industry is trying to make the distribution of the value of the coffee more equitable, and by holding the barista championship in Colombia, the SCAA/SCAE has raised awareness about coffee production and demonstrated its respect for the coffee-growing countries. Hopefully, it will not be another decade before the competition is held in one of these countries, nor will it be surprising when a barista from El Salvador, Colombia, Rwanda or any other coffee producer brings home the top prize.

Congratulations to Alejandro Mendez, the 2011 World Barista Champion.

[If you want  a more complete 2011 WBC wrap-up, complete with lots of photos, visit Barista Magazine’s blog here.]