food and beverage industry

Not ‘just’ a barista: What it takes to win the Philippine National Barista Competition

Mika Geronimo

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Not ‘just’ a barista: What it takes to win the Philippine National Barista Competition
To be a barista champ, you need more than just a passion for coffee – you need performance skills, showmanship, and attention to detail!

MANILA, Philippines – As a casual coffee drinker, nothing could have prepared me for the passion-induced frenzy that was brewing at this year’s Philippine National Barista Competition on January 20 at the Sheraton Hotel, Pasay City.

After halting all public events since the pandemic began, the Philippine National Coffee Competition (PNCC) marked its much-anticipated return in September 2023 with the Brewers Cup – which Crema & Cream Head Barista Lui Selorio won – and the Latte Art Championship, where Mark Joseph Lingat came in first. 

Four months later, the Filipino coffee community finally sealed its roster of champions by crowning Cebuano roaster Gio Visitacion, 2024’s new Philippine barista champ. Visitacion is set to represent the country at the 2024 World Barista Championships in Busan, South Korea.

Vying for the national title alongside Visitacion were nine other skilled baristas, ranging from a diverse bunch of cafe owners, baristas, roasters, entrepreneurs, and even students. Both seasoned and fresh talents were duly represented.

“This is just one of many different platforms where people can express themselves and find themselves,” Conlins Coffee COO and PNCC member Eric Conlin shared with Rappler. 

“Because coffee to some people is a passion, to some people it’s an interest, to some people it’s just coffee – but at least you know that you fit somewhere in the grand scheme of the puzzle.”

PNCC events are open to any aspiring coffee enthusiast from the Philippines. No qualifications nor screening process is required, but it does take more than just passion to pull through.

I was privileged enough to speak with some of the most talented baristas in the country and watch them in action, but beyond their enthralling routines, I also bore witness to what it truly takes to be the next National Barista Champion.

Get to know the guidelines

At the National Barista Competition, competitors showcase an engaging 15-minute routine and prepare four cups of each of the three courses: a milk beverage, an espresso beverage, and a signature beverage. Machines and grinders are provided; however, competitors are to source their own beans, ingredients, utensils, cups, trays, and other tools. 

Depending on their chosen beverage, competitors may also bring their own coolers, portable fridges, and the like. Some also tend to bring with them elaborate props, note cards, and other items that aid in their overall presentation.

WEARING DIFFERENT HATS. Candid Coffee owner Lorenzo Castillo centers his routine on three perspectives: the consumer, the enthusiast, and the professional. Mika Geronimo/Rappler

Judges trained in each of their specialties then evaluate sensory elements, such as espresso crema, aroma, flavor, mouthfeel, and aftertaste, as well as technical attributes like cleanliness, station management, and hygiene. 

The competitors’ customer service skills, the accuracy of taste and tactile descriptors, the availability of back-ups, overall coffee knowledge, visual appeal, and presentation are also taken into consideration. 

Pay attention to the details

What arguably makes the baristas at these national competitions all the more exceptional is their showmanship and attention to detail. 

Beyond having to whip up three courses over a short amount of time, competitors are also tasked to provide clear-cut descriptions of their ingredients and measurements, the distinct flavor profiles judges may expect to taste, as well as any innovative insight into the science behind their methods. All of these are then synced to the appropriate background music of choice. Think of it as a compressed TED Talk while preparing 12 coffee drinks.

Specificity is also integral to one’s spiel. For instance, it’s not enough to describe aromas and flavors simply as sweet. Rather, baristas maximize their experience in tasting a wide variety of flavors in coffee as well as any other food or beverage. 

TASTE TEST. Lakbay Kape Head Barista Argenel Vegas serves his signature drink for the judges to try. Mika Geronimo/Rappler

They must be able to accurately describe their beverages as evoking the sweetness of, say, dulce de leche, cheesecake, butter cookies…the list goes on. The same also goes for aromas, like fruity notes of apricots, passionfruit, and peaches.

Tap into your inner storyteller

While flavor and technique do take the front seat in these competitions, the barista’s message is perhaps what sets each competitor apart from other finalists. 

According to former National Brewers Cup titleholder and now reigning National Barista champion Gio Visitacion, it traces back to what usually does well in competitions, which he finds are the concepts that can be understood by both professionals and consumers, as well as those that reflect the industry’s progress over the years. 

Depending on the barista, one may also choose to conceptualize their courses first and only then build a story around it, while a select few have chosen to do the opposite. 

The messages in this year’s routines paid homage to heartfelt themes such as tradition, innovation, connection, and sustainability, but it was Visitacion’s winning spiel on feedback that secured his well-earned ticket to the Worlds. 

THROUGH THE NOISE. The Good Cup Coffee Company President and 2024 National Barista Champion discusses the significance of feedback among consumers, roasters, farmers, and the barista. Mika Geronimo/Rappler

A DJ himself, the Cebuano roaster’s sonic routine began with ringing ambient music that represents how feedback, both in audio and in the world of coffee, could be challenging to hear. As Visitacion prepared and served his courses, his music became more upbeat yet controlled, signifying how feedback, when listened to, can actually serve as one of the most significant ingredients and tools in the industry. 

“Your concept is not only the one that will score you high but it’s also how you are able to connect this concept to the coffee you’re serving,” Visitacion told Rappler.

Here, intention and strategy are the keys to an extraordinary routine.

Train, train, train…and train again

What casual coffee drinkers and budding baristas may be taken aback by is the grueling preparation that goes into those succinct 15 minutes. Competitors in the scene may as well be professional athletes.

BRINGING ALL THE SMOKE. 2nd-year HRM student Louis Anjello Cheng infuses the aroma of cinnamon and coconut into his signature course. Mika Geronimo/Rappler

Most of this year’s competitors have dedicated about a month or two to assembling their courses and their messages. Some would also enlist the help of coaches, who have also been finalists in previous competitions. These mentors cover everything from ideation, hand-eye coordination, discipline, and stage presence. 

Prior to braving the Nationals, most of this year’s finalists have also sought out experience at smaller-scale competitions at trade shows, brew showdowns, conventions, and other local events. 

Make every move (and peso) count

Going through the competition circuit can get quite expensive, shared 18-year-old HRM student Louis Anjello Cheng.

“Competing in a competition this big is not that cost-friendly. Specialty coffee can go up to P5,000 to P16,000 per kilo,” he shared.

For competition purposes, Cheng recommends purchasing at least 15 kilos. 

This excludes other expenses that a competitor must also keep in mind, like equipment as well as conducting R&D on different milks and beans. 

There’s also a certain level of not only expertise but endurance and problem-solving skills that shape a finalist – let alone a national champion. 

Anything could go wrong in the span of 15 minutes. Microphones and audio files could get corrupted or broken, grinders and machines can get faulty, ingredients may run out, or a competitor could miscalculate a step as they pace around their station. 

BACK TO BASICS. 2024 National Barista Champion Gio Visitacion prepares his milk course for his panel of judges. Mika Geronimo/Rappler

“Fix it like how a barista does in a cafe. It all comes back to the basics,” Visitacion said.

In the lead-up to the Nationals, Visitacion prepared a rough estimate of more than 100 cups of coffee. “It’s like 1% improvement every run, and you compound that into 100 runs then you’ll  have 100% improvement.” 

Have a need for speed (and efficiency)

On the other end of the spectrum, you have established competitors like Henry & Sons President and 2019 National Barista Champion Michael Harris Conlin, who told Rappler that after logging his runs on ChatGPT, he discovered that he had spent roughly 2,500 hours preparing for the Nationals.

“However, I’ve been preparing for this for two years since the pandemic, brewing the idea, building the foundations of the routine.”

After his first try and subsequent loss in 2018, Conlin took it upon himself to shift his lifestyle completely in order to stay in tip-top shape, going as far as observing a pescatarian diet and running five kilometers every day. All these, he shared, were to improve his endurance and speed for competition day.

CHAMPION RETURNS. After a year’s worth of preparation, former National Barista Champion Michael Harris Conlin looks at the audience with relief after his routine for the 2024 Nationals. Mika Geronimo/Rappler

It all boils down to having a solid purpose behind competing. Getting into the grind solely for the prestige and furthering your career is not at all sustainable given the immense time and effort that goes behind the preparation, for any coffee competition for that matter. 

Conlin emphasized that “it has to be purposeful. It can’t just be about the barista. It has to be about who’s around the barista.”

Community comes first

The competition has proven to be more than a thrilling search for the country’s final representative on the world stage – it has become more so a celebration. 

While there is a necessary sense of secrecy veiling each competitor’s routine from one another, the impression all finalists give is honestly not as competitive as one may think. It may as well be because of their motivations, which are roughly one and the same.

“Us competitors, we’re not really against each other. More like we’re working on it together kasi yung primary goal namin is to uplift yung coffee quality and yung awareness (Our primary goal is to uplift the Filipino coffee quality and the awareness of it),” Coffee Central Palawan owner and college student Patrisha Kaye Peneyra told Rappler. 

Peneyra also admitted that like any career in the food and beverage business, there is often a stigma associated with baristas that “[hanggang] diyan ka lang (that you’ll only go so far).”

“But it’s so much more than that,” she said.

SIGNATURE COURSE. Coffee Central Palawan owner and college student Patrisha Kaye Peneyra engages the judges for her signature course. Mika Geronimo/Rappler

As much as the Philippine National Barista Competition acts as a gathering for the industry, it has also managed to change the way the general public perceives baristas. By advancing the profession in a competitive setting, even more Filipinos could begin to appreciate the labor that goes into a single cup of good quality coffee. 

And finally, see the bigger picture

While some baristas opted to source beans from renowned coffee-producing countries like Colombia, Panama, and Honduras, several competitors also highlighted the value of the country’s biodiversity and capacity for coffee production. Coffee beans from Iloilo, Mt. Apo, Bulacan, and Calamba also took center stage in this year’s National Barista Championship.

As Filipino coffee garners more and more recognition in the Philippines and globally, consumers begin to understand the value behind what they pay for and, in turn, would become more intentional with their coffee drinking. 

It is these baristas’ hope that the general public would patronize quality local coffee, supporting our farmers in the process, especially with challenges posed by climate change and inflation.

While coffee is for anyone and everyone to appreciate, pursuing competition is a whole different beast. But if there’s anything to learn from the finalists of this year’s Philippine National Barista Competition, it’s that there is a thriving community ready to hone any budding barista’s potential. 

All it takes is the courage to put one’s self out there, the proper motivation, and a unique message to tell. – Rappler.com

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