March 30, 2023

Following “The Road to Milan”: Is the World Barista Championship becoming more mainstream?


Many coffee professionals and enthusiasts alike agree that the World Barista Championship (WBC) is one of the greatest stages for showcasing excellence and innovation in the specialty coffee sector. Whether it’s competitors using rare coffee species and varieties or showcasing new and unique ways of preparing beverages, the WBC sets the precedent for the rest of the specialty coffee sector.

But beyond the coffee sector, wider interest in the World Barista Championship seems to have grown in recent months. For instance, the upcoming Road to Milan docuseries – which follows Onyx Coffee Lab’s Andrea Allen training for the 2021 WBC – recently won the Best Series Award at the 2023 Oregon Documentary Film Festival. 

Moreover, the series has also been selected for the 2023 New York City Independent Film Festival. Clearly, industries and stakeholders beyond specialty coffee are starting to take notice.

This leads us to a pertinent question: is the World Barista Championship becoming more mainstream? And if so, what does it mean for specialty coffee?

You may also like our article on whether the World Barista Championship should be in Spanish.

The main stage at the World Coffee Championships.

Are more people learning about coffee competitions?

Interest in specialty coffee has certainly been growing among the wider population over the past decade or so. Today, more and more people are drinking specialty coffee in many countries around the world

There is also plenty of discussion about the upcoming The Road to Milan docuseries. The documentary focuses on Onyx Coffee Lab co-founder Andrea Allen’s journey to the 2021 WBC. 

Presented by Pacific Food Barista Series and produced by Seattle studio Wildly, the series follows Andrea over three years as she trained and competed at the 2021 US Barista Championships, earning herself a spot in the 2021 World Barista Championships in Milan where she placed second.

Making The Road to Milan

Nils Clauson is one of the co-founders of Wildly.

The Road to Milan is the culmination of three years documenting Andrea Allen’s journey in an effort to become a leading world barista,” he says. “When we first met the Allens, we immediately saw that they lived by their core: ‘Never Settle for Good Enough’.

“We tried to bring that same essence to every element of our filmmaking process,” he adds. “Whether it was the in-your-face, pressure-filled experiences like barista competitions or the slower, at-home sequences with family and friends in Arkansas, we wanted to push it.”

Andrea Allen co-founded Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas, US with her husband Jon Allen.

“During editing, we kept asking each other, ‘who is this film for?’,” she says. “We agreed that we wanted The Road to Milan to be for folks outside of the specialty coffee industry.

“Our industry is incredible, but also small, and many coffee professionals already know much of the story that’s being told,” she adds. “So Wildly added in headings and chronologies about the competitions, as well as explanations about what the WBC is.

“The goal is that you can watch The Road to Milan without knowing anything about coffee competitions, so that any limited knowledge isn’t a barrier to enjoying the story,” Andrea continues.

The documentary is not yet available for public viewing. However, it has been receiving significant recognition on the US film festival circuit. At the spring 2023 Oregon Documentary Film Festival, The Road to Milan won the Best Series Award. And as mentioned earlier, the docuseries is also up for selection at the 2023 New York Independent Film Festival.

Other documentaries and media about the WBC

Although The Road to Milan will certainly mean further recognition for high-level coffee competitions, it is not the first piece of media beyond the industry to shine a spotlight on the WBC.

In 2016, The Coffee Man documentary was released – a film about 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic. The documentary has since been screened in more than 55 countries and translated into 12 languages.

A year later, a Business Insider article covered 2017 US Barista Champion Kyle Ramage’s routine. During his winning performance, Kyle used dry ice to freeze his roasted coffee. Kyle explained this helped to increase the sweetness and flavour clarity of his coffee.

In 2020 USA Today documented Samantha Spillman’s journey from winning the 2019 US Barista Championship to competing at the WBC in Boston, Massachusetts the same year. 

Furthermore, earlier this month, the official trailer for the upcoming film Coffee Wars was released. The feature film follows the story of a fictional vegan coffee shop owner who decides to take part in the WBC using only plant-based milks. 

This film even echoes specific events we’re seeing in the specialty coffee sector. After a push from the community for the WBC to be more inclusive, the Specialty Coffee Association updated the rules and regulations for the 2023 World Barista Championship in December 2022. As a result, competitors can now use plant milks in the milk beverage course.

Altogether, this is evidence that over the last seven or so years, the profile of the WBC has steadily grown and drawn in interest from beyond the specialty coffee sector.

So how prominent can we expect the WBC to become?

While awareness has been growing in recent years, it’s important to remember that specialty coffee only makes up a small part of the wider industry. It is also (by its very nature) exclusive. Roasters market specialty coffee as a “superior” product, and it thereby comes with a higher price tag. 

This, in turn, means that the discussions about real innovation at the highest level aren’t prominent, widely discussed, or accessible for most of the world’s coffee drinkers. For instance, this includes experimental new processing methods, emerging technologies for espresso extraction, and so on.

The same goes for high-level competitions like the World Barista Championship. Although it’s well known and highly regarded in the specialty coffee sector, the WBC isn’t common knowledge for people outside the industry.

We may certainly see some growth. However, this does mean there could effectively be a ceiling on how prominent coffee competitions could become.

In some parts of the world, the role of the barista is sometimes not taken seriously as a career path – despite the wide range of soft and hard skills that the position requires. Some coffee shop customers may not consider the barista position to be especially skilled or nuanced, or appreciate how hard baristas have to work.

Changing perceptions?

However, with films and documentaries like The Coffee Man, The Road to Milan, and Coffee Wars improving awareness about the WBC, we could also see greater recognition for the role of the barista as a result.

“So often when we talk about [The Road to Milan], folks ask us, ‘You’re following who? Baristas compete internationally? Are you joking?’,” Nils says. “So one of the toughest challenges for the series was framing barista competitions for viewers who had never experienced them.

“Our hope is that the series allows new communities to engage with coffee competitions, as well as specialty coffee in general,” he adds.

Andrea agrees, saying: “While I do think that this film could make coffee competitions more mainstream, I think it’s really a story about a journey and growth – as well as the community along the way.”

As we see the WBC become more mainstream and recognition start to broaden, it’s also worth speculating on what this might mean for the long-term future of the competition.

Making more people aware of high-level coffee competitions, and therefore the extent of specialty coffee consumption, can only be a good thing. But at the same time, bringing in a bigger audience isn’t always as simple as it might sound on paper. Only time will tell.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on what the new plant milk rule will mean for the World Barista Championship.

Photo credits: World Coffee Events, Nils Clauson, Curran Ferrey

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