A Barista Championship Retrospective

To Begin

"I'm taking the year off to judge. I need to recalibrate."

I said that out loud for the first time, solidifying my intentions, within two hours of taking Runner Up in the 2024 United States Barista Championship. It was my second year in that position, third if you counted the 2022 World Barista Championship, and I was tired. I've always jokingly referred to the headspace that I go into during competition season as "comp brain". It's the whirlwind of repetition, strategic forethought, drink development, and script editing that inevitably consumes me in advance of any level of competition and I'd been in it since late-2018.

It's a headspace that I deeply love and, more often than not, thrive in but it was time to rest. Not quit, mind you, I'm afraid competition is an itch of mine that still needs scratching but I was long overdue to give my mind a break, to explore, and then come back with new energy (or at least, fingers crossed that's what will happen).

A long time ago, in the wake of my very first foray into barista competitions, I wrote a blog post detailing the epic highs and lows of coffee sports. That's a Riverdale reference, by the way. I feel the need to defend that while I do often find myself waxing poetic about USBC, I'm not all that bad yet. Regardless, sometimes I wish I could find that original blog post and read what my past, inevitably more naive, self wrote about the experience that ultimately sent me hurtling into a competition that has taken up so much of my life. 


All of that is to say that I think we're long overdue for an up-to-date competition retrospective. Perhaps a little look at each season and what came from them. Maybe you'll glean something from it, or maybe, through this exercise, I will. Either way, let's have at it. 

The 2019 Season

I remember it being the summer of 2018, just over a year after I'd started working as a barista, when I approached the owners of the shop I was working at and mentioned that I'd be interested in competing in the USBC. A seemingly insurmountable task that I'd only just learned about from YouTube but hey, coffee plus sports plus performance? That seemed right up my alley. 

The qualifying round of the competition was in December of 2018 in Denver, with the Nationals happening that following spring of 2019. It gave me a few months to wrangle together something that resembled a routine. Long afternoons after school were spent in the basement of the cafe, working on an old Synesso and an unbelievably clumpy grinder. My expectation of the glamorous rehearsal time that I'd seen featured in coffee documentaries was quickly tempered with the realization that I was going to spend most of my time sitting on a cement floor and poring over a Google Doc, endlessly deleting and re-adding singular words as if they alone were going to secure some sort of unprecedented first-year win. 

A table in a basement, on top of it is an espresso machine, grinder, and a variety of drink ingredients.

One of the funniest things that I remember from that first year has to do with the creation of my signature beverage. I had settled on a sort of shaken espresso riff and was using blueberry juice ice cubes, with the idea that the drink would then be diluted with blueberry rather than just water. I was making the ice cubes with one part blueberry juice and one part water but, for some reason, it didn't click that I should probably make the drink replicable and to do that, I probably needed the weight of my ingredients. When my coach and I arrived in Denver for Qualifiers and I was prepping my ingredients, he asked how much blueberry juice I needed in my ice cubes and I just sort of shrugged and answered, "Oh, I usually eyeball it."

I'm fairly certain he saw his life flash before his eyes upon learning that I was making my signature drink on vibes alone. 

I also made the confounding decision to wear chunky heels during my routine. In a competition where tripping and spilling something is basically game over, it was a choice that made little sense.

However, ice cubes and heels aside, I still managed to qualify for Nationals. I placed 18th at Qualifiers, which was the last spot to move on to the next round. Not only that, but I tied with the competitor in the 19th position, meaning the only reason I broke the tie was because my espresso scores were slightly higher. It was quite literally by a hair that the season continued for me. 

There was little time to celebrate though. Immediately, I began preparing for Nationals which were happening in Kansas City. I changed my coffee, routine theme, and drinks. This meant that I essentially had to start from scratch all over again plus add a course to my routine. 

Fast forward to Nationals, I was feeling on top of the world. I was rosy cheeked and armed with the overconfidence that only a freshly twenty year old can muster. I performed my routine, all but mic dropped during my last line, and stalked off stage with the feeling that I had just absolutely crushed it.

The realization that I'd completely forgotten my tactile calls for the signature beverage course slammed into me about thirty seconds later. 

Safe to say, I did not move past Round One of Nationals and, if I remember right, I ultimately ended up placing in the lower-middle overall. All of it was very standard first-time-competitor scoring problems: espresso didn't taste quite good enough, flavor calls were a bit off, routine had some gaps in synergy, spilled a little too much ground coffee. Oh, and I didn't say those darn signature beverage tactile calls. 

Still, I left the 2019 USBC Season fired up on a newfound love for coffee competitions and ideas already percolating for the next year. 

The 2020 Season

I've said before that my qualifying for Nationals in my first year competing did me more harm than good. At the very least, it provided me with a very painful yet valuable lesson. But we'll get to that shortly. 

I began the 2020 USBC Season slightly differently than 2019 and chose to do Preliminaries prior to Qualifiers. In short, Preliminaries are a non-essential round that happen pre-competition and are a way for newer competitors to try out competition on a smaller scale. At Preliminaries, you're all given a sponsored coffee a day or so prior to the competition and have a short amount of time to dial in your drinks, craft a small script, and perform. I placed third at that Seattle Preliminary and immediately got to work preparing for the upcoming Qualifiers round. 

It was here that things started to fall apart, fully unbeknownst to me at the time. 

After another whirlwind of preparation, my coaches and I found ourselves in Nashville for Qualifiers. It felt like a big deal. Both of my bosses were there to coach and volunteer, and I'd set myself a precedent for the level of competition I could achieve during the previous year. I'm sure you already see where this is going. 

During the routine I did in Nashville, I remember feeling so good. Good enough that when I spotted Liz Chai over the machine, taking photos for Sprudge, I had enough capacity to look straight into the camera mid-routine and grin. My shots were pulling within parameters, my milk was freeze-distilled, and I was wearing a more sensible shoe. Also, yes, I remembered all of my flavor and tactile calls. 

Later that evening, we all gathered around the competition stage, eagerly awaiting results. Like before, the top 18 competitors would move onto Nationals. They began announcing. 18th spot... 17th spot... 16th spot...

Had I been able to improve my score that much to place in the top 15? How exciting.

It wasn't until they announced the top placing competitor that the sobering realization hit me.

I had not, in fact, qualified for Nationals.

Womp womp. 

After a very emotional night of tacos and tears, I began to reflect on what went wrong because gosh dang it, I wanted to keep competing. The conclusion I finally reached was that I had stopped trying. Now, sure, I had practiced plenty and, on paper, done all of the right things to prepare but the issue lay in that I'd mentally set the precedent for myself that I would inherently reach Nationals. On what merit? Simply the merit that I'd done it once before and so surely that was the new floor for what I could achieve. On a Dunning-Kruger Effect model, I was sitting on the peak of Mt. Stupid and quickly sliding into the Valley of Despair. 

I had not pushed myself to think creatively about my routine, hadn't put in nearly the time required to script edit, and had gone into the season with an attitude that set me up for failure. 

It was a difficult, painful, but incredibly valuable lesson in humility and work ethic.

Moving out of the season, I promised myself two things. 

1. Any future 'failures' in competition would not happen for lack of trying. I was going to give 200% of my effort so that if things did not go according to plan, I would know that, at the very least, I gave it my best shot and could be proud of my effort. 

2. I had to have some other primary metric for success in competition beyond just placement. 

And with that, the 2020 Season was closed and I was ready for 2021.

The 2021 Season

Turns out that a pandemic is a very good reason not to hold a competition where everyone drinks out of the same cup. There was no formal USBC season this year.

The 2022 Season

It had effectively been over two years since I'd competed, my last official competition appearance being at that late-2019 Qualifier that preempted the 2020 Nationals. In that time, much in my life had changed. Hell, much of the world had changed. I'd graduated university, moved from Corvallis to Portland, gotten married, and had developed a sort of online career through MorganDrinksCoffee while still working as a barista. Yet, in the back of my mind, competition was still a constant itch that I couldn't seem to shake. As 2022 began, conversational whispers around the structure of the season began to float around. Would there be a USBC season? Did we have time for it? Would there be Qualifiers? Was there even a way to do it safely?

It was ultimately decided that yes, there would be a national USBC competition at the 2022 SCA Expo in Boston. However, very differently from past years, competitors would be chosen through a lottery system rather than Prelims and Qualifiers due to the limited time there was left to organize the season. So I submitted to the lottery. Who knew? Perhaps I'd be selected, perhaps not.

I received notification that I had indeed been chosen to compete in the 2022 Season approximately two months before the event would be happening. 

This might seem like a lot of time to prep for a barista competition but it's not. It's actually a terrifyingly short amount. 

Suddenly, all of us who had been chosen to compete had to fit what could easily be six to eight months of preparation into a less than two. 

As many of you know, this was also the first season that I worked with Onyx Coffee Lab, a partnership that was born out of pure coincidence and practicality for both parties and later developed into an official role on their marketing team.

The following two months were, to that point, some of the most intense that I'd experienced. Every moment that I wasn't working, I was in the Black Rabbit Service lab prepping for a level of competition that I hadn't been at for what felt like ages. There was so much time that needed to be dedicated to simply remembering how to prepare for USBC. Additionally, there was a level of purely self-imposed pressure with the fact that I was working with a company that had historically done very well in competition. They were putting an immense amount of trust and time into me which was a privilege and responsibility I didn't take lightly. 

The final week leading up to Nationals felt like a hurricane. I reworked my entire signature beverage course, had to figure out how to fully rig my own livestream from on stage (an even longer story that perhaps I'll go into someday), and through all of this, I was publicly documenting all of my preparation to my audience in the hopes that they would find this strange, wonderful, niche world of coffee sports as fascinating as I did. 

So. Boston SCA Expo. We had finally arrived. 

For someone who has never actually run a marathon, I certainly compare performing a barista routine to one frequently. But truly, performing one single round of competition is a herculean task in the level of perfection and concentration necessary to score well. And, if you'll remember, I'd only ever performed one single time in every competition I'd been to. Qualifiers was only one round and I'd never made it to semi-finals at Nationals before. 

After I completed my Round One routine, I left the stage with a wholly different feeling than any year prior. I knew what things had gone wrong. Instead of feeling high on the adrenaline of simply performing, I was immediately recalling every part of my routine that hadn't gone exactly as planned. Later, I would come to appreciate that that reaction was a symptom of understanding the competition and scoresheets far better than before but at the time, it was a stomach-churning feeling to grapple with while waiting for the semi-finals announcements. 

However, much to my shock, I made it to semi-finals.

That marathon I just ran? Yeah, do it again. But better.

I'm fairly certain I just stared at my husband after announcements and muttered something about needing to freeze distill more milk and buy more limes. 

My semi-finals routine the following day was a bit better, I'd settled out of my nerves more and the stage felt more familiar. Not perfect, in any sense, but I did feel like I made some improvements.

Then I made it to finals. 

I could try to put to words the way my vision narrowed after those announcements, the way my hands shook while writing my final set of menu cards, the way I stopped being able to breathe right but I don't think I'd be able to do any of those twenty four hours justice. Symptoms of a panic attack? Probably. But more so than that, this thing that I'd always dreamed about achieving was right there, within grasp. 

I think for most of us, when we enter something that is framed within a competition, there is some level of desire to do well. To place on that podium and take home a trophy with a number on it. That level of desire will vary person to person, surely, but to compete is to have that drive engrained in some measure somewhere within you. 

I knew, deep inside of me, when I started my finals routine, that I needed to leave it all on stage. Every voice crack of emotion that I'd been too nervous to let out in previous rounds, the attention to detail in every step of coffee preparation, the time spent connecting with the judges, all of it. 

And you know what? After all that anxiety and ripping into myself over silly little mistakes that had happened up to that point... I had fun. Performing that routine was so, so, so much fun.

Later that night, I was awarded the title of 2022 United States Barista Champion. It didn't feel real, sometimes it still doesn't. 

And with that, the 2022 Season came to a close-

Oh, wait, no, then came Worlds.

The 2022 World Barista Championship

Ever get so fixated on trying to move a boulder that you don't notice the mountain behind it? 

Not to say that I wasn't aware that the World Barista Championship would obviously follow the US season but as a competitor who had never even made it past Round One before, it was a level that seemed impossibly unattainable. That was, until I was staring it in the face. 

There was little time to celebrate my win in Boston as it became all too clear that I needed to throw myself into training to represent my country on the world stage in Melbourne. I made the decision to scrap my whole routine, sans the coffees I was using, and start from scratch. Something bigger, better, louder would be needed for Worlds. I was a pretty fresh competitor, all things considered, and my imposter syndrome was at an all time high. 

The United States had historically ranked well at the World Barista Championship. To perform poorly at the US level was one thing, in a competition space where most of the competitors were my peers and friends, there was some emotional security and solace in that. Worlds would be a different matter. Coffee competitions had always been my sports. In 2019, when Sam Spillman was competing in WBC, I remember having lined up my 10-minute paid break with her Round One performance so that I could tune into the livestream. I'd watched every available barista routine on YouTube multiple times over. When Agnieszka Rojewska had become the first woman to win the WBC in 2018, I'd found myself with a lump in my throat and happy tears in my eyes.

To compete at Worlds was more than the next level of competition, it was sharing the stage with the coffee professionals who I'd all but idolized and dang it, I didn't want to make a complete fool out of myself. 

So I rehearsed. I practiced until my hands were painfully calloused from holding a portafilter and I could milk-share four cortados with my eyes closed. 

Now... before we move forward, there's something you should know about my Worlds routine. I'd made the very Theater Kid decision to intentionally break my judges' espresso cups at the end of the routine and then serve the signature course in cups that had been remade utilizing the method of Japanese Kintsugi. I had a rubber mallet and everything, it was quite dramatic. 

If you'll remember what I mentioned earlier in this blog, barista competitions are a space where possibly the worst thing you can hear is a glass breaking and bully for me, I was going to break four of them every single time I performed. Arriving in Melbourne, I knew my routine was going to raise some eyebrows, hopefully some in approval but likely a fair amount in disapproval too. It was a loud and disruptive display that I had planned but thematically, it fit into my thesis and I was committed to going big if this was my one shot at this.

When I arrived in Australia, there was no time to rest. In the days leading up to the WBC, myself and my coaches were hopping from lab to lab, getting in every single practice rep we could while every other competitor did the same. 

Round One arrived within the blink of an eye and suddenly, the game had begun. 

Truthfully, I have a hard time remembering much from those competition days. I'm fairly certain I was surviving solely off of bananas and protein bars, the two things I could always force myself to eat while in the thrall of competition nerves.

I had no sense of how well I was doing or scoring, yet I was progressing so it must at least be good enough. Something I could settle for if it meant I got another chance to perform the routine and serve the coffees that I'd spent months and months falling in love with. 

Then, once again, I made it to finals. There was video footage captured of the moments leading up to my name being called and it's blatantly visible how nervous I was. I'm standing there, head down, wildly fidgeting with the nob on my watch. 

I placed second in the World Barista Championship, taking the runner up position to 2022 World Barista Champion Anthony Douglas of Australia. 

What washed over me in the following hours was an incomprehensible blend of emotions. It was celebration for what my team and I had achieved, so much celebration for that, and yet, there was still an overwhelming sense of loss that I didn't know how to quantify at the time. It wasn't loss over the WBC title, I mean, sure, one always hopes a little bit to walk away with first but that was by far the least important thing on my mind.

It was loss over the fact that I thought the WBC Finals was the last time I'd ever compete. It was the closing of a book that I'd hardly begun. 

And so we left Melbourne and went home. The 2022 Season was officially over and I had no idea what came next, if anything.

The 2023 Season

Not to be Captain Obvious but it's pretty clear that somewhere after leaving Melbourne I decided that I would continue competing. Upon returning home, I spent about a month grappling with the void that believing I was done had left. The structure of competition had always pushed me out of my comfort zone in ways that had helped me grow as a barista and coffee professional, ways that had shown me how little I actually knew while still forcing me to explore and learn. I was and am an easily distracted person, the kind of student who always wants to learn but is at full odds with how to how to get my mind to absorb new material. Competition had somehow proven itself to be a format that I was able to focus within for what felt like the first time in my life.

So I opened a new Google Doc and named it "USBC 2023".

 To be vulnerable here for a second, upon reflecting back on this particular season, there was definitely another reason I didn't let myself rest between 2022 Worlds and the 2023 Nationals. There was a part of me afraid of losing momentum. If I took a year off, would I be able to do it again or would the muscle memory and rules simply slip away from me? 

I wasn't willing to risk finding out yet. 

To challenge myself, I took a slightly more unconventional route when building out my 2023 routine by serving the signature course first. I also focused a lot more heavily on the science of coffee's flavor expression, something that differed from my previously more hospitality-driven routines. Additionally, due to being the incumbent US Barista Champion, I had a buy-in for the National level and didn't need to compete at Qualifiers for the season. 

To continue being bluntly honest, this was a hard season and it was very much my own fault. I all but tossed the rule I'd given myself back in 2019 out the window and made the grave mistake of not giving myself a success metric beyond placement. The emotional rollercoaster that this particular season ended up being is the exact reason I drill into any new competitors that ask for advice that they need to enjoy competing for some reason, any reason, other than winning. Barista competitions can and should be fun, they should be an avenue for growth and community. Otherwise, what's the point?

Regardless, I competed again, this time in Portland and let me tell you, being able to sleep in my own bed while competing was a luxury that I don't anticipate ever having again. After a somewhat rough Round One, I made it to Semis and then again to Finals. Each round felt like I was clawing through mud, desperately trying to prove to myself that the 2022 Season wasn't a fluke. In the agonizingly long period of waiting that always happens backstage right before the awards ceremony, I remember sitting on the ground and talking to a long-time competitor and friend. With pre-announcement nausea at an all time high, I said something along the lines of, "Perhaps when this is done, I can just crumble into (metaphorical) dust."

Writing that out now seems rather silly. I'm sure it seems equally silly and dramatic for you to read. However, in those moments when it feels like you've cracked yourself open to create something, in this case a routine, and that thing is put to rigorous evaluation, it's hard not to feel vulnerable to the results. Also, don't you forget, these are coffee sports and I took/take them quite seriously. 

Finally, as is tradition, all six of us in the USBC finals were hustled out onto the stage and the announcements began. 

6th, 5th, 4th, 3rd-

Had I done it? Had it really happened?

My name was called for 2nd. 

And guess what?

I did not crumble into dust, nor did the world fall out from beneath my feet. I was happybecause only a moment later did my friend Isaiah Sheese's name get called as the 2023 US Barista Champion and that was something exciting to celebrate.

You see, barista competitions are unique in that you aren't directly competing with your fellow competitors. You are competing in a format where you know the rules and your greatest adversary is yourself. 

As I gathered up my scoresheets and took a second to breathe backstage after announcements had wrapped, I found the sense of peace that I'd been missing all weekend. My scoresheets told me that I had, indeed, done my best and that I should be proud of my work. And in that moment, that was all I wanted. 

I packed up my wares, carted everything out of the Oregon Convention Center, and all but demanded that we go eat tacos. I was sick of surviving off of bananas and protein bars. 

The 2024 Season

Upon confirming that I was going to once more chuck my hat into the ring of barista comps, I quite literally sat myself down and gave myself a lecture so as to not repeat the mistakes of the previous year. 

Morgan, you are going to create a routine that is fun for you. Also, you are going to commit to learning something new through this routine. I don't care what it is but you're going to challenge yourself, dang it.

I'd lost a bit of the plot in my 2023 routine, heck, I may have lost a little bit of myself in the stress of it all and that wasn't going to happen again. My 2024 routine was going to have my fingerprints all over it, scoresheets be damned.

I went back to my theater kid and performance roots when ideating what my routine would look like and be about. I was working with an absolutely incredible anaerobic natural Gesha from Kai Janson in Panama, an elegant coffee that tasted like strawberries, florals, and the color of pastel pink. Upon learning more about the region that the coffee was from and talking with Kai, I had this vision of a set piece that would transport the judges and audience to the high elevation slopes of Panama. It was going to be an ambitious build that would need to be fully custom since I also really wanted to have a dry ice fog moment on stage too. I mean, really, how had I not used dry ice in a routine yet?

I had Pinterest boards filled with scenes of fine dining plating, conceptual mini terrariums, and detailed aquatic hardscaping. I had slap-dash sketches of how I would rig a dry ice fog to erupt from under my final signature beverage. I had an office full of preserved moss, rocks, and wood scraps. I was having so much fun. 

The Qualifier came before Nationals, it was a single event where all prospective competitors for the season would compete for the top 24 spots that would be represented at the national level. I arrived in Houston two days before the event, an even hundred pounds of gear in tow. Over the course of 48 hours, I hand assembled each of my sets in the Airbnb, emptying an entire tube of Gorilla Glue and two bags of preserved moss in the process. 

For someone with very little crafting knowledge, I was pretty tickled with how they came out.

I took first place at the Qualifier and immediately went back to work, readying for Nationals. 

I was lucky enough that my best friend, Niki (very skilled in woodworking), took pity on my Craftstore Core set pieces. She offered to help me engineer better looking and functioning ones for Nationals and I immediately took her up on the offer while I got to work on finalizing the drink courses and script. 

I spent two weeks testing and blending every single alternative milk I could get my hands on, freeze distilled every liquid I could, and even poked around cryo-dessicated milk for a while. It was the part about competition that I loved the most, the practice and iteration as you got closer and closer to a perfect routine. It was the part that I hadn't taken the time to enjoy in 2023. 

When I arrived in Rancho Cucamonga to compete in Nationals, I could confidently say that I had a backup plan for every possible thing that could go wrong on stage during my routine. There would be no clawing through mud this year because I was going to go on stage, serve coffee, and have a good time. I was traveling with four hyperchillers, two rolls of painters tape, six sharpies, and enough Paragon Espresso balls to play Hungry Hungry Hippos with. There was no tool or on-stage movement that I hadn't evaluated and optimized ten times over. 

Every competitor's preparation routine is different. Which, honestly, is part of why I'm writing this all out in as much detail as I am. I find a lot of value in learning how other people prepare and I hope that my methods may perhaps provide a similar benefit to someone else. That being said, I thrive on rehearsal and accounting for contingencies. Only when I feel fully secure in my routine am I able to somewhat step out of my own body and enjoy the action of performing and serving the judges. I have to reach the point of trust in myself that I know that my mouth will keep moving and saying the words of my script even if disaster befalls me onstage. 

I'll spare you the round-by-round commentary of Nationals except for one little piece. When I made it to the Finals round, I had a sort of "screw it" moment. 

You see, before we'd even arrived at Nationals, I'd made the decision that if I didn't win in 2024, I was going to take the following year off from competing. A break, I figured. Judge, volunteer, give back to the competition circuit in some way. So when I began my Finals routine, I fell back on that trust I'd developed with myself through rehearsal and just let myself enjoy the routine. I'm fairly certain if you watch any recording of that round, you can even hear my voice crack a little bit at the very end because of how into it I got. 

In my defense, my goal was to make the judges cry so it's not entirely ridiculous that I made myself cry a tiny bit. 

After calling time, I made my way over to the emcee, Isaiah, by the way, and just let out a breath, saying "That was fun."

You likely remember how this blog post began. I came in 2nd, runner up, to the incredibly talented Frank La. 

I am keeping my promise to myself and taking a year off. I'll be sitting on the other side of the table and learning how to judge, something I've wanted to do for a very long time.

In the weeks after returning from Rancho Cucamonga, I did some math with my scoresheets.

In 2023, during my final round, I earned 81% of all possible points. In 2024, during my final round, I earned 89%. I'd spent a long time believing that the only way I could prove to myself that I was a good competitor was to win, a not entirely unselfish goal that neglected the real benefit of competition. The simple act of improving slowly, bettering your knowledge, and supporting those who compete alongside you with a mutual love and respect for coffee. 

To Be Continued

I initially titled this section In Conclusion but that's not really accurate, is it? 

There will be a next time and there may be a next time after that. For now though, it's a season of learning something new and frankly, that has me more excited than ever.