Coffee Conversation with World Barista Champion Pete Licata

Pete and I met in 2013, at a barista party prior to the World Barista Championships and we bonded over a gingerbeer. It was the first time I saw a WBC up close instead of via livestream, but it sure wasn't Pete's first rodeo.

I always found his stage presence both confident and slightly intimidating, but when we started talking he was one of the kindest people I have ever met. When we saw each other backstage at the competition, he made time to taste our espresso and give feedback.

At the legendary WBC Afterparty, directly after his amazing win while everyone was jumping in to congratulate him and take his picture, we managed to have another beer together and toast to his success. We stayed in contact ever since and he's since then always taken the time to give me advice when I needed it most. Pete has been a role model champion for me since I started competing. In fact, I'm pretty sure that's why it's called com-pete-ing. Just kidding.

You’ve been working and competing in coffee for a long time. What made you compete in the first place? And what drove you to keep going?

I was pretty fortunate to start by first barista job working for a company that was heavily involved in SCA and WBC. Because this company was into it, I was encouraged to compete. But honestly it probably wasn’t until I met Tim Wendelboe (reigning 2004 WBC champ) at an event in Kansas that I thought about there being a professional side to this fun job I was doing. All it took was one season of preparing to compete, trying to perfect everything I could think of, combined with that slightly frightening / slightly exhilarating feeling of performing on stage, and I was hooked. I loved that there was so much depth to learn about what I considered a simple process. That kept me coming back, but meeting and making friends with other like minded baristas around the country and globe made me feel like I belonged to a group. Every time competitions rolled back around I got to have a bit of a reunion. That made it extra special for me.

How has winning WBC in 2013 affected your life?

It certainly changed my life. There are opportunities to fly around the world, collaborate with others, and hopefully get the chance to find career movement. Strangely though I was a bit lost. I didn’t have a plan on how to take advantage AFTER winning. I was primarily focused on trying to win. So it made me much more aware of the need to not just have the ambition to do something great, but also to plan how to make that accomplishment into a success in the long term.

If you could, what would you like to change in the coffee industry?

I would like to change the way people see coffee in terms of price and quality. We do a decent job of buying coffees at better prices in the Specialty Coffee segment, but we don’t do as good at differentiating that coffee to show consumers why it should cost more.

This is a difficult thing that some consumers have learned over time, but most people lump all coffee into the same bucket (outside of perhaps “Gesha” coffees).

A well produced coffee from a small farmer may fetch a fair price, but we don’t put our foot down when it comes to selling that coffee. That coffee shouldn’t sell for a very close price to those big commercially produced and roasted coffees at a chain store. They are fundamentally different, from the cost of the farmer to the packaging, to the training of the barista who made it. But we often are afraid to be proud that it should cost more. It can’t cost the same because that tells the customer that it is no different, or at least no harder to attain, than lower quality coffees. I know this is a difficult prospect for small business owners, as no one wants to lose out on sales because we priced our product too high. If I could change this one point of view on coffee though, I would in a heartbeat.

What do you think is the value of coffee competitions for our industry?

The easy answer is career advancement. Most people know that competition winners can find new successes in their careers, but it’s more than that in my opinion. To me it’s about visibility and networking. Meeting colleagues in the industry grows your social connections, and can open up all sorts of new opportunities. By being on stage you get known, and the more you are known, the more people remember you. The more people remember you and see your dedication and skill, the more they trust you to be an expert in your craft. So in my view you want to make the top levels of comp not just because you want to try and win, but also because the more rounds you compete in the more people know you. That’s the real win. Because even if you don’t win that comp, your world begins to open up to other possibilities. This of course extends even beyond competing. Just think about when you and I met in Melbourne. You weren’t competing yet, but you were active in the community. We may not even be having this conversation if it wasn’t for the networking that happens at coffee events, and that one in particular!

What do you think are some of the most common mistakes competitors make?

Overthinking the things that have little impact, and under thinking the things that matter most. For example, I see newer competitors obsess over table wares and fonts for a printed card. I’ve done this myself. But at the same time they are assuming the coffee will behave the way they expect on the day, or they don’t dig into every detail possible that could impact their biggest scores (hint, it’s the multipliers…) Don’t get me wrong, I love spoons with little gold coffee beans on them and Riedel wine glasses for my water, but if I get a stock spoon and $1 glass to drink from my score will be exactly the same. On the other hand, your long hours perfecting the milk pour and temp for a balanced drink will have a huge impact on your score.

You have been involved in the Glitter Cat Barista Bootcamp, do you think that there is a large gap between men and women when it comes to competing?

Yes, but it depends on the context. In the US we actually had a lot of female winners over the years, and a very high percentage compared to the number of women competing. I don’t think there was an issue with females being able to win in the US, BUT there was a low representation of them in the mid to top levels overall. My theory is that there was some resistance for women to get the same resources for competition, which hurt this type of ranking as well. So really we just had a few badass women who kicked the dudes asses a reasonable amount of the time. There were a few years where the female representation was low in overall turnout, and there were men winning constantly, but that tide seems to have shifted in part thanks to Glitter Cat. T Ben has done an amazing job in lifting up all people who have had poor representation in competition in the US, and I’ve been proud to help as much as I can. Now with all that said, this situation in the US is not what has happened in other countries. Some are good about equal opportunity or biases, while others haven’t. In the WBC level though, we only got our first WBC champion in 2018! There have been a few win-worthy women, but not nearly as many national female champs as men. I certainly hope this is changing though!

What piece of advice would you like to give barista’s who are considering to compete?

Just do it. You can talk yourself out of just about anything if you contemplate it enough. And like with most everything in life, the more you just try and learn, the more you will get better at it. There is no replacement for the experience of competing. You have to prioritise the time and commitment, but it’s worth the experience at the very least. Once you are ready to give it a go, take it in chunks. Practice just your introductory speech, then your espresso service, then milk, etc. Take a break in between each section and think through exactly how you want to do each bit, then put it all together into a 15 minute presentation and refine from there. Lastly, practice working while you talk. This is what separates the low and high scorers a lot of the time. Being able to multitask (speak clearly, prep coffee, clean the bench, etc) means you can both say more and do more in your time. It should also help avoid going over time.

If you could go back in time 10 years, what would you like to tell your younger self?

Let’s see, in 2010? Since I was already in the middle of my competition career (and actually started planning my coffee picking and processing for comp in 2011), I would have told myself to think bigger. Think about the big career plans I want to do AFTER winning.

Even if I didn’t win I could have always shifted how to get those plans going. A lot of the time we focus on the difficulty of our current struggles rather than envisioning the bigger, longer term picture and swinging for the fence.

I know I would have had bigger and better success (more quickly) by doing this, and it can help anyone with aspirations in their life.

WBC '13 - Afterparty

Don’t dream small.

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