So everyone is keyed up about soccer right now. But there’s intense competition going on in the coffee world that’s got coffee fans all excited. From April-October, it’s Cup of Excellence (CoE) season in nine of the world’s best coffee growing countries. And while we coffee enthusiasts may not be riding around town with flags on our cars or arguing about scores over pints, the CoE is serious business. It’s like the World Cup—but with less rioting. Te Aro just put our Brazilian CoE-winning coffee on the shelf, and our roaster, Andy, was down in Guatemala last month observing the CoE. So we thought we’d explain what that little crest on your coffee bag means, and explain why it you’re paying a few extra dollars for these outstanding beans.
Awarded each year to a small group of farmers in the member countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Rwanda), the CoE is the highest recognition a grower can achieve on the world stage. And it’s not easy to get. Any coffee producer can submit a sample from their crop to the CoE free of charge, so the playing field is level and the competition is accessible. But after that, those little beans are placed under intense scrutiny and taken through a rigorous judging process to find the country’s cream of the crop.
First, the pre-selection process reduces the number of entries to approximately 150 through visual inspection and cupping analysis. Next, the National Jury cups all the prescreened coffees and narrows them down to the top 60 or less coffees scoring over 84/100 points. These top coffees then move forward and enter the international stage of the competition to be judged by the discerning palates of leading coffee connoisseurs from Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania.
Last month, Te Aro’s own roaster, Andy Wilkin, was chosen to be one of three international observers at Guatemala’s CoE. He went alongside the judges tasting and discussing each coffee with the elite panel of coffee experts. He braved an erupting volcano to share his incredible experience with you, so read on to get a glimpse of a week in the life of a CoE participant.
Let the Games Begin
Day 1: The judges and observers were welcomed by William Hempstead, director of ANACAFE (Guatemala’s coffee association that supports 90,000 coffee producers), who gave a presentation on Guatemala’s eight coffee regions and their profiles, the country’s emphasis on sustainable practices, like shade-growing (98% of Guatemalan coffees are shade-grown) and the use of renewable energy sources.
After the presentation, the cuppers went through an extensive calibration session. The cuppers tasted a wide range of coffees, from the mass-produced low quality grade up to premium microlots, and extensively discussed their qualities and scoring methods. The goal was to unify the cuppers’ palates and standardize the scoring system to avoid the scores being skewed by too much subjectivity—one person’s 90 could be another person’s 80, though they both think the coffee is equally good. By the end of the day the scores were remarkable close and they could confidently and fairly go on to cupping the 41 entrants.
Day 2: The first round of coffees was placed before the panel to taste. Everybody picked up their spoons and started slurping away, which created this beautiful symphony:
This sounds kind of ridiculous, but it has a purpose. Slurping coats the tongue evenly, so all the coffee’s notes can be picked up by the different sensory nerve endings. It also aerates the coffee, turning some of the compounds to gas to be picked up by the nose.
ere out of the running.
To give their palates a rest, the cuppers got the afternoon off to tour around Santa Isabel Farm, a 100-year old farm that is committed to organic and sustainable farming practices, and was the second coffee estate to become Rainforest Alliance Certified.
Day 3 involved three more cupping sessions of the first round, and a visit to the SUBE San Miguel Petapa coffee mill. Here all the CoE green beans wait in their parchment (shells) until they are ready to be shipped, ensuring the absolute freshest beans possible.
By Day 4, the judges had narrowed it down to 26 coffees. One defect sample was detected and disqualified due to fermentation (a sour taste that results from wet-processed beans sitting a little too long in water). The remaining 25 entered the “winners enclose,” and now bear the proud title of Cup of Excellence coffees. These farmers can now send their coffees to auction with a serious advantage; the CoE stamp basically guarantees their coffees with fetch premium prices.
The judges had the final and challenging task of ranking the top ten in order, which takes serious discernment, since at that level the ranking must be something like: That Was the Best Coffee Ever, down to No, Wait, Actually That Was the Best Coffee Ever. Tough.
In the end, it was El Injerto’s Pacamara coffee that took top spot with 90.09/100, also winning the Presidential Award for scoring over 90. This farm has been around since 1874, and is now run by the third generation of the original founder’s descendants. A derivative of two varietals, Maragogype and Bourbon, the Pacamara varietal is a rising star on the coffee scene. After over a century of coffee-growing it seems El Injerto have figured it out—this is the third consecutive win for their Pacamara, and the farm’s 4th win in five years.
Before the awards ceremony, the cuppers visited San Rafael Urías and Carmona farms and toured Antigua.
Day 5 As Andy and the other participants got ready to leave Guatemala, they hit a bit of a snag:
No planes were flying out, so Andy hopped a bus to El Salvador (anyone try our El Salvador CoE-winning La Illusion, by the way?), and despite the drama and the natural disasters, made it back safe and sound.
Does this event actually matter to anyone but coffee geeks?
Absolutely. The CoE isn’t just a frivolous showcase of tasty coffee. It started precisely because coffee producers in certain countries (originally Brazil), were toiling away in relative obscurity, unable to fetch decent prices on the global market for their excellent beans. The CoE is both a symbolic and material reward; farmers are recognized internationally for their hard work, and can then fetch record prices at auction, the majority of revenue going directly to supporting their continued production of the highest quality coffee through infrastructure improvements, education, and better wages. These winnings can change a farm’s economic situation permanently, and can support environmentally and socially sustainable initiatives and certifications that often have a hefty price tag. The CoE also builds long-term relationships between the international marketplace and the member country.
As roasters and coffee drinkers, we need to continue to support the CoE for its benefits to origin countries, and because all these positive rewards encourage farmers to strive for perfection, which means we increasingly find mind-blowingly good coffee on the market. Win-win.
CoE at Te Aro: Brazil Fazenda Sertaozinho
Speaking of mind-blowingly good coffee, Te Aro has finally gotten our shipment of CoE-winning coffee from Brazil.
Ranked 14 in this years competition, this coffee was described by the jury as having aromas of lemon, clementine, honey, lavender, dates, and apricot; lively sparkling acidity; effervescent aftertaste.
Quantities are limited, come down soon and find out what a cup of excellence tastes like.