As the world adapts to life during coronavirus, coffee judging competitions have vowed to continue in a revised, virtual format, to support farmers and share top quality coffees with the world.
There’s something special about cupping a freshly brewed coffee in the origin of where it’s produced. It could be the sound of Spanish words echoing in the room, the squawk of a toucan in the nearby tree, famers looking on, or the unique slurping sounds of international judges who collectively make the Cup of Excellence (COE) competition one of the most revered in the world.
This year, however, due to COVID-19 restrictions, lockdowns, and bans on international travel, COE international jurors are prohibited from cupping some of the world’s finest coffees in the countries they were created. Instead, they’ll be doing so from a distance.
“This year will be unlike any other,” says Campos Coffee Founder and CEO Will Young. “I, like many experienced and new COE judges, will not be travelling to origin for the COE. It’s a real shame, but we are grateful we can still participate and honour some of the best coffees in the world.”
Campos Coffee in Sydney has been nominated as one of five Global Coffee Cupping (GCC) centres to participate in the international judging of COE competitions, starting with the Nicaraguan COE in May.
“We are the only Australian judging representative. It’s a heavy weight, but we’ve been one of COE’s top buyers for a long time. They trust us to follow the new guidelines and critique each coffee to the highest standard,” Will says.
The other GCC participants are located in Japan, South Korea, Europe, and the United States. After national judging, 40 green coffee samples are sent to each representative, with instructions to roast, calibrate, and solo cup the coffees over two rounds. The entire process must be completed within 10 days of the coffee arriving.
“It is the ultimate blind cupping experience. We never know what the coffees are from start to finish,” Will says. “Once they are cupped and scored, we send the results back to Portland [at the Alliance for Coffee Excellence headquarters] for a final cupping. The coffees remain blind until all results from GCC representatives are received.”
Ethiopia was the first country to have an altered COE judging program due to coronavirus restrictions. Green samples from the national jury selection were then sent to Portland in April where ACE Head Judge John Thompson roasted the coffees for a small and experienced jury to cup.
At the time of print, judging for the Ethiopia COE had just finished, and ACE Managing Director Darrin Daniel assures BeanScene the quality of coffees judged did not suffer.
“There are some stunning coffees throughout the 40 lots that moved onto the final phase. I have heard great reports of quality in El Salvador and Guatemala. We hear the same thing for Nicaragua as well. We are hopeful and keep getting results from the pre-selection and national phases that are quite positive,” he says.
Cancelling the COE was never an option. Although traditional international juries for COE Ethiopia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, or Mexico cannot be held at this point in time, what’s important, Darrin says, is vetting the coffees and judging process to still hold the competitions and auctions.
“The feedback has been touching and the most empowering aspect of this year. I have had numerous emails and communications with producers thanking us [for continuing],” Darrin says.
“We have to back coffee farmers more now than ever. This may be challenging for our organisation but imagine the need that we have, with producers already facing a price crisis, a climate crisis, and now a pandemic crisis. We felt obligated and knew this was the correct and right thing to do.”
In order to proceed with the judging, the ACE’s Erin Wang and Paul Songer spent more than 15 hours creating a new COE judging and cleanliness protocol without compromising the safety and health of the panellists, roasters, auditors, coordinators and support staff.
Under normal conditions, four panelists are assigned to one table where they share a total 40 cups of coffee. Now, under revised hygienic standards and cleanliness protocols, an individual set cupping method has been introduced so that each panellist has their own set to evaluate.
“This allows for social distancing and no cross contamination,” Erin says. “Since there is still the possibility of a defect, we require the first taste of the coffees be evaluated using the double cupping method.”
Darrin says for him, the most challenging aspect of the new COE format is not having the calibration and group ‘think tank’ that makes the COE “the most amazing experience for our global community”.
Will agrees, noting that of the 20 COE competitions he’s attended, the judging camaraderie is what he treasures most.
“You can’t replace the importance of having these competitions at origin and the intimate knowledge you gain,” he says. “The conversations you have away from the coffee table are so important, like the side conversations you have at a G20 summit. A lot of the time, you learn more about the coffee, the producers, their country, and their coffee industry, just by being together.”
This year, however, Campos Coffee will conduct a silent cupping. It will only talk about its findings and signature attributes of ‘wow’ coffees internally via written notes, or through a GCC WhatsApp group.
“It will be interesting to see how cupping in general will change permanently following the new cupping format,” Will says. “I expect changes to be adopted for at least a generation, and to have a resounding effect for the next 20 years.”
Thanks to operational restrictions to reduce the spread of COVID-19, many companies are feeling the financial pinch. Although understandable, the risk, Will says, is the future of competitions like COE.
“This year, all the companies that normally bid for a coffee will have a lot less cash to put towards buying amazing coffees, and that is a real worry,” he says. “If the COE competitions didn’t run, all of the momentum we’ve built over the past two decades would be undone overnight.”
Will says producers are aware auction prices won’t be as high as 2019, which saw coffees sell between US$100 to US$300 per pound, and expectations have to be “wound down, with an asterisk against this year”.
“Price is driven by demand and the demand isn’t there right now. Hopefully, everyone can still buy one or two coffees and do their bit to support the program,” he says.
The Best of Panama (BoP) is another competition taking place in July that has had to diversity its program. This year, green coffee samples will be sent to participating judges to roast, calibrate, and cup together online.
“We will set cameras up in the cupping room, ensure the internet connection is good, turn Zoom on, unmute ourselves, and cup simultaneously with all the other judges around the world,” says Will, the Head Judge of the BoP. “So yes, we will still be hearing each other slurp, just like being in the same room together.”
The BoP is making every concerted effort to ensure it presents an engaged, community-based competition where judges still commit to the four-day event. The only difference is the time difference.
“The cuppings will favour us and the Asian participants, but the North American and Panamanian judges will do the vampire shift after sundown,” Will says. “They will essentially be cupping at night and talking about their coffees to 3am or 4am. Fatigue will be a factor, the environment to which they cup will be harder too, even variables like water and grinders used, which will all be different but up to [Specialty Coffee Association Cupping Lab] standard.”
To re-enact the competition’s community vibe, deliberations and discussions will take place post-cupping through Zoom, which Will will oversee.
“The BoP believes strongly in its customer and market focus, that’s why deliberations are so important to have altogether. The producers take notes and try to understand what consumers like, what they don’t, and take that transferred knowledge to improve their coffee for the next harvest,” Will says. “People also get very excited about coffees, and that can be hard to articulate in bold, cap-lock text.”
Last year, Wilford Lamastus of Elida Estate made BoP history when he won in both washed and natural Geisha categories for the second year in a row, breaking the competition’s record for its highest scoring coffee at 95.25. Wilford broke his own record when his coffee sold for US$1029 per pound. Despite this year’s changed conditions, Will is still confident this year’s BoP will deliver 95-plus scoring coffees.
“These are not everyday coffees we’re talking about. These are the best from these countries, so you have to expect the best scores. For BoP and COE, everyone involved has to be in the mindset that although we’re not at origin, we are judging the finest coffees of these countries. If you give out all 84 scores, it’s probably not the coffee, it’s you,” he says.
In fact, Will says the quality might be slightly higher than usual, because farmers have little else to distract them and are passionately working to perfect their product.
“We have seen many people discover a newfound hobby in isolation, like baking sourdough bread, which people are determined to perfect. And just like them, our farmers are working harder than ever on their coffees, meaning some excellent micro-lot coffees might be on the way,” he says.
This article appears in the June edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.