Dubbed the Academy Awards of coffee, the Cup of Excellence celebrates the world’s best coffees. Campos Coffee Founder Will Young explains why the competition is key to the longevity of specialty coffee.
Getting your hands on a Cup of Excellence (COE)-winning coffee takes patience and commitment. The real fun for Australian buyers starts in the early hours of the morning when international online auctions commence, but the game’s not over until a final bid is made, the countdown clock expires, and the hammer falls.
“The longest auction I’ve ever experienced was early 14 hours for a COE coffee,” says Will Young, Campos Coffee Founder and Chairman of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE), the association that runs the COE competitions and auctions.
“My wife went to sleep and I was still bidding when she woke up. I was making breakfast – still bidding. We had people over – still bidding. I took my phone everywhere with me that day, even bidding as I walked the dog. I wasn’t going to stop until we won. It was a coffee we had to have.”
The COE has been discovering coffees, rewarding growers, and creating markets for exemplary coffees since 1999. Each year, thousands of coffees are submitted for consideration, with winning coffees sold in the global online auctions at premium prices. The vast majority of auction proceeds go to the farmers.
With 12 COE auctions held throughout the year, Will now enlists the assistance of his team, including Chief Coffee Officer Adam Matheson and his green bean buyers, to secure winning lots. He says it’s always an exciting feeling to wake up the next morning and discover a top-rated coffee is on its way to Australia.
“We want people to get excited about coffee. The COE is a bona fide opportunity to learn about the best coffees in the world and show our consumers how special coffee can be,” Will says.
Campos Coffee has been buying COE coffees since 2010. At first, Will’s goal was to simply get his hands on one of the COE-listed coffees. He achieved that in 2010 when he bid on the number seven ranked Nyabumera coffee from Rwanda for US$9.55 per pound, a price Will says was astounding at the time, but quickly surpassed. Today, Campos purchases COE coffees in excess of US$100 per pound.
“I first heard about COE like it was a mythical place where you could buy coffee. We didn’t think it would be so easy to jump into an auction and bid, but it was. We thought you had to be of a certain size or status, so we held off for a couple of years,” Will says. “When our first COE coffee arrived in Sydney, it tasted distinctly different to any other coffee we had. It had a significantly higher quality and impact on the table. That began our COE odyssey.”
It isn’t just the quality coffee that Will invests in, it’s the opportunity to learn and support the world’s coffee-producing countries, communities, and individuals. This is what Will describes as the “value chain” opposed to merely a supply chain.
“When we bought that first Rwandan coffee we discovered how important coffee was to the Rwandan community. It’s a country still emerging from the difficulties it endured in the 90s,” Will says. “For the population of Rwanda, well over 50 per cent of incomes are from coffee. We didn’t realise how low the average income was. When we saw that we could increase the prices of the coffee and pay 10 to 20 times more than what the farmers were used to getting – it was really thrilling for us. To be able to make such a significant impact on not only the people but the entire economy of the country drives home the power of focusing on your value chain.”
A year later, Will went to visit the Nyabumera community. After an arduous flight, he endured a five-hour car ride down a bumpy road and a surprise two-hour boat ride to get there. On arrival, the farmers were having a meeting under a mango tree, seemingly “in the middle of nowhere”. On a nearby clifftop, a woman was chanting a mystic Rwandan tribal song that echoed off the surrounding cliffs. This set the scene for Will’s “incredibly moving and surreal” meeting with local producers under that same mango tree.
“That was just an incredible experience – the most foreign experience I’d had to that point,” he says.
Since then, Campos Coffee has bought over 100 COE coffees (more than 78,000 kilograms) and committed $2.6 million to the cause over the past nine years.
Some consumers still struggle to understand what Geisha coffee is, or where their coffee comes from, but Will says that’s even more of a reason to buy elite COE coffees and build the profile of specialty.
“Us turning our backs on the program now wouldn’t be genuine. We believe in the cause, of discovering and rewarding exemplary coffee farms. We have to keep supporting. This give the farmers a bar to aim for. If you don’t aim for 90-plus-scoring coffee, to be the best in the country, or to enter competitions judged by an independent panel, then the farmers won’t have aspirations and will just aim for an 86-scoring coffee,” Will says. “The attitude will be ‘that’s good enough’, then that attitude will be accepted by the whole coffee world, and frankly, I think there’s an element of that out there, which is really upsetting.”
Will is well aware that quality coffee production comes at a cost for producers, but says the results are worth it for those who successfully reach COE-winning status.
“The farmers can get a significantly higher cost per pound for their coffee. More often than not, the winning farmers invest in better equipment, they can buy the farm next door, or assist their standard operations so they can produce more high-quality coffee and get better prices,” he says.
“My big, probably naive, belief is that if every farmer can have one portion of their crops as a dedicated micro-lot, maybe it’s only five to 25 per cent of their land, they can get at least quadruple the price for this coffee in comparison to their usual crop. They can also make a name for themselves on the world stage.”
Since Campos Coffee started investing in COE coffees, Will says he’s seen a noticeable increase in the prices paid to deserving farmers, with the top scoring Costa Rican coffee from Don Cayito farm fetching US$300 per pound in the 2018 COE.
“Overall, the prices of coffee have doubled on average since the program started, and they should be at exponential levels soon. The better the coffee is, the higher price it should fetch, and the greater the recognition. If these unicorn coffees don’t receive the recognition and prices they deserve, specialty coffee has a problem,” Will says.
One producer who’s recently made his mark on the COE scene is Linarco Rodriguez Ospina from Huila, Colombia. He placed second in the March 2019 COE competition with a score of 92.17. Will has bought from Linarco for the past five years and says to see him recognised in “the awards of all coffee awards” is a wonderful achievement.
“Linarco is a beautiful guy who invests more and more into his farm with new varietals, farming techniques, and processing equipment. Coffee is not a cash crop for him, it is totally his passion and his neighbours recognise him as this coffee-crazy guy who leads their industry,” Will says.
“I’ve been swearing for years that he was one of the best producers in Colombia, and now to see him actually place gives me faith the COE is doing the right thing. His quality coffee is proven to be true and certified – we felt the same thing when Emilio Lopez Diaz, our longest partner in El Salvador, won first and second place in their COE last year.”
After four years on the ACE Board and two years as COE Chairman, Will is stepping down from his board position. He says he’s proud to have helped establish three new COE competitions: Peru, Indonesia, and Ethiopia, the latter two launching in 2020.
“Until now Ethiopia has been a challenging country to start the COE due to its politics and infrastructure. We’ve had to go through many loopholes and challenges, but there’s a new government attitude and the competition is finally happening,” Will says. “I’m a bit sad to leave the Chairman position, but I’m very happy where I leave it.”
As a business, Campos has attended over 54 juries, had 11 judges support the competition, and plans to continue to attend and judge in future.
Will is one of Australia’s greatest ambassadors for the COE. It’s because of his faith and devotion to the program that many Australian and international roasters have also seen the benefit in rewarding farmers for their quality production of the very thing the industry is still trying to progress – specialty coffee.
“Australia is leading the way. It’s almost a role model for specialty coffee. China is now a major buyer and typically takes its cues from Australia, which is great for a market of 1.3 billion consumers,” Will says. “If we turn our back on it now, chances are other countries will as well because they follow our lead.”
With the current C market price at a low US$0.94 per pound according to the International Coffee Organization April report, buyers may think they’re taking home a bargain, but Will says buying at C price is unsustainable. Rather, now is the time to buy coffee two to three years in advance to give farmers peace of mind for the future, to build trust, and to invest in relationships.
“If the C price stays dreadfully low, the danger I see is mass farming, the commodification of coffee – a specialty coffee dystopia where giant farms will mechanically produce coffee and high-yield low-quality varietals will be pumping out cherry the same way maize is produced in the US,” Will says. “What we’ll be left with is 81-scoring coffee and the coffee world will be seemingly OK with it. If that happens, all the luxury specialty coffees we’ve been enjoying will go by the wayside. That would be the end of an era. We can’t let that happen.”
This article appears in the June edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe HERE.
Campos Coffee will stock Linarco Rodriguez Ospina’s COE-winning Colombian coffee from 24 June. For more information and to secure this limited-release coffee, visit www.camposcoffee.com