Sip, Spit, Grade: Coffee Experts Crown Colombia’s Best Beans
Photo: Sivan Lewin
It’s springtime in Colombia, and coffee experts from every part of the globe have convened in Santa Marta, a small city on the Caribbean coast. It is time to award the coffee industry’s most prestigious prize. The taste mavens make ready: Alberto Trujillo is deep into his pre-sip calisthenics, which consist of knee bends and alternating leg shakes. The Tijuanan has to prime his body, nose, and mouth for the so-called cupping that’s about to commence. As any java snob can tell you, to cup is to scrutinize the tastes and aromas of freshly brewed coffee. But Trujillo is no ordinary java snob, and what he’s girding for is no ordinary cupping. He has been certified by the Coffee Quality Institute as a licensed Q Grader, a person who can boast experience in everything from roast identification to sensory triangulation. And he’s about to serve as a judge in the annual Cup of Excellence competition.
Alongside Trujillo stands Geoff Watts, vice president of coffee and an unroasted-bean buyer for the Chicago gourmet retailer Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea (winner of Roast magazine’s 2007 Macro-Roaster of the Year award). It’s early morning, the day’s competition will begin in short order, and Watts is sucking deep breaths, recalibrating his olfactory system, waiting for his mouth to reset. “Toothpaste is insidious,” he murmurs.
Trujillo, Watts, and 18 other coffee connoisseurs will soon sample the 29 brews that have made it to the semifinals. Ten of these sit in front of each judge, in identical white cups with only a number to identify them, meticulously arranged in 20 straight lines on six broad tables. Each cup holds 11.5 grams of ground beans, measured out to the hundredth of a gram.
The competition began four weeks before, when 513 fincas (farms) from across this coffee-obsessed nation submitted samples of their finest unroasted beans. Now, after marathon tasting sessions with Colombian judges, the contestants have been whittled down to the chosen few displayed on the white tablecloths of this convention center. In the three hour-long cupping trials that will soon commence, a panel of internationally renowned tasters will reject half of the remaining lots. Tomorrow Trujillo, Watts, and their cohorts will rank Colombia’s top coffees and name the champion.
The vibe among the judges is more geeky than gastronomical. The majority of them are roasting techs and quality-control wonks decked out in socks and sandals. Now they advance toward the cupping tables, clutching clipboards and calculators. Meanwhile, the heavyset chief judge, Paul Songer, tells me about the future of his noble calling. He earned his tasting bona fides after a two-year program in Applied Sensory and Consumer Science at UC Davis, and he believes that coffee gourmandism has the potential to rival oenophilia’s cultish obsessiveness. Watts notes that while the fruit of the vine incorporates about 200 different taste-bestowing elements, more than 800 distinct flavor- and aroma-imparting compounds have been detected in java. “In 30 years or so,” he says, “our taste in coffee will match our taste in wine.”
Of course, this bold future of coffee is already here — it’s just insufficiently blended. The elaborate rituals of, say, a Blue Bottle coffee shop already make a $4 Starbucks latte look like Folgers. But the fetishization of coffee has yet to extend beyond an elite circle of urban stimulant junkies. It will take all the business acumen and marketing wherewithal of coffee nerds like Songer and Watts to see the rest of us through to the day when the humble bean will become one of the most carefully cultivated crops in the world, when a cup of joe will explode into a stratosphere of price and a near-infinite selection of exotic varietals, each as renowned in its own right as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon.
Everyone in this room is banking on the prospect.
The first Cup of Excellence competition was held 12 years ago in Brazil. Any farmer in the nation could submit beans for consideration. A panel of importers, roasters, and expert sippers selected a winner, which was then sold for exorbitant sums in an Internet auction. Susie Spindler, executive director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, masterminded the format, which was exported to countries across Latin America and to Rwanda. She now has her eyes set on Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania. “Cup of Excellence has completely changed the infrastructure of how coffees are sold,” she says.
Once upon a time, coffee-growing countries were focused solely on maximizing the volume of beans produced. But the more that bean quality has affected price, the more impassioned coffee-producing nations have become about divergent strains and varietals. At last year’s Colombian Cup of Excellence, the winning beans, called Finca La Loma, caused a scandal. They garnered a score of 94.92, the highest in the history of the Colombian coffee industry, and judges declared that the velvety brew was exceptionally sweet and smacked of clover and watermelon. A 2,000-pound microlot sold at auction to a consortium of international buyers for $40.09 a pound, which translated to a staggering street value of $260 a kilo in Japan.
All this was good news for the peasant who produced Finca La Loma on his 20-acre coffee patch. But it was also good news for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, a nonprofit that represents the country’s half million growers. The organization, known by the nickname Fedecafé, trumpeted the fact that Finca La Loma was Castillo, a newfangled bean varietal bred by its scientific arm. This hybrid had been designed to withstand the dreaded Colombian coffee rust, a fungus that can devastate entire fincas. At Fedecafé’s behest, growers across the country had ripped out heirloom strains like Bourbon, Caturra, and Típica and replaced them with Castillo. But some farmers resisted, largely because they were not convinced that Castillo tasted quite as delicioso as Colombia’s traditional varietals.