Cup of Excellence Explained

Competition

When you aim to increase the quality of a product range or offering, a common approach is to introduce competition. Competition attracts publicity and spreads awareness. Awareness that there are offerings (according to a selected panel) stand out.

For a competition to gain further respect and publicity, you need at least three ingredients:

  1. A collection of producers or service providers willing to have their goods or services compared to others
  2. A panel of industry-respected mediators so that the opinion stands for something.
  3. The participant must reap the rewards from participating that go beyond the competition.

The Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) was founded by two of the industries giants George Howell and Susie Spindler. ACE is the founder of the Cup of Excellence (COE) competition

Aim of CoE

In words from their website: “In 1999 the Cup of Excellence (COE) founders along with the Specialty Coffee Association of America developed the first global internet auction platform for award-winning coffees. These auctions have allowed exemplary coffee farmers, whether award winning or not, to realize a greater financial price for their coffees.”

In each CoE competition, only coffees from a single country of origin are compared. While only a handful of countries have been able to host this competition, it is now highly regarded by all in the industry and several other competitions have spawned from these that have similar principles.

How is it judged?

A standardized scoring sheet is applied that scores the coffee out of 100 points. There is a head judge in each round. In each round, the highest and lowest scores per coffee are disqualified.

A panel of invited judges assess the coffees in three rounds:

  • There is a pre-selection stage where a group of national judges are involved. Only those coffees that make it through this round go to the national round.
  • A national stage follows based on the same rules as above. Only the top coffees from this round get through to the final stage.
  • The final stage is International. Here an international panel is involved. In the first round, the highest scoring lots that make the grade are selected. A second and third round follow where the final coffees are cupped twice. In the end, coffees are ranked according to their scores.

Until results are calculated, no panel member knows the producer, region, process or lot size. Only once the results are known will these details be available. Any participant or member can purchase the lots that do not make it into the final at a minimum price. The other lots go through to the auction.

How good are the coffees?

The modern competition (especially in countries where the awareness of the competition is higher) attracts a large number of entries. To get into the first round alone is an achievement. For a coffee to come in the top 30, it must be remarkable. Having participated in a taste of harvest, I have found that the scores of these coffees are not a true reflection of how good these coffees are. To get into the top 100, all of the coffees have to have scored 85 or more (as in 85%). Although this is controversial, I believe we as humans score a coffee lower when comparing high-quality to very high-quality coffees on the same table (flights). If standard “quality” coffees were on the same flights, you may find that while they would usually score 83 if they were included in these flights, these would now battle to achieve 80-81.

Remember, there are multiple judges, generally with a vast amount of experience in tasting coffee. The top and the bottom scores do not count. Also, remember that to be invited to judge is considered an honour. Typically, they are there for the love of coffee and the prestige of being a judge. Most (if not all) have spent their own money (or company’s money) just to be there. And I can talk; my ego is a real peacock when it comes to reminding people of my experience as a judge (oh no, there it goes again) at the Aromas of Mexico auction.

The Auction

Once the top percentage of the lots make it through to the auction, all participants (and those that signed up before the auction) are allowed to bid on those coffees that qualified. So essentially, it is a closed auction. You need to be a member or participant to bid.

The lots are ranked as per the scores they achieved. Participants and members that received samples will have their own score. So, a lot that scored the highest average may not be the one that a participant or member particularly wanted. This explains why lots at the top may get different prices. Often the top-rated lot may not achieve the highest price. A factor also worth considering is the lot size. Participants and members may require a minimum lot size to make an offer, which also affects the bid.

It’s all about reward

For a farmer to place in the final is a massive achievement. Firstly the initial financial reward resulting from the auction, and then the reoccurring effect that the producer achieved greatness amongst his peers is currency the producer can spend for many more years. Even though the lots are small, the farmers usually have a ripple effect on the rest of the coffee being produced. So this is life-changing in two way.

Our support for CoE

We are a big fan of the CoE initiative! Not only because It showcases some of the excellent coffees from a country and the participants in the event. It also shows that we, as coffee lovers, pay too little to the producers for our beverage of choice.

Though, the pain is seeing fellow coffee lovers struggling to appreciate what this effect has to all along the chain.

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