Date: November 2004

Column/Title: Raising Coffee Consciousness: The Cup of Excellence and Green Coffee Competitions

Author: Kenneth Davids

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Competitions in which international juries of coffee buyers and roasters gather to choose the best green coffees from the latest crop from a given country is not an entirely new idea, but in recent years it has taken on a new importance, bolstered by the capacity of the Internet to provide a medium for competitive bidding for the winning coffees from roasters and dealers worldwide.

Cup Of Excellence competition/auctions work like this: first an in-country jury cups, or systematically tastes, around 150 competing lots of green or unroasted coffee entered by hopeful farmers. These lots of coffee already have been selected from hundreds more by a pre-screening based on well-established grading criteria. Throughout the competition coffees are identified only by three-digit numbers that change with every round of cupping. Those lots of coffee that make it through the first in-country-juried stage of competition and its two rounds of cupping then advance to the final rounds of evaluation by an international jury. Typically these juries include coffee buyers and cuppers from Europe, North America and Japan, plus cuppers from coffee producing countries. Working with the 100-point rating system pioneered by Coffee Review (but using an evaluation form different from the one used at Coffee Review) this group of judges cup and rate the coffees that made it past the in-country jury. The winners receive the Cup of Excellence award, and those few that conclude the competition rated 90 or higher are honored with the Cup of Excellence Special Award. All award winners qualify for Internet auction at Cup Of Excellence.

Currently Cup of Excellence competitions and auctions are held in Brazil (the original Cup of Excellence competition), El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Bolivia. Colombia will hold its first Cup of Excellence competition this year.

Other countries hold similar competitions without the help of the Cup of Excellence, some involving Internet auctions and some not. To my knowledge the competition with the longest history is the very modest, three-judge event held every year in Kona, Hawaii, in conjunction with the Kona Coffee Cultural Festival. Growers in Panama held their first competitions before the Cup of Excellence was organized, and now have added an Internet auction to their event (www.panamacoffee.org) . Costa Rica also holds its own "Crop of Gold" competition and auction www.scacr.com. India has held a competition for several years (www.indiacoffee.org) that includes its exotic wet-processed robustas and monsooned coffees as well as its fancy arabicas, although it does not offer the winners at auction. The competition/auction concept has now spread to Africa, with events planned for several countries in East and Central Africa.

The average prices paid for winning competition coffees far exceed the price typically paid for coffees traded through ordinary channels, and the top-rated coffees often are auctioned for startling figures. The record price paid for a Cup of Excellence coffee is $13.00 per pound bid by Maruyama Coffee of Japan for the top-rated coffee in the 2004 Honduras competition and auction. The second-highest Cup of Excellence price was $12.50 paid by American roasters Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea for the 2004 Nicaragua competition winner. That coffee is reviewed in the November 2004 issue of the Coffee Review.

However, the highest price ever attracted by a competition coffee at Internet auction recently was paid by a consortium of American buyers, including Coffee Review sponsor The Roasterie, for the top-rated coffee in the 2004 "Best of Panama" competition. The consortium paid $21.00 per pound for the top-, 95.6-rated seven-bag lot of coffee from Finca Esmeralda. Compare this with the contract price for commodity arabica coffee (around 75 cents per pound at this writing) or even the Fair-Trade minimum price of $1.41 per pound.

Keep in mind that all such figures apply to the green, unroasted coffee. Typically a specialty coffee retails for considerably more than the cost of the green coffee. Thus the tag of $37.50 per 12-ounce bag asked for the record-breaking Panama Finca Esmeralda by The Roasterie (buy two 12-ounce bags and they come packaged in a wooden gift box) is not as sticker-shocking as it might seem at first glance. (Returning to the seasonal gift theme broached in the companion review piece to this one, what more striking a splurge could there be for the coffee-crazed individual on one's holiday gift list than 24 ounces of the world's record-breaking most expensive coffee in a wooden gift box?

Farmers who produce the winning coffees not only benefit from the higher prices paid for the winning lots, but more significantly by the prestige and attention garnered by their awards, which often have a positive impact on prices paid for their coffees for years afterwards. And, as pointed out on the Cup of Excellence website, "A coffee that continually wins a Cup of Excellence award continues to increase in value until it is elevated in status like a 'Grand Cru' wine."

Finally, the most important impact of the Cup of Excellence and other such competition/auctions may be to dramatize the potential for pleasure and connoisseurship provided by coffee, one of the world's most fascinating but also most undervalued beverages.

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