Did you know there’s an annual contest to determine which coffee farmer grows the finest beans?
Okay, so maybe it’s not a total surprise. We have a competition for just about everything these days.
Did you know there are over nine hundred competitors some years and the competition ends with a prestigious coffee auction?
No? Well, let me tell you all about it.
The yearly Cup of Excellence award is handed out to the tastiest, most beautifully balanced coffee beans in the world.
The event attracts hundreds of entrants from regions as diverse as Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Honduras. Experienced farmers from all four corners of the planet compete to be crowned kings of the coffee cup.
While the award itself is celebrated and highly regarded, it’s what happens after a win that really matters for international coffee farmers. The winners normally go on to enjoy global recognition and with it, more money and more business for their independent growing operation.
As in most industries, the right award can change a life.
Why Is the Competition Important?
The Cup of Excellence award is hosted by the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, a ‘fair trade’ association that has championed and supported local coffee farmers for many decades.
It invests heavily in teaching for cultivators and works closely with regional organisations to finance sustainable development projects.
Every year, the Cup of Excellence competition begins by taking sample submissions from coffee farmers across the world.
As the contest is judged on a country by country basis, it produces multiple winners and countless opportunities for specialty coffee growers to showcase their talents on an international stage.
The only country that doesn’t have a single winner is Colombia. So many coffee beans are grown in the region that it’s nearly impossible to pick just one. Instead, Columbia enters as ‘North’ and ‘South’ with a winner chosen for both.
The Cup of Excellence competition is twenty years old. It started out in Brazil, in 1999, and now produces ten winning beans from ten countries.
How Does the Competition Work?
The first phase of the competition is selection. Coffee farmers from participating countries send their finest beans to the judges for tasting. It’s not uncommon for there to be well over nine hundred submitted samples. That’s a whole lot of brewing.
Over a period of weeks, the competition judges whittle the samples down to about sixty in total.
Then, a panel of experts is brought in to perform blind taste tests on these samples. Scoring qualities like mouthfeel, aroma, acidity, sweetness, aftertaste, bitterness and more, they look for flavor defects and give each bean a score based on overall enjoyment and ‘technical’ finesse.
The process is taken very seriously. Independent invigilators are brought in to ensure transparency and fairness during the blind tests.
The experts approach every bean from a place of objectivity. They get no information about where each coffee bean comes from.
Through exhaustive taste testing, the pack of sixty is reduced to ten finalists per country. Eventually, an outright winner is picked from each participating region (two for Columbia).
These winning beans have been meticulously tasted and picked apart at every level a minimum of five times each.
By the time they’re crowned winners, these delightful coffee beans have been intimately deconstructed by some of the most experienced tasters and roasters in the business.
The last phase of the competition is mine (and I suspect many others) favorite part. The process ends with an auction of now internationally recognized coffee beans.
The judging panel takes the ten winning beans and twenty other high performers and sells them to the highest bidder.
In total, thirty of their preferred coffee beans get auctioned off to independent, artisanal and specialty roasters. Being crowned king of the cup is a great honor for regional farmers.
However, it’s the auction that changes lives. This is where small local growers catch the attention of artisans and, in some cases, secure highly lucrative trade deals.
How Does the Competition Change Farmers’ Lives?
The competition’s coffee auction is fascinating because it’s a chance to see how much the world’s best roasters pay for the world’s best beans.
The average price paid for a winning bean is around $9 per pound most years. Though, it’s not unusual to see beans go for significantly more.
In 2017, a Cup of Excellence winner from Brazil went on to smash the competition’s sale record and secure a staggering $126 per pound of beans.
It was closely followed by a Honduran winner that bagged a deal for $124 per pound. The auction is a real chance for farmers to foster potentially life changing trade partnerships.
The average price paid per pound in participating countries is $2 to $4.
Therefore, t’s easy to see how the right deal at auction can make big things happen for farmers. Of course, the international recognition goes further than the auction. More money wins better equipment and the opportunity to train workers.
For local growers, it’s a ticket to higher quality coffee beans and the chance to develop and become a leader in coffee excellence. Let’s not forget, many coffee growing communities continue to live in poverty.
Participating in the Cup of Excellence is their chance to earn, upscale and take steps to a better life. And, most importantly, this is achieved in an autonomous manner.
The coffee farmers are the sole arbiters of their own success.
It’s why I strongly recommend buying a specialty coffee with the Cup of Excellence mark the next time you go shopping for beans. You’re not just guaranteed a truly magnificent brew, you’re also helping to improve the lives of exceptional farmers around the world.
When we buy CoE ranking coffees, we play a small - but very important - role in making coffee financially sustainable for millions of people around the world. What could be better than that?