Silvio Leite, a tall Brazilian gentleman with a long smile and cherubic cheeks, asked a group of judges circling him how many of them scored above 90 on coffee number three. Two people, a deep-voiced Pittsburgh native named Bill Swoope, who owns a chain of shops called The Coffee Tree, and a cheerful but stocky Japanese man named Kentaro Maruyama with a string of shops in Tokyo raised their hands.
It wasn't looking good for this selection, which must score above 85 points to become a winning lot in the most competitive coffee competition in the world. This event can make or break careers of remotely located farmers in a vast producing nation like Brazil. Winners can often command prices above $30 or even $40 a pound, many times the typical $2 per pound price at the commodity grade.
This is the Cup of Excellence, an annual event that pits the best coffees from each producing nation and ranks them according their complexity and flavor, with an online auction following that allows an international coterie of buyers to bid large sums of money for these prized lots.
It's also instant recognition for these farmers to buyers around the world, many of whom will likely make trips to the farms to buy the estate's other lots, or crops from subsequent years. It's a bit like an unknown winemaker landing a top score from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator and seeing bottle sales spike as a result.
Placing a winning lot often means financial security for years. And more than that, the competition itself creates a compelling argument for producers across Brazil and in producing countries to appeal to quality, knowing that said quality produces tremendous personal and even regional benefit.
Founded fifteen years ago in Brazil by Susie Spindler, Silvio Leite, and George Howell, the aim was to discover the country's greatest coffee growers in a nation mostly written off as producer of Folgers-bound swill. Since then, the competition has grown to eleven countries, including distinguished coffee producers such as Colombia and Guatemala to more up-and-coming coffee countries like Burundi, Rwanda, and Honduras.
On this 100th such occasion, a "dream team" of coffee experts, buyers, and importers known as the "jury" has flown into a small college town called Viçosa, located some 200 kilometers from Belo Horizonte in the heart of the state of Minas Gerais. Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia leads the pack in notoriety, the longtime green buyer for the notable specialty company with outlets in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Chicago, as well as Salvador Sans, of Spanish roaster Cafés El Magnifico, who's provided beans for everyone from Ferran Adria at El Bulli to El Cellar de Can Roca in Spain.
The jury had just stepped away from the judging room, a plain college classroom re-purposed to allow the two dozen jury members to smell, slurp, and spit their way through over sixty coffees that have made it to this round.
Prior to this final round, over 346 coffees had to be selected through a national committee in Brazil composed of coffee experts. The cupping process might seem foreign to the average coffee drinker, a ritual of optimal flavor and aroma detection, aimed originally at rooting out any deficiencies or abnormalities in coffee, but redesigned to estimate a numerical value of a roasted bean on a score sheet.
After the juries tasted the ten coffees, all lined up on a tall table, they wrote down taste notes and marked values for aroma, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, flavor, aftertaste, and balance. Thomas Pulpan, a co-founder of Kaffebrenneriet, a coffee chain based in Oslo, Norway with over two dozen locations, notes that he thought coffee number 7 had a delicate, almost melon-y flavor, with a good brown sugar note.
This judging and tasting persisted over several days, with each jury member's scores tallied by an independent auditor. In the meantime, the convivial group gets bused over to local farms in the Araponga region of Minas Gerais, some of whom even land in the winning lots (all tasting is done blind to prevent cheating).
The specialty coffee environment has evolved much for Brazil ever since the Cup of Excellence began in 1999, helping to shift the country's growing efforts to focus on quality versus mass production. It's been an uphill challenge for the producing nation, which is only recently getting its due at the upper tiers of cafes around the world, from Norway's celebrated Tim Wendelboe, America's Intelligentsia Coffee and La Colombe, Denmark's Coffee Collective, and Korea's Terarosa Coffee.
The Alliance for Coffee Excellence, the non-profit that manages and holds these competitions, claims to have created upwards of $43 Million in total auction proceeds to farmers, with a total average price per pound at $9.43 versus the current commodity price of $2.22.
After days of cupping, farmers from all 21 winning lots that scored above 85 points at the final round are invited for a Friday evening ceremony at one of the university's auditoriums. The packed room has dozens of anxious winners, all of whom are vying for the top spot. Almost like an Academy Awards of coffee, Brazilian Specialty Coffee Association director Vanusia Nogueira, a plucky Brazilian woman who champions her country's prized export to no end, enthusiastically announces farmer and estate names, with cheers for each.
After nearly half an hour of awards, Nogueira announces Candido Vladimir Ladeira Rosa, owner of Fazenda Ouro Verde, who produced the top coffee with a near-record breaking score of 94.05. Rosa rushes down and celebrates with a loud yell, raising his arms to a round of applause.
In six weeks, the online auction for this 100th Cup of Excellence will commence, where Ladeira Rosa and twenty other of the winning producers will command top dollar for their hard work. In turn, cafes and roasters will take their winning lots and have to tell the story of how these great coffees went from bean to cup.