Anyone unfamiliar with the annual Cup of Excellence competition could be forgiven for thinking of it as a simple process.  You taste coffee and say which one is the best right?  Well…yes…but the level of intricacy, hard work and dedication that goes into its conception is astronomical!  Cup of Excellence is something that has quite literally changed the shape of the coffee industry worldwide.  Those three little words have challenged the way coffee is perceived both as a beverage and a commodity and has come out on top.

Let me back up a step.

Back in the late 90’s specialty coffee was a mere shade of what it is today.  Farmers would toil in obscurity, nurturing their crop day in and day out only to have it shipped off to some unknown conglomerate.  There it would be blended with countless other beans from other hardworking farmers and roasted as dark as possible to satisfy the tastes of the masses.  Farmers were left in the dark.  Most had no idea of the prices their product was fetching overseas (some still don’t).  Nowadays transparency is king; this is where the Alliance for Coffee Excellence comes in.

The Alliance for Coffee Excellence is a not-for-profit organisation that runs the Cup of Excellence competition in ten different coffee-producing countries around the world.  Each competition is held annually and confined to its own country.  Farmers (individuals and co-operatives) submit their best green bean samples to a national panel to be cupped and evaluated by the country’s best experts.  The highest scoring samples (usually between 20 and 30) move on to the next round where they are subjected to the intense scrutiny of a panel of internationally accredited judges.  The coffees are given a score and a rank, with the number one spot earning a cash prize.  Following the results, samples are mailed out to roasters and brokers all over the world in anticipation for a massive online auction several weeks later.  As you might expect, the higher ranked coffees fetch higher prices.  This not only ensures a fair price for the farmer, it also provides them with an incentive to improve their farming practices and techniques in the hope that next year they might earn that top spot. Over the years Cup of Excellence has become more and more prestigious, to the point that green bean buyers will seek out those top award winning farms based on reputation alone – a top spot in a Cup of Excellence competition is synonymous with quality.  Finally, farmers are beginning to get the recognition they so rightly deserve.

Shortly I will be departing for the small Central African nation of Burundi to participate in the international jury of their second ever Cup of Excellence competition!  As this is my first time judging I can only contribute as an observer (meaning that my scores will not count towards the final results); however, I do have the pleasure of being able to taste some of the best coffee in the world in a beautiful and colourful country.  Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing several more blog articles in this series and updating our Facebook and Twitter feeds regularly as my adventure progresses.  So stay tuned.

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