Competitive caffeine: Inside the wild world of professional coffee tasting
"Three, two, one, go! Taste, taste, taste!!" I am watching a coffee tasting competition unfold on screen, but as competitors spring into action not a single mouth touches a cup. Rounded spoons frantically plunge into what looks like small soup bowls. A hand juts forward, placing a single bowl beyond a line marked on the table, then returns to the task of spooning coffee from bowl to nose to mouth.
As the scene plays out, techno music pulses in the background and a crowd cheers the tasters on from just a few feet away.
This is the World Cup Tasters Competition where competitors sniff, examine, and slurp eight sets of three cups in order to identify the "odd cup out" in each set as quickly and accurately as possible. It's a challenge known to those with sensory training as a "triangle test."
"It's about accuracy first, then speed," says Jen Apodaca, who represented the United States at the 2019 Worlds competition in Berlin. "If one competitor finishes in under two minutes, but they only get seven cups correct, they would place behind someone that took five minutes but got all eight cups."
The 2019 World Champion, Daniel Horbat of Ireland won with seven correct cups in just two minutes 33 seconds.
"It was very intense," Apodaca says of the atmosphere at the competition."There were competitors that ate essentially chicken and rice for 6 months to prepare for it." This was done to protect their taste buds and, a full year before wearing a mask in public became the norm, competitors were wearing them to protect their highly calibrated sniffers from offending smells.
Ken Selby, who represented the US in the 2018 World Coffee Tasters competition says there is good reason for that rigorous preparation. "At Worlds you're in the position to instantly advance your career, if you do well," he says.
Selby thinks taste is essential to success in the coffee industry. "I firmly believe that palate development is the heart and soul of your career in coffee," he says. "Whether you're a producer, a barista, a director of coffee, a buyer, or a sourcer or a roaster — all of those roles, they're contingent on knowing what is happening with the coffee and how that impacts taste."
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The focused enhancement of sensory skills begins with a ritualistic method of tasting coffee called "cupping." It's an intricate multi-step process which is made somewhat ceremonial by the exacting execution of each step.
Coffee is weighed and ground (but only after the grinder has been pointedly purged). Notes are recorded on the dry fragrance of each sample before they are covered in chemically-balanced water heated to exactly 200°F. A timer is then set as the tasters wait exactly four minutes to "break" the layer of grounds and oils on the cup with a spoon held at a specific angle. This releases "wet aroma" and more notes are scribbled. This breaking must be done in the same order in which the cups were filled. Steps continue on like this with precisely timed pauses and methods all in complete silence.
"There is no talking," says Shannon Cheney, Lab Director at Coffee Lab International. Watching professional cuppers at work is like watching a silent ballet with tasters swirling around the table in choreographed moves.
Several steps in, each person will slurp coffee from the spoon rather than drink it. "We're trying to suck it in," says Cheney. This helps release more volatile aromas into the nasal passageway to help the taster get the best impression of the coffee's characteristics.
"It's all about the smell," she says. "Once you get to tasting, you're basically just double-checking everything you already think about the coffee."
Once that aroma and taste is assessed, the taster spits out the coffee to avoid massive caffeine intake — an action that is so practiced and methodical, it could be described as elegant.
Take that ceremonious method, speed it up, add a jubilant audience, an enthusiastic emcee and a timer clock and that's roughly what is happening on the stage at Cup Tasting competitions.
At the final table of the US Championships, Apodaca remembers music roaring through the speakers. "It starts to play [Toto's] 'Africa' and the audience is getting all excited and I can see them dancing," she says. She was trying to focus, to identify the correct cup. After going around all the cups once, then twice, she still couldn't even hear her own thoughts, "I totally old lady screamed, 'Can you turn that music down?' and he did."
And she won that competition.
Of course, Apodaca was accustomed to cupping in silence, a skill she had to master to earn a title even more difficult to achieve than US Cup Tasting Champion: Q Grader.
To achieve Q Grader designation, coffee professionals must pass a total of 22 tests to prove that they have the sensory prowess and coffee knowledge to definitively grade coffee on the most impartial scale possible.
Candidates have to be top tasters at perceiving everything, not just coffee. For example, one small part of the test consists of nine identical glasses of what looks like water. Candidates have to identify which three are sweet, which three are sour, and which three are salty. And then, within those three sets, they have to determine which is the "most" sweet, sour, or salty, and which is the least.
Even though Apodaca was already a decorated taster, "I wanted to prove to myself that I could pass the test," she says.
Cheney says becoming a Q Grader is all about calibrating yourself to other coffee professionals and adding objectivity to tasting: "You learn to take out the subjectivity, even though it's sensory, so there's always a little bit of subjectivity."
Once certified, Q Graders evaluate the quality of a coffee in order to assign it a grade. These evaluations allow farmers to earn more money for their crops, or to learn where there are flaws and how they can improve to eventually achieve a higher rating and a higher price point.
There is a completely different kind of cupping competition in which Q Graders can flex their tasting skills, though this time as judges. Cheney once participated in the Cup of Excellence competition, where she was one of the judges to help crown the best coffees in the world.
"For the farmer to potentially get a better premium for their crop. I think that kind of cupping competition is very rewarding to everyone involved," she says.
Cheney has spent her career honing her palate in order to be able to effectively judge coffees and therefore improve the quality of coffee in the overall market. After years of cupping and teaching other professionals to prepare them for the Q Grader exam, she sees 'Speed Cupping' as a novelty.
"It's more like, 'I'm going to test my ability on how fast I can come up with an outlier,' but they aren't meant for quality purposes or to support a particular producer or coffee quality in general," says Shannon. "That kind of competition is just fun for people. The purpose of cupping is it is silent work, there is no sound."
Apodaca also says her competitive cup tasting days are over, especially after founding her own coffee company, Mother Tongue Coffee. "I learned so much at Worlds so I definitely have advice for people who want to go for it," she says.
People like Selby, who has qualified to take the Cup Tasters stage at the U.S. Championships in New Orleans this fall.
He says that making it back to Worlds would already be a great opportunity to meet people from all over the industry, but to take that top spot on the global stage would take intense preparation.
"I talked to someone who did really well there [at Worlds] that cut out all sugar and excess salt for four months so there were no flavor distractions," he says, "I'm not sure if I would do that, it would be a big decision."
But sacrificing flavor to train your palate is just the kind of decision a world champion coffee taster might have to make.
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