Last week I participated in a Sensory Educational Training (SET) conducted by the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE), the organization behind the Cup of Excellence (CoE). And that’s a lot of acronyms!
I took the training for a couple of reasons; I’d like to improve my cupping skills. Cupping skills are critical to being able to evaluate and scrutinize a given coffee. It’s also a skill that must be developed and maintained. As we cup coffees we continue to build our internal taste library for future reference and we also excercise that muscle memory of intentional tasting/scrutinizing a coffee. Another reason I took the training is because I want to participate in the first CoE competition for Indonesia and to be a jurist you must have SET training.
I feel like cupping is one of those disciplines in the specialty industry that lends itself to ego and arrogance. There tends to be a strong polarization of folks who are strong and confident cuppers and those who are not and that creates friction that can get in the way of truly evaluating a coffee as a group (something the SET hammers on—more on that later).
The instructor for this SET was Alex Pond (there are only two instructors globally who can provide this training). One of the things I love about Alex’s teaching style is how disarming it is. He leaves his ego at the door and let’s his learners know that cupping can be intimidating and even the best cuppers get palate fatique, have bad days, and can judge the same coffee differently on different days, or when it’s presented in a different order, etc.
By validating that there are serious challanges to cupping and that even the great cuppers can have a hard time really helps. It makes it easier to spend the time in class learning rather than thinking to one’s self ‘why the hell am I here!?’
The best cupper is a group of cuppers
As I mentioned earlier, one of the things repeated in the class is that the best cupper is a group of cuppers. What the judges of a competition are looking for from jurists is primarily calibration—they want all the jurists to agree what a given coffee tastes like and then they want an honest opinion of how much they like or dislike said coffee. The judges are especially looking for the National Jury to define what excellent coffee from their country should taste like. This is one of the things that fascinates me about the CoE, is that it is one way to intentionally define the best cup profile of a given country, as defined by those from that country.
One of the things that I learned in this training session is that even though I may identify strawberry and someone else may identify blackberry, that doesn’t mean either of us is necessarily right or wrong. Both flavors are legitimate berry flavors. In this case, we are calibrated and agree on the overall character of the coffee. In the past, when talking about the flavor wheel in classes, I have emphasized that I prefer to use specific descriptors (those in the outer-most ring of the wheel) only when the flavors are very obvious, so-as not to create tension with other cuppers (is it strawberry or blackberry?). Now I realize when we discuss coffees and I mention strawberry and you mention blackberry, we’re actually in agreement.
Very useful hands-on exercises
We did several hands-on exercises for the training that really helped calibrate us as a group and also to develop and sharpen our skills.
For example, we worked with the Le Nez Du Cafe scent kits. We would work with four scents at a time—each of us smelling one and noting what it smelled like. After everyone evaluated four scents, we’d talk about those four and see what everyone thought of them (is it bright and floral, or heavy with a lot of aspects of sugar browning?). I haven’t used a Le Nez kit since I took the Q course—almost six years ago. Using it again showed me I should be using it more often!
Another useful exercise that I’ve never done, was one where the instructor had coffees set out with varying degrees of proper cupping settings. For example, there was a set of coffees of fine, course, and correct grind setting for us to cup and compare. There was also a set of slow, fast, and correct steep times to evaluate. This exercise not only emphasized why we use the settings we use, but also what happens to the coffee when the settings are incorrect.
What the CoE can do for Indonesia
In 2018, Cup of Excellence (COE) and National Winner (NW) Auctions raised US$4.5 million in proceeds for coffee producing countries.1
Ultimately I’m excited for the opportunity the CoE presents to Indonesian coffee producers. For too long, Indonesian coffee has had a reputation for being dirty, spicy, earthy…inconsitent, etc (often deserved and accurate descriptors). But a lot of Indonesian coffees that I’ve been exposed to could very easily be hidden in a table of nothing else but African coffees, or Central American coffees. There are regions here that produce truly unique and outstanding coffee.
Too often these accusations hold merit but another problem for Indonesian coffee is that it is very often simply identified as Sumatran coffee, which for many coffee pros, is understood to be dirty, spicy, and earthy. My hope is that the CoE, in finding exemplary Indonesian coffees from several different producing regions of Indonesia, will shed a bright light on the wide variety of cup profiles available from Indonesia.
In the following video, Adi of 5758 Coffee Lab in Bandung, Indonesia talks about an article he wrote about Indonesian coffee being equated to simply Sumatran coffee:
Another interesting aspect of the competition is that the National Jury has the responsibility of defining exactly what exemplary coffee from Indonesia tastes like. They are the gate-keepers for the competition and only the cup profiles they chose during pre-selection continue on to compete2. I really like the idea of the national jurists defining the cup profile of the best of their best, rather than having an international group define it.
See also: In Defense of Tastemakers
Lastly, all of these coffees are auctioned and can bring quite high prices. The auction gets the coffee exposed to a large number of people, hopefully people who wouldn’t otherwise have experienced that coffee. This means that a farmer who has the skills to produce an exceptional coffee but who doesn’t have access to a market appropriate for that coffee can enter the competition and really get his coffee out there and in front of buyers looking for an exceptional, Indonesian coffee. Last year’s big auction winner was a Costa Rican coffee that sold for $300 per pound 3! That’s life-changing recognition.
I have high hopes for Indonesia’s first CoE because I think it will inspire Indonesian producers and processors. I also hope that the competition shows the market that Indonesia is indeed a source for a wide variety of different cup profiles of exceptionally good quality.