Tiffin Project

Coffee at Auction

by Colter Jones on August 9, 2011

Post image for Coffee at Auction

The Cup of Excellence is a program that has been developed to promote specialty coffee in a very transparent and unbiased manner. Respected judges are invited from all over the planet to grade coffees that are submitted into the program. After the coffees are graded the farm and varietals are revealed and put up for auction online. The CoE is currently held in 9 countries: Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Bolivia, Colombia and Rwanda. In 2002, the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, or ACE, was organized to manage the program to ensure that the original ideals of the auction were upheld. He with the best coffee wins.

After that the Cup of Excellence really took off from a marketing standpoint. The cost of buying the number one lot of coffee from each region skyrocketed. Farmers put their best effort forward to hand sort and submit the best coffees from their property in order to gain position in the rankings. The number one coffee from each region typically garners a much higher price than even the number two coffees because of the competitive nature of the auction format. It also means that scoring number one can give a quality farm a great financial boost out of one growing season and perhaps allow the grower to make financial investments to further upgrade their farm. Ultimately having the number one coffee is much more marketable for roasters and farms wishing to boast the quality of their operation.

As an admitted nerd I was enamored by the CoE and associated every coffee with their custom logo as being of quality. It was nice to have the reassurance of a judging panel that consisted of my coffee heroes telling me that the company I was working for was buying great coffees for prices that could substantially impact the farmers who grew them. I was lucky enough to work with the number one coffee from Brazil in 2006. The Brazil Santa Ines was sold to a group of buyers including Vince Piccolo, who still owned Caffe Artigiano at the time, for a price of just over $49 per pound. At the time the CoE became a mark of quality amongst cafes in North America. It was a great outlet for roasters who wished to share in the prestige of the CoE brand as long as they had a customer base that would support the extra cost of premium quality coffee.

Ever since the CoE’s popularity amongst North American buyers has seemed to dwindle and Japan has emerged as a huge player in acquiring the auction lots. Why?? The CoE is a great resource for roasters that have little access to quality coffees through their sourcing programs. As the specialty coffee market has matured in North America, roasters have been able to establish relationships with the farms that they’ve bought from. This last year bought a large amount of coffee from Santa Ines in Brazil because we had already developed a history with the farm. The search for great coffees has also caused many smaller roasters to aggressively seek out coffees by developing their own green coffee buying programs. This can only lead to good things. Actively seeking out great coffees through direct trade increases the quality of an entire menu rather than passively acquiring a few great coffees to be sold at a premium.

Wired magazine recently published an article on the Cup of Excellence called, “Sip, Spit, Grade: Coffee Experts Crown Colombia’s Best Beans

The article briefly discusses an incident that happened at the 2010 Cup of Excellence Colombia. The top coffee garnered a score of over 94 points (anything over 90 is considered to be ‘Presidential Category’) and was bought for $45.10 per pound of unroasted green coffee. After the purchase rumours started to circulate that the varietal submitted to the judges was Castillo, a hybrid developed by the “Federacion Nacional de Café” from the Arabica based Caturra, and the robusta based Canephora. Robusta is traditionally associated with lower quality and bad taste but is very disease resistant. The FNC was now able to market their product as a disease resistant, award winning caliber coffee that is reliable and high yielding. It was later discovered that Finca La Loma’s winning coffee was composed of entirely Caturra, although Finca La Loma does grow 30% Castillo on their farm.

~ Colter Jones

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Shaun Luttin August 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm

It’s accurate to call the tasters “respected judges” rather than experts tasters. While I am not familiar with the literature, it appears that tasting, at least in wine, has a controversial history. Here is a link to an article that mentions the “Judgement of Paris” that happened in 1976. Link: http://is.gd/7Ul53n

Now that rating a coffee has a strong financial implication to the farmers and the roasters, it seems that policing the bias that might occur is more important. It’s nice, for instance, that the coffees and varietals are revealed after the coffees are tasted and judged.

Thanks for writing the article, Colter. It was interesting to read.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: