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Coffee auction offers taste of excellence

From the print edition

Complexity rang from the mouths of coffee connoisseurs as they tasted an intricate flavor of dried fruit – perhaps raisins or prunes – in the fresh coffee they noisily slurped from a spoon, swished about their mouths and spat into a sink.

From the murky depths of a coffee cultivated in an unusual place, international judges savored something unique. The brew left experts with a juicy finish, a clean profile and something they call “flora aromas.”

This year, a coffee from Heredia, north of San José, surprised judges at the 2012 Costa Rican Cup of Excellence, held in early May. Coffee from the Zamora family farm and the Brumas del Zurquí beneficio, or coffee-processing center, scored an impressive 93.47 of 100 points during judging (TT, May 15).

On July 3, an online auction will sell the best of this year’s Cup of Excellence lots to bidders. This year, international judges gave 27 unique coffee micro-lots scores that deem them excellent. A Cup of Excellence award requires a score of 85 points or higher. Scoring is based on a coffee’s clean profile, acidity, sweetness, mouth-feel, flavor, balance, aftertaste, complexity and personal preference, according to the Coffee Institute of Costa Rica (ICAFE).

 “A score of 90 or higher is a very impressive achievement,” said Jon Lewis, from the Cup of Excellence headquarters in Missoula, Montana, in the United States. “A 93 is unusually high, and this is with the highest and lowest scores removed and all scores averaged.”

In all Cup of Excellence programs around the world, those scoring above 90 get special recognition and usually a pretty exuberant price, Lewis said. The highest-scoring Costa Rican coffee last year received $20 a pound. A lot of coffee is 2,500 pounds, so the bidder paid nearly $50,000 for the winner. An average price for lower-scoring coffees is $5-7 a pound.

Managers of Brumas del Zurquí honey-process their coffee. This includes picking the coffee cherries individually at the ripest point and leaving some of the fruit pulp on the bean while the coffee is sun-dried.

“To have a coffee that can compete in the Cup of Excellence isn’t something you can just decide to do one year,” said Marianela Castro, project director for Brumas del Zurquí. “This beneficio has been here since 1880, and it takes years of care to refine the soil, the plants, the harvest and the processing to produce a winning lot of coffee.”

Coffee lots that received a Cup of Excellence score are entered in an online auction. ICAFE organizes Costa Rica’s Cup of Excellence competition and auction. The organization sends green samples of all 27 lots of coffee to those registered to bid in the Costa Rican online auction. In their own facilities, coffee connoisseurs roast and grind beans to sample and determine which coffees they fancy and might bid on.

Judging excellence

Eleven countries participate in the Cup of Excellence, including five Central American nations. Coffees entered in a country’s competition first undergo a preselection process that reduces the number of entries through a visual inspection and cupping. All participating countries have their international cupping competitions and online auctions at different times.

This year’s competition in Costa Rica took place May 7-11. During preselection, 96 lots passed and national judges approved 38 to be tasted by international judges. Judges from Germany, Japan, the U.S., Brazil, South Korea, Norway, the Netherlands and Nicaragua scored 27 farms high enough for Cup of Excellence recognition.

“I particularly like Costa Rican [coffees], because in the past five years, there has been much improvement in coffee-producing methodology,” said Bernd Braune, an international judge and president of German coffee company SUPREMO. “A very consistent quality coffee is now being presented at Cup of Excellence competitions.”

Coffee cupping is an elaborate and detailed process. Judges first analyze a coffee’s aroma as a dry grind, and then fresh-brewed, with its creamy crust still intact. Then judges cup the coffee by slurping, sipping and spitting a brew to comprehend the full taste when coffee is hot, tepid and cold.

“All over Costa Rica we are seeing a new generation of coffee growers who are learning to make a better all-around cup,” Braune said. “Their practices in growing, caring for, harvesting, washing and peeling are exemplary.”

One coffee Braune found particularly interesting was Lot 14 from the Los Pinos farm in El Alumbre, Alajuela, on the western edge of the Central Valley – known by growers as the “West Valley.” He said it has a lot of different tastes with lots of chocolate flavors not typical of Costa Rican coffee.

“People have come to expect the type of coffee to come out of Costa Rica to be fruity, like what the Terrazú microclimate produces,” he said. “But there’s so much more to the country than what comes out of Terrazú.”

Coffees grown and processed in Alajuela and Heredia have unique aromas and shouldn’t be overlooked, Braune said, noting that this year’s first-place winner originated in Heredia.

Braune said the top-scoring coffees prices will be high, and coffees that scored in the mid-eighties and above are still high-quality and sell at more reasonable prices.

Francisco Castro, a Costa Rican Cup of Excellence judge and quality-control manager at Café de Altura, a beneficio in San Ramón, northwest of San José, defined some of the characteristics of these two regions: Coffee from the western edge of the Central Valley – Alajuela, for example – is defined for its acidic, orangy sweetness and floral hints. Coffee from Heredia, however, often has good acidity and body, but generally no unique characteristics, which made the Brumas del Zurquí coffee all the more exciting.

Coffee achieves these various characteristics from the altitude it’s grown at, the moisture it receives at different times of year and the growing area’s soil and temperature. Quality also depends on the age of a coffee plant and what species it is, as well as how a farmer picks, fertilizes and mulches his crop.

Castro said some amount of luck also plays a role in how judges perceive a coffee.

“In the early rounds the coffee that took first place was almost eliminated,” Castro said. “At the beginning of the competition it might not have been exactly what those judges were liking, and there are so many coffees being tried at once.”

But each coffee receives multiple cuppings, and finalists were tasted up to six times.

A farmer’s pride

When a coffee producer receives a Cup of Excellence award, he is assured a good price for his winning lot, which benefits production and livelihood. Yet, this kind of recognition means more than money.

“The award shows that a man or woman is a good grower, and the personal pride that comes with a Cup of Excellence award is the most important thing,” said Luis Campos, president of Café del Altura. “That farmer is now known by all his neighbors as having worked hard, and that reputation will boost his business for years to come.”

Of the proceeds from a lot of coffee in a Cup of Excellence auction, 85 percent goes to the producing farm and the rest to a country’s national coffee association.

Campos said the competition brings roasters and growers closer together, assuring the roaster and consumers that their coffee is justly made: The Cup of Excellence and organizations like ICAFE study a farm’s growing practices to ensure that chemicals are used only when necessary, land is protected from erosion and deforestation and growers receive a fair portion of their coffee’s profit.

Said Campos: “It makes a difference when you can look each other in the eye and shake hands.”

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