San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Judges sample a cup of the finest coffee in Costa Rica

Every evening before he goes to bed, Sergio Orozco, sips an espresso or a cappuccino. It is definitely not a cup of coffee that will keep him from falling asleep; on the contrary, coffee has given him the opportunity to make some of his dreams come true. Orozco works as a cupper in Volcafé, one of the country’s leaders in the coffee-export industry. This means that he spends his days smelling and tasting some of he best coffee in the country.

On May 13, Orozco spent the day doing what he does for living, but this time, it was special. He was part of a panel of 18 international judges who helped choose Costa Rica’s finest coffee during the fourth edition of the Cup of Excellence competition, organized in the Bouganvillea Hotel in Santo Domingo de Heredia, north of the capital.

The Cup of Excellence takes place in nine countries, most in Central and South America. The African country Rwanda also participates. Judges select the very best coffee produced in a country for that particular year. The winning coffees are chosen by a select group of national and international cuppers who score the coffee at least five times throughout the competition.

As a result, all coffees obtaining at least 84 points out of a possible 100 participate in an auction were buyers pay above the market price to be able to drink and sell the country’s most prestigious and delicious coffee. During this year’s Costa Rican Cup of Excellence, a total of 31 competitors earned enough points to participate in the auction. The process has been going on for several months, with a total of 101 candidates. This year’s winner was sample 101 from the miller Sintis Café, grown in La Estrella farm in the coffee-farming town of Santa María de Dota, southeast of San José, by the producer Luis Ricardo Calderón.

“It is very prestigious to be selected as the best coffee in the country,” said Noelia Villalobos, executive director of Costa Rica’s Association of Fine Coffees. “This will attract buyers from all over the world, and during the online auction that will take place on June 21, it is likely that the best coffee will get the highest bid.”

It is a good time to sell coffee. The market is at its best since 1997. The closing price for a 100-pound sack is around $266. “The momentum is due to a shortage of specialty coffee that has been going on during the past two years,” said Rafael Hernández, board president of the association. As any other market, the prices depend on the offer and demand of the product. When the offer decreases, the prices become more interesting for the producers. Hernández explains that it is hard to forecast if this favorable situation will persist, but experts talk about two more years of good prices for coffee at the New York Board of Trade.

Costa Rican coffee prices are also increased above the market price due to other factors. The market puts a price on the political stability of the country from where the coffee comes from, as well as other factors such as equity among farmers and efforts on sustainability.

All of these criteria will help the winners of the Cup of Excellence sell their product at a good price. Since the May 13 finals, the Association of Fine Coffees has received more than 100 requests from companies around the world who want to participate in the auction. “We are preparing coffee samples to send to potential clients. We have arranged during this week 123 packages of 300 grams of coffee samples to send and we are still counting,” Villalobos said.

Orozco called the experience “fulfilling.” “It is interesting to hear what the international experts expect in a good cup of Costa Rican coffee. The Japanese judges, for instance, were looking for the coffees’ body in the cup, whereas Costa Rican cuppers pay a lot of attention to acidity,” he said.

Overall, the Volcafé cupper was glad to hear compliments about the Costa Rican bean. Cuppers said they could taste floral and citric flavors, and they loved the chocolate-like aroma that some of the samples released. Such comments are even more important considering who the judges are – all are cuppers for major brands, who in the long run, are potential coffee buyers. James Cleaves, one of the judges from the United States, is the cupper for Dunkin Donuts. The Russian representative, Katalina Shkola, came from Coffee Magazine Company, in charge of selling gourmet coffee in major Russian cafés.

A total of 11 countries were represented on the judges’ panel, all experts in the art of coffee degustation. The judges score the coffee based on precise criteria: roast, absence of defects, cleanness of the cup, sweetness of the cup, quality of acidity, mouth feel, flavor, aftertaste and balance. The judging is so precise that the cuppers even make a distinction between the fragrance and the aroma, before and after pouring boiling water into the coffee.

“It is hard to say what makes a good cupper,” Orozco said.

In Orozco’s case, coffee is a family legacy. He grew up in the coffee town of Palmares, north of San José, where his grandfather and father had a mill. “I remember doing my homework in the middle of coffee sacks.” But, he adds that there is definitely a talent involved, and the rest is all about practice.

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