Just recently I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the El Salvador Cup of Excellence [C.o.E] event as an observer jury member. The difference between an observer and a full juror member, is that observer scores are not included in the count, however in all other regards their input is welcomed.
At present just 10 countries take part in the C.o.E competition, Burundi & Rwanda in Africa, with the remaining 8 in Central America. For the C.o.E., all parts of the process are very carefully regulated for example, the roasts are checked against a 'master' roast for uniformity, the coffee is weighed four times before it is placed on the tables, the stopwatch is started as the water hits the coffee, etc. All this ensures consistency, so that the jurors are comparing like for like.
For more information, check out : www.allianceforcoffeeexcellence.org
I arrive in El Salvador late on Sunday evening and was collected by one of the Salvador Coffee Council team, and driven to the hotel around 45 minutes away in San Salvador.
We start off with a presentation from, Executive Director of the Salvadoran Coffee Council, Ana Elena Escalante who informed us of the importance and value of the C.o.E. to the industry, as it encourages the farmers to improve the bean quality, thereby providing them with a better selling price. Considering the importance that coffee plays in El Salvador's total GDP, any encouragement for the farmers to improve standards is encouraged. As other farmers realise the benefits to their neighbours, they too will consider joining the C.o.E. competition.
Another benefit is to the environment - as new plots of land are planted, it helps prevent soil erosion. These plants require protection from the intense sun, so a number of shade providing trees are also planted, helping with the CO2 absorption. To this end, the Ministry of Agriculture & Livestock is investing $24m to replant 40,000 acres and is supplying coffee seedlings to farmers in various areas of El Salvador. This all helps explain why the local and national governments embrace the competition, as well as the farmers themselves.
After the presentation, we introduce ourselves to each other - we total 25 participants, made up of 17 judges and 8 observers, representing 11 countries. Sherri, the head judge then informs us that of the original 212 entrants, the national jury selected 51 coffees to progress into the next round.
Next we undertake a calibration. Principally this allows us to become accustomed to the style of coffees we will be judging over the next five days (on this occasion the varietals are Bourbon and Pacamara - El Salvador being the birthplace of the latter). For authenticity, we cup and score them as if they were part of the competition. As El Salvador is one of only a couple of countries that use tablets for collating the scores and tasting notes, it also provides an opportunity to become comfortable with them in a non-critical situation.
We undertake 3 sessions of 6 coffees, all randomly selected from last week's national competition. Each session lasts approximately 90 minutes, allowing 60 minutes for the cupping and the remainder for the discussion on tasting notes and collating the scores. This takes us through to a late lunch which is followed by a visit to Finca, where many thousands of coffee plants are in full bloom - perfect timing!! On the way back to the hotel we stop at a renowned local restaurant for a snack of the Salvadoran favourite, Pupusas - essentially a small doughy corn bread pancake that is stuffed with re-fried beans, ground pork and cheese, served with curtido, which is a fermented slaw, and tomato salsa. As soon as we get back to the hotel, we are straight into 'meet and greet' some local growers. After this we head out for dinner to a recommended restaurant.
The competition begins for real, Round 1, part 1, with 3 sessions lined up for today. The first two consisting of 9 entries, and the final one of 8 entries. As a newbie to anything 'smart', I am becoming comfortable using the tablet, so allowing more concentration to be directed the cupping itself, which in turn means I speed up somewhat, so I have more time to add more descriptors. Because there is such a difference between the varietals, it is challenging when they appear randomly on the table. To go from, say, 3 consecutive Bourbons, to one Pacamara, then another couple of Bourbons means the palate (and my brain) can get confused, so it is easier to taste one varietal then the other.
The planned afternoon Finca visit has been cancelled, so before dinner I try to catch up on the jet lag, which was aggravated by the un-requested 2.45am rooster wake-up call!
The Executive Director of ACE (Alliance for Coffee Excellence), Susie Spindler, starts the day off with a quick explanation for us observers about ACE - it is a non-profit organisation which owns the trademark 'Cup of Excellence' and works with the host countries in running the competitions and resulting auctions. Susie has made time to visit El Salvador on her way to Honduras to also provide an update of the rust disease issue and the effects it may have on production volumes.
Essentially, if the farmer is obtaining a reduced yield due to disease, then this has to be considered when buyers are bidding, i.e. because of the lower quantities harvested, some bidders may not be interested in smaller lots, therefore fewer bidders may result in a lower auction price, meaning the farmer may consider either not entering the competition in future and produce a lower quality, or may even remove the coffee and plant a more financially rewarding crop.
On to today's cupping, Round 1, part 2, which again is made up of 3 sessions, consisting of 1 x 9 and 2 x 8 cups. Today provides some very interesting coffees, dividing the jury, which in turn means a spread in some of the scores, showing each country / region has its geographical taste preferences and judges will inevitably have a natural leaning to what they are familiar with and know their customers will like. That is all 51 coffees cupped, so tomorrow we will find out how many we have sent through to Round 2.
After a short lunch break we head out to visit a mill. The manager, Maximo, tells us that the machinery is owned by the local co-operative and that all members are certified by the RFA as well as being organic. For a number of reasons, the co-op fixes their bean prices on the futures market up to four years in advance.
We find out that 36 coffees have progressed through from the first round. They will be tasted over 4 sessions to provide a top ten with the highest scores. As we move through the sessions it becomes apparent that a good mix of the two varietals made it through to this round. It is also apparent that the coffees are of a much more consistent standard, making for interesting judging. There is still a variation in the scoring, proving how difficult it can be to be fully objective when cupping.
After an early dinner a small group of us head out to a local theatre where there is a performance by the Ballet Folklórico Nacional, supported by the national Youth Symphony Orchestra. Whilst the performance is clearly intended to be enjoyed by the locals, as the announcements are only made in Spanish, the dancing itself tells the stories of El Salvador's history and require no translation.
The final day and the field has been narrowed to the top 10. We will taste all 10 in the one session and then discuss our findings. Without doubt this was the toughest table of the week - to be expected, but even so, after the first pass I have 3 in equal first and 3 in equal second! I take a second pass after they have cooled down a little more, and this narrows it down to one outright leader and 2 delegated into equal 2nd but I still have another 3 on matching scores behind. While this is acceptable, I feel that with further passes I will be able to detect changes as the temperature reduces. Two more passes now produce a definite 2, 3, 4. Wow, that session ran its full time - unusually some jurors are still tasting with just 1 minute left on the watch.
This afternoon some of the producers arrive and everyone spends a few minutes with each producer, discussing things such as bean quality, overheads, environmental issues etc. After this we have time for a quick freshen up in readiness for the big presentation.
In the evening the awards ceremony takes place and the outright winner, with a 'Presidential' score of 90.37, is announced.
Interestingly although there is only one official winner, many others in the top 10 were also highly favoured by various judges and therefore achieved excellent scores, so ideally they will receive good bids at auction.
After all the congratulations and photos are done, we realise that it is 9.30, so some of us head off to a local restaurant for our final dinner together before saying our goodbyes. I head back to the hotel and set the alarm for 4.45am, in preparation for the 28 hour journey back to Brisbane. During my flight home I think of the fact that, like any farmer, the producers who enter the competition work tirelessly all year round to supply a high quality product that they hope, during the week, catches the attention sufficiently enough that jurors consider it deserves a high score and ultimately that healthy auction bids are received. For me, this is reason alone for companies such as Merlo to support the C.o.E. and next time we have a C.o.E. coffee available, I hope you will consider it a worthwhile investment to pay a little bit extra for it, in the knowledge that in doing so you are playing a part in helping improve not just the standard of coffee, but the standard of living for the farmers and their employees too.
I think what struck me most over the five days was the rare combination of passion, commitment for constant improvement, depth of knowledge and a willingness to share that knowledge, evident in every single person involved in the C.o.E.
I would also like to thank Brendan Baxter and merlo coffee’s Directors, Dean Merlo and James Wilkinson for allowing me to have this awesome experience.