Cup of Excellence Diaries: Costa Rica 2013, Part II

Matt Swenson, our Director of Coffee, recently headed down to Costa Rica for their annual Cup of Excellence competition. Here is his second postcard home.

Costa Rica Cup of Excellence Cupping

Cupping at the Costa Rica 2013 Cup of Excellence. Photo by Matt Swenson.

As the second day of the week began, so did the official cuppings. This year, there were about 130 national submissions. Of those ~130, only about 35 passed the national jury rounds. The way the Cup of Excellence competition works is that there are two general rounds. First the National Jury, which is made up of Costa Rican citizens, cups and vets the coffees. If the coffees are graded an 85+, they submit it to the International round of competition, or the International Jury. This competition’s particular jury is made up of people from South Korea, Japan, Germany, Norway, England, and the United States, among a few others.

The National Jury selected about 31 coffees for us to cup. The first day was a nice easy day of two tables of 8 coffees each. We began evaluating the coffees based on fragrance, aroma, cleanliness of the cup, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, flavor, aftertaste, balance, and our overall impressions. Each of these categories are given a score from 1-8, and then added to a baseline score of +36 to provide a 100 point basis for each of the coffees.

Although the first day of actually grading the coffees was relatively easy, I was very tough on the coffees. I didn’t score anything above 90 points. A lot of this is my grading and cupping style, but I think a lot of it was also getting calibrated with Costa Rican Coffees. In the US, an interesting coffee to us usually revolves around the acidity and flavor first and sweetness or body second. Costa Rican coffees, for me at least, revolved more around sweetness first and the acidity was secondary (of sorts). The sweetness and the body of many of these coffees were elegant, rich, and creamy with chocolate, caramel, and molasses notes. They were all remarkable coffees. Okay…maybe one or two I didn’t care for, but mostly they were all remarkable coffees.

Our day’s field trip was sponsored by Nature’s Best coffee, in which they bussed us out to Finca Señora, where Alberto and Diego Guardia graciously opened their home and farm to us. As we walked down the long dirt path through the farm to their mill, we experienced firsthand the devastating effects of the roya, or leaf rust, hitting the region. Since this farm is at around 1200 meters above sea level, the roya can still grow effectively. Many of the trees have lost leaves and they looked very sickly. On the other side of the road, there were many healthy trees, that were not affected as much due to the varietal. Diego explained that although it did affect them as a farm, the net production effect was not devastating. They increased their production by 30 percent this year, but then lost about 30 percent of their crop to rust. At the end of the day, the production evened itself out to last year’s volume.

As the tour progressed, we arrived at the residence on Finca Señora which was breathtaking. There was an bright green lawn the size of a proper soccer field surrounded by tall palm trees, over looking the valley below. Towards the house, there was a sparkling swimming pool overlooking a colorful garden on the side of the hill, all of which was tied together with a well-seasoned party gazebo. The gazebo set-up was complete with an espresso machine, beer fridge, stereo system, and bathroom down below. The family were great hosts, preparing us a proper feast with several meats and side dishes. A very approachable side of Costa Rican cusine. Oh, and beer, lots of beer. We met other producers, other roasters, as well as mingled with other judges. The experience was great. One of the highlights for me was our impromtu Tuesday Night Throwdown. Manuel, the competition-level barista hired for the occasion, and Ed Kauffman of Joe (NYC) threw down with a latte art contest. Ed won hands down, however there were plenty of hugs and laughs that followed. A few of us opted out of the ride back to the bus and wound the evening down with a nice little night hike through the farm and eventually to the bus. It was nice to feel the brisk temperature at night and make that connection with the farm as those cooler temperatures are most notably attributed to creating great acidity within coffee.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of Matt’s trip to Costa Rica, coming soon.