This May I was lucky enough to be accepted as part of the International Jury for the Guatemala Cup of Excellence 2012. Needless to say I was very excited to spend a week cupping some of the season’s best coffees from this fantastic origin country.
We arrived in Guatemala City on the Sunday evening and headed over to Anacafé (the Asociación Nacional del Café) the next morning to start the cupping process. What struck me during the introduction talk from Anacafé’s Ricardo Villanueva, Chairman of the Board, and Blanca Castro, head of marketing, was just how involved Anacafé are with their farmers. This not-for-profit organisation provides an impressive level of support – weather reports, info on advances in agronomy and fertilisers/pesticides, advice on improving quality and choosing varietals, as well as offering cupping feedback and helping to provide internet access for farmers.
The introductions were followed by three cupping sessions to calibrate the jury members’ quality expectations and accustom us to the digital system we would be using for the week ahead. Days two and three were when the real work began. We got stuck into three tables of coffee for session one on the 15th May and two tables on the 16th. Each session was followed by a discussion about the coffees and feedback on the cupping system. Our Head Judge was John Thompson, of Coffee Nexus (UK), who made it a really free forum for all our ideas, ensuring everyone felt comfortable enough to be honest and open with their views.
The jury itself was made up of a good mix of people from all over the coffee consuming world. Although our views were not always the same – there were often one or two on the periphery of the scoring – the group was usually more or less in agreement on their scores. It was good to see how well calibrated we were and it re-enforced how well the COE scoring system and the peer group dynamic works.
As expected the coffees themselves were often exceptional. It was great to see how many different flavours were present from one country. It was interesting also to note that the national cuppers would say, yup (or rather sí!), that’s a San Marcos profile, or that’s a typical example of a Huehutenango flavour – and to appreciate just how different these regional coffees were. In some cases the group was getting summer berries or stone fruit; in others we’d get sweet melon notes or a hint of blossom; other times lots of caramel and chocolate.
On day four we cupped the second round. Here we were working to build on round one and to critically evaluate the coffees we had put through. Rather than decide which coffees were good enough for the COE, our aim was to evaluate what it was that made any one coffee stand out from those around it. Personally I found myself spending less time on the better coffees on a table, in the knowledge that they were easier to cup, and often found myself looking at the weaker coffees in more detail. What was it that let them down? Was it that the aftertaste was short? Did the coffee have a slight saltiness to it? Was it the acidity that let it down? Was it balanced? What was the body like? Was it consistent across all the cups?
Day five was the culmination of all our work so far. The top ten! By this point in the competition we knew these coffees pretty well. For me now it was a case of knocking points off and deciding why any particular coffee didn’t deserve a presidential award. It was an exceptional table. I scored four of the coffees with presidential scores and one of these with the highest score possible. Thankfully this went on to win the competition so I know I was doing something right! The winning coffee was amazingly complex – from the dry grinds to the end of the session it was strong all the way through. Tropical fruit, blackcurrant, caramel, mango, red cherry… It was round and syrupy, structured and generally just how I’d want a coffee to taste. For me, perfection!
After the top ten we were lucky to be able to cup some new hybrids that Anacafé were keen to get feedback on. It was an honour to be able to cup them and fascinating to see how well they were received. Some of the judges even felt that these were worthy of the COE. Sadly for now they are only grown in test lots – meaning the actual amount of beans available is less than a kilo. Again it was an insight into how Anacafé and Guatemala’s farmers are working to improve their country’s coffee – and it bodes really well for the future.
In the afternoon we met the COE producers in round table discussions. We got the chance to sit down, introduce ourselves and understand how each farmer produced their COE lots. Some were picking specials areas or lots that they felt were producing the best coffee, whilst other farmers were picking a general sample most representative of their crop. For me it was also great to put faces to the names that I already knew. It’s all too easy to forget who is doing the real hard work for us as green buyers and roasters.
On day six it was a very early start to head out to Lake Atitlán, a large and very beautiful crater lake in the highlands north-west of Antigua. Here we visited a local cooperative, known as ‘La Voz’, in the small town of San Juan La Laguna and met the local representative for Anacafé. He took us to visit some small farms belonging to cooperative members – generally each family owns one hectare of land or less and the family members carry out all of the farm work themselves. It was interesting to see the worm farms (vermiculture) that farmers use to transform left over pulp into fertilizer, allowing them to farm without using chemical fertilisers and therefore maintain their organic status.
It’s fair to say that every trip I go on at Mercanta is very special and this is never more the case than for a Cup of Excellence trip. I’d like to say a big thank you to the team at Anacafé and the COE for working so hard to make our visit both pleasurable and informative. I was blown away by Guatemala and its coffees, and I hope to be back one day soon!