Fair trade isn’t a new concept in the coffee industry. Many organizations support the idea of square dealing between import/export giants and the countries that supply them. And Cup of Excellence, which just opened offices in Portland, hopes to contribute to the process by providing a system for evaluating the quality of coffee beans produced in countries all over the world.
According to the National Coffee Association’s 2013 survey, U.S. coffee companies compete for market share in an industry worth around $30 billion annually. That dollar amount translates to an average of three cups a day per coffee drinker in the U.S. alone.
When there’s a lot of coffee and a lot of money on the line, the competition to be the best producer, distributor and seller is exceedingly tough, with multiple companies claiming to have the best coffee. To help back up those claims, companies will often invest time and resources in seeking out the best coffees from around the world and serving them to customers at their retail locations in the U.S. and abroad.
And that’s where Cup of Excellence comes in. They organize special competitions where farmers from around the world submit their best crops for evaluation by an independent panel of highly trained judges. The judges evaluate the products based on aroma, taste, acidity and a host of sophisticated criteria. The winning coffees are granted spots in specialty coffee auctions where various-sized lots of coffee are sold to the highest bidder. This system encourages coffee growers to cultivate the highest-quality coffee bean that they can in order to fetch higher prices during the auctions. The auctions provide an alternative to the commodities market, which is dominated by mainstream coffee giants, and supports higher prices per pound for the best coffee.
Cup of Excellence works with very high-end premium coffees. These aren’t your average beans that you would buy at the grocery store, but specialty coffees cultivated on farms all over the world.
When you’re implementing a system for evaluating an industry as expansive and nuanced as the coffee business, knowledge and experience are critical. Sherri Johns, director of marketing events & training at Alliance for Coffee Excellence and head judge for the Cup of Excellence program, has been a part of the coffee industry for more than 35 years.
“I get to taste some of the world’s best coffees,” she said from the company’s brand-new offices in the Bindery Building on NE Sandy Blvd in Portland. Cup of Excellence is owned and managed by the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, headquartered in Missoula, Montana.
“There are 10 countries that participate in the Cup of Excellence program, and each country has a head judge assigned to them, and I’ll go in at the very beginning of the competition and ensure that all the protocols are met,” says Johns.
Anna Abatzoglou, Cup of Excellence’s membership and marketing manager, says that the competitions are similar to the way in which the quality of wine is judged.
“We use a point system just like how wine is evaluated,” Abatzoglou explains. “If you have an 80-point wine, you know it’s good. Well, with this, anything that scores 85 points and above keeps [the growers] in the competition and moves them on to the next level.”
This evaluation process is the vehicle through which Cup of Excellence says they are able to bring a more transparent and sustainable infrastructure to the coffee industry. By creating an alternative system for evaluating coffee beans, Cup of Excellence is able to help facilitate higher prices for farmers per pound for their product. The higher prices drive up the value of the entire specialty coffee market. Cup of Excellence says that value is distributed all along the coffee supply chain, rather than just in the middle. Farmers get paid more for their labor, buyers are able to sell the product for more, and the consumer is provided a premium product.
“The commodity market is going for about $2 per pound, but if [farmers] produce very, very good coffee, and we’re talking the best of specialty coffee, they’re getting a significant amount more per pound for their product,” explains Abatzoglou.
Though it depends on the region, Abatzoglou says it is not unusual for specialty coffees evaluated by Cup of Excellence to fetch top prices of more than $25 per pound before retail, a price point that farmers can appreciate. In a Cup of Excellence auction in Mexico last year, Ueshima Coffee Company of Japan earned the top bid of $30.10 per pound for a lot of beans from the Cafetal La Herradura farm in Veracruz.
“We have members in 37 countries — we’ve got huge support in Korea, Japan, Australia, Europe and a ton of members in North America,” Abatzoglou says.
Here in Portland, local roasters like Nossa Familia, Sisters Coffee, Portland Roasting and Coava Coffee Roasters participate in the program and use Cup of Excellence as a source for some of their high-quality, specialty coffee. On the import side, Sustainable Harvest, who touts its “relationship coffee” model on its website, is also a supporter of Cup of Excellence because of the positive impact the system has on local farmers.
It’s this concept that prompted Corvallis business owner Rio Prince to participate in a Cup of Excellence cupping and learn more about how to get involved. Prince is just beginning his foray into the coffee business and is set to open Corvallis Coffeeworks this month.
“I’m still very much on the learning curve,” he says. “I spent all last summer, fall and winter roasting and selling very little, just learning how to roast.”
Prince’s goal is not just to sell good-tasting coffee, but to do it in a way that doesn’t exploit coffee farmers in the countries where the beans are grown. He says that he’s investigating Cup of Excellence as a potential means for ensuring social and economic sustainability for his business.
“There’s a quality assurance there, certainly, but also it’s taking from a general population of growers — people who are really striving to make a quality product — and basically allowing them to be put on a world stage that can really reward and support what they’re trying to do.”
Prince says he wants no part in exploiting farmers in places he’s never been.
“For [me] there is a very important social component which is an integral part of my business model,” says Prince. “I’ve decided to only buy coffees directly from farmers, whenever possible, and have a personal relationship with the farming families themselves.”
One goal of these Cup of Excellence-hosted cuppings is to share information with people like Prince about what the company does. According to Abatzoglou, Cup of Excellence serves both as an arbiter for the competition and to establish a system that can benefit everyone: the growers, buyers, distributors, retailers and consumers.
“We don’t make money from the buying and selling of the coffee,” says Abatzoglou. “We’re a membership-based non-profit, so we recruit buyers and roaster retailers and importers; they are the members and they are what fuel us and keep us going.”