By Beth Ann Caspersen, Quality Control Manager
Peru is a vast country that spans the southwestern corner of South America, with the Andean mountain chain dominating the center and an arid coastline that spans more than 1,500 miles. It is a very culturally-rich country, with familiar yet eccentric foods, unbelievable sights and deep indigenous roots– not to mention, Peru has some of the best coffee you can find in the world.
In early October, I had the distinct opportunity to travel to Lima, Peru, for the Concurso Nacional de Cafes de Calidad, an annual event that brings together coffee cuppers from Peru and around the world for a four-day competition to cup, grade and select the highest quality coffees Peru has to offer. All coffee producers in Peru are invited to participate in this coffee competition and this event has created a lot of national pride for the quality of coffee that is produced in Peru. The competition begins on the regional level in July, with the highest ranking 40 coffees to then advance to the national coffee cupping competition in Lima, Peru. The 10 judges—from Panama, Spain, Norway, England, Peru and the United States (me)—were invited to this coffee competition to select the best coffees. Our days were spent smelling, tasting and evaluating each coffee using a detailed coffee tasting format called a cupping form to grade and describe the amazing flavors we found on the cupping table.
Our first day was spent in a calibration session, to ensure that the 10 judges were able to evaluate and grade the three different coffees with the same set of rules and protocol. As an international coffee tasting jury, each judge is different; we come from different specialty coffee experiences and backgrounds, so therefore spending a full day to discuss the tasting form we would be using, to confirm the level of roast for all coffee samples, and to taste these coffees together as a practice session is vital for calibration.
Day two was much more intense; we cupped all 40 coffees in one day to understand the panorama of what the competition had to offer and by the end of the day I was singing the praises of 4 or 5 coffees that had caught my attention. However, I had no idea where the coffees were from or how much coffee would be available to buy because all of the coffee cupping was done “blind.” This means that the coffee tasting jury did not know the origin, altitude, processing specifications or anything about the coffees we were grading. Codes were assigned to the samples and then we tasted the coffees to evaluate their individual attributes; I was looking for the sweetest, cleanest and most interesting profile–the true marks of specialty coffee. It was both exciting and frustrating to have no idea where the coffee was from, but I quickly divided the coffee flavors that I was tasting into three different flavor groups: winey, floral and banana/cedar. How did I come to these flavors descriptors? In the world of specialty coffee we use terms like these to describe what we find in the cup. These attributes are a testament to various factors in producing an extraordinary cup of coffee; a few of these details include the variety of coffee, the type of soil, the skill of the farmer, the processing and of course, the climate.
On the third day we narrowed the playing field down to 19 coffees. Again, there were a few obvious coffees that stood out and many coffees were sweet and delicate. Coffees with the highest average score across the panel of tasters were selected for the finals. My job was to find the 10 best coffees that were offered in this group of 19 and it was no easy feat; my perception of the group of three profiles (winey, floral, banana/cedar) had remained, but which coffee was truly unique? Which coffee did I want to sit down and drink? Again, I found a particular flavor profile that was exemplary and I decided to award it 91 points! I followed this coffee from the previous round and I still did not know where it came from. It is such a thrill to find this type of profile, but truth be told: I really wanted to know where it came from.
On our final day of cupping our team of international jurors chatted about the different attributes of the coffees we liked best and after a shot of espresso from the soon to be infamous Bisetti Café in Baranco, Lima, we excitedly began our final round of cupping. For me, this is always the hardest part. Micro-differences in the acidity, mouthfeel and sweetness make this the most difficult and enjoyable parts of a coffee competition. But there it was, that super delicious coffee profile, the one I had tasted and identified during the previous two days, a flavor profile that was sweet and winey, with a pronounced blackberry jam flavor that was both balanced and bright, with gorgeous acidity and a super soft mouthfeel that literally tasted like biting into a perfectly mature fruit. I stopped and wrote down “perfect.” I gave this coffee 92 points, a score that in combination with the other nine jurors would inevitably put this coffee at the top of the list and win the entire competition.
On Friday night, reporters, coffee growers, cuppers and everyone in the Peruvian specialty coffee movement seemed to be in attendance for the unveiling of the winning coffees. Everyone was curious about the results; people kept asking me if I knew who the winner was, but “No, sorry, I have no idea!” was all I could say. We packed the Museo de la Nacion for the ceremony to listen to various speeches about the event and the first annual Peruvian coffee fair, called Expo Café. During the ceremony I had the honor to stand close by Miguel Paz, the General Manager for CECOVASA, a cooperative of small farmers in Puno, Peru, that Equal Exchange has been buying coffee from since 2002. He had an intense look on his face and I said, “Good luck,” knowing that the coffee from his cooperative had won first place three times in years past.
The announcement for third place came and it went to CECOVASA! Everyone was very excited and Miguel looked happy, too, but I knew that deep down inside he really wanted CECOVASA to win first place. As the second place winner was announced the room grew even more excited. Second place was awarded to another small farmer co-op called CENFROCAFE in Piura. After various comments and words from the Minister of Agriculture, they finally got to the first place winner. All I kept thinking about was that delicious coffee and when they announced that the first place winner was also CECOVASA I let out a huge shout of support!
The thrill and happiness that spread across Miguel’s face was immeasurable. It was pure joy. When Miguel stood to accept the first place award he told the world that he was accepting the prize in the name of the 4,864 small farmers in CECOVASA. He told the audience that the co-op works with both indigenous Aymara and Quechua people, and that people like Equal Exchange had been buying from and supporting their efforts to produce great quality coffee for years. CECOVASA clearly had great coffee: now they had won first place four times over the last seven years. It was a speech that made me proud to be part of the specialty coffee movement.
Equal Exchange has long supported the small farmers from the Inambari and Tambopta river valleys (where CECOVASA is located), and one year ago, one of the CECOVASA cuppers, Tibed Yujra Anamuro, was cupping and roasting in our coffee laboratory in West Bridgewater, Mass. Tibed spent one week with us as a participant in our annual seminar called Cooperation en Calidad (“Cooperation in Quality”), a seminar that introduces international cuppers to our specialty coffee market in the U.S. through hands-on exercises in cupping and roasting. I feel proud to have worked with Tibed on this level and to know that he was part of a small team that chose the first place coffee to enter it into the competition. Great work, Tibed!
It was my honor to be there in Peru to support the work of all of small farmer partners and to say to the world: small farmer co-ops = amazing quality.