Having just returned from the Huila Best Cup competition in Colombia, I am still buzzing with excitement about what I just experienced. In my 15 year career in the Specialty Coffee industry, this origin trip was one of the most enriching and rewarding I've ever had.
Similar to Cup of Excellence, but more regionally focused, the Huila Best Cup was organized by Cafe Imports and their exporting partner Banexport. It is "an event whose principal objective is to unite the whole value chain in a single space: producers, exporter, importer and roasters come together to select the zone's best coffees, to talk freely about the production of coffee and it's challenges, to talk about what is quality, about new tendencies in the market and prices, and to offer to producers, importers, and roasters alike coffees of quality, fair and sustainable prices, transparancy and traceability."
For myself and many of the roasters there, it was a chance to directly reward farmers for their efforts, and to buy some killer coffees! There were 30 other roasters in attendance from around the world, all very quality focused (companies that we've admired for a long time).
Coffees had been narrowed down to the top 30 from a total of 600 submissions. Our job was to narrow these awesome coffees down to the top 12. Every morning began with an intensive cupping session, followed by a meeting to give and discuss our scores. The overall score was determined by the averages of our collective scores.
We did at least two cupping sessions each morning, followed by farm visits in the afternoon.
One of the highlights for me was visiting the experimental farm of Elkin Guzman, Finca El Mirador. It was inspiring and humbling to see a producer so calculating and willing to step out of the comfort zone of what is traditional in coffee farming, thereby discovering better techniques for processing specialty coffee.
Elkin is particularly innovative with discovering better drying methods for coffee. In particular, experimenting with different colors of grain pro plastics in his bubble dryers to determing which filter the sunlight better.
Midway through the week, we had a competitive soccer game with our hosts from SENA and Banexport! I can now cross playing soccer in Colombia off my bucket list.
By far the highlight was the Live Auction! This is where we got the chance to bid on the top 12 coffees that had been whittled down from over 600 submissions. As the bidding war ensued, the whole place began erupting with chants of "Mas, Mas, Mas!" ("More, More, More!"). Despite a calculated strategy with another roaster to bid on specific lots, the bidding war moved along very quickly and spontaneously. Mildly intoxicated from the cerveza and arguardiente flowing during the opening ceremony, as well as the enthusiastic energy of the local crowd (including the farmers and their families), we began frantically bidding against each other for our favorite lots. Decisions had to be made quickly and on the fly. But the best part is we couldn't lose! These were the cream of the crop, best Colombian coffees we'd ever tasted! Ultimately we scored a killer lot, the 10th place winner, with Coffea Roasterie out of Sioux Falls, SD.
Rewarding these producers with better prices than they would typically get on the open market was what this was all about. It's giving credit where credit is due. We all shared a common goal of encouraging them to stay motivated to produce the best coffee possible. I'd say we succeeded in that goal. These winning farmers got huge premiums and are now able to reinvest in their farms, families, and communities. For me, this was by far the most directly rewarding experience I've ever had in Specialty Coffee. I take great pride in my craft of roasting coffee, but it is the people that produce it who deserve the most credit. I am forever grateful to them.