Over the first week of February I traveled to Colombia with Rick for the Huila Best Cup auction. It. Was. Amazing! One of the most unique, and definitely one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had. This is a trip I will never forget!
Rick and I arrived in Bogota nearly a day earlier than the rest of our group, so we were able to wander around the city, drink coffee and check out the older part of the city. I'm always intrigued by the coffee scene in producing countries, and luckily we were able to visit two cafes that are at the forefront of specialty coffee in the Colombia. Both of these companies, Azahar and Bourbon Coffee Roasters, focus on sourcing high quality coffee from Colombia and roasting in a way to highlight the regional and vartietal characteristics of the individual lots. Historically the coffee consumed in producing countries has been lower quality, as the best stuff is exported to other countries with a more developed coffee scene. It was very cool to see these companies focused on representing the beautiful products of their country, and showing customers the end result of the hard work that farmers put in.
The next morning we met with the rest of our group, flew about an hour to Neiva, and took a five or six-ish hour bus ride to Pitalito, where we were based for the rest of our stay. Once in Pitalito we had more formal introductions, met our Colombian cohorts and got the rundown of what we'd be up to for the next week. Cupping coffee, visiting farms, having copious amounts of information dumped on us all the time, cupping more coffee, and buying coffee in a live auction. Awesome.
Check out Rick's posts to learn a bit more about SENA, the national school of coffee quality where we were tasting the coffees. This place is amazing, and is doing a lot for the future of coffee in the country!
Our group consisted of people from all over the US, Canada, Russia, Italy and Taiwan. And Colombia of course. One of the most interesting things about cupping with 30-ish other people from different cultures is how much personal tastes can vary. No matter how objective you try to be, taste is incredibly subjective! When scoring coffee for a competition like this, you do your best to put your personal tastes aside and judge the coffees on their individual merits. Of course, when we were picking the coffees that we wanted to buy we looked at our notes and went with some of our favorites that suited our tastes.
We were tasting, scoring, and judging the top 30 lots of 500-600 total lots submitted for this competition. We also tasted regional selects (non-auction coffee from specific municipalities within the Huila region), and different/interesting varieties for part of the silent auction. More on that later though.
After a calibration cupping we got right into it. It's an incredible experience to taste so many great coffees from one region of one country. While notes of chocolate and caramel were consistent throughout a lot of the cups, the rest was all over the board. Super mild cups with flavors of baked apple, pears, and soft spices, all the way to bright and fruity coffees that were loaded with notes of tropical fruit, citrus, and floral aromatics. Colombia has long been one of my favorite origins for this very reason! Within one country, and even one region, there are so many different coffees to be had. If you think you don't like coffee from Colombia, just drink more. You will be blown away.
After each round of tasting we gathered to discuss the coffees and give our scores. I really enjoyed this part. It's always interesting to hear whose tasting notes and scores were most similar to mine. We were all in a pretty tight range of scoring but there were always a few outliers. A few of the regional select coffees were up there in quality with some of the top 30, in my opinion. Crazy that a larger lot of coffee from multiple producers could stand up next to some of the more farm specific ones, but they did!
Sadly, in the excitement following the live auction I left my notes behind, so I won't be able to give you detailed tasting notes on every single coffee we tried. A sad day for all who read this, I know!
There were definite standouts on each table we were tasting, and you could see the other judges attempting to not seem excited and give it away. But every time one stood out to me, I'd nonchalantly look around the room and see everybody else doing the same. Of course once we all gathered and shared our scores we were all on the same page. When it came down to the end though, all of the top 15 coffees that were auctioned off were in a pretty small range of scores. They were all tasty and I would've been happy coming home with any of them!
Once all of the cups were scored and the top 15 were scored again, we attended the Huila Best Cup live auction. It was wild! We gathered in the town square, and hundreds of people showed up. Locals, friends and family of farmers, all of the judges, and of course the top 30 producers. There was live music and dancing, and during the auction a surprising amount of dubstep bumped while we bid on coffees.
It got off to a slow start with #15 but soon picked up. Once a couple of bids were in on a coffee, all of the producers were standing, shouting "Mas! Mas!" and helping to hype all of us up. The higher the bidding went, the more exciting it got, and the higher people would bid. It was a completely electric experience that I've found myself revisiting almost daily since we returned.
Rick and I narrowed down the coffees to a few we wanted to bid on. Once the 9th place coffee, one of my favorites, rolled around we were ready to go. The producer, Jose Ancizar Lanza was up on stage and he was HYPED! He was very involved in the process, and encouraged everybody to stand as the bidding got higher. After a bit of a bidding war we ended up with the highest bid!
We walked onstage to shake Jose's hand, and were met by tears, hugs and high fives from his family. Knowing how much competitions like this can positively affect a family will stay with me forever. We did our best in (very) broken Spanish to give our thanks. For their beautiful coffee, for the hard work they put in, and for the gifts they gave us after the auction. We are SO excited to share their coffee with you once it comes in!
(Thank you to Andy Reiland from Cafe Imports for a lot of these pictures!)