A coffee roaster’s guide to the Cup of Excellence

Kahwei Yoong
January 3, 2022
cup of excellence

The Cup of Excellence is one of the most prestigious coffee competitions in the world.

Dubbed the “Oscars of the coffee world”, it was established in 1999 with the aim of shining a light on the hard work of producers. Since then it has grown into a global event, with versions held in several coffee-growing countries, including Brazil, Ethiopia, and El Salvador.

During the competition, coffees are graded and ranked according to quality. A rigorous judging process determines the top lots, which are then sold at an online auction.

Here, they typically fetch some of the highest prices seen on the market – often at record levels. At the 2021 Colombia Cup of Excellence, for example, the 25 winning coffees fetched a then record average of $30.79 per pound.

For specialty roasters, the Cup of Excellence is a source of both curiosity and vested interest. It offers a neat summary of not only what others are buying, but also where the industry is heading.

Read on to find out more about the competition and how roasters can get their hands on the winning lots.

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cup of excellence tasting

What is the Cup of Excellence?

The Cup of Excellence (COE) is an annual competition held in 12 coffee-producing countries around the world.

It was founded by specialty coffee pioneers George Howell and Susie Spindler with the goal of elevating quality coffees and connecting producers with international buyers.

Characterised by a meticulous judging process and the auction of selected lots, it draws in thousands of coffee producers every year and brings attention to the host origin.

Over the years, it has helped transform global perceptions of several coffee-producing countries, such as Rwanda and Honduras.

So how does a typical COE competition work?

Competition process

The COE competition accepts applications from all producers across the country. Once coffee samples have been submitted, they undergo several rounds of assessment by a panel of national and international judges.

In the pre-selection stage, all samples are cupped by a group of judges from the country of origin. The best 150 samples advance to the national stage.

The National Jury continues to assess the samples, selecting the top 40 coffees for the International stage.

Then, three rounds of cupping are performed by the International jurors to rank and determine the highest scoring coffees to be awarded the Cup of Excellence.

The top 30 coffees progress to an online auction, where they are sold to the highest bidder.

Overall, it takes up to 9,000 cups of coffee, analysed by a group of highly skilled and experienced cuppers, before arriving at the winning lots.

Competition criteria

COE follows a strict scoring protocol to evaluate all coffee samples entered into the competition.

It has its own unique cupping form, which is different from the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) protocol. This provides more room for assessing higher scoring coffees. 

To advance from the pre-selection round to the national week, all coffees must receive scores of 86 points or more out of 100.

The same criteria applies to move on to the International stage, where any samples with defects are disqualified.

To progress to the COE auction, the best 30 coffees have to score 87+ points. Those with 90+ points receive the coveted “Presidential Award”.

Buying process

The COE online auction is only open to registered Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) members. On the scheduled date and time, buyers are allowed three minutes to place their bids on the award-winning lots.

Before the auction, buyers can also order sample sets to help make informed purchasing decisions.

In addition to the auction, the ACE recently partnered with M-Cultivo to launch Brazil Select. This allows buyers from the US, the UK, and Canada to purchase COE submissions that scored 86+ in the national round but didn’t advance to the international stage.

cupping coffee

The importance of COE to the coffee industry

Most coffee is sold based on the “C price”, determined by supply and demand in the C market. Historically, the C price is extremely volatile.

The instability in prices, combined with the fact that prices are not reflective of the true cost of production, cause many problems to coffee-producing communities.

One major benefit of COE events is that it provides the opportunity for producers to be fairly rewarded and supported for their work in producing high-quality coffees.

For example, the inaugural Cup of Excellence in Ecuador this year hit a new record-setting average of $33.55 per pound. This is in contrast to the 10-year high “C price” of approximately $2.50 per pound.

As well as obtaining premium prices, winning an award opens a number of doors for producers, from improving the reputation of the farm to international recognition and access to new coffee-buying markets. Naturally, this helps improve the livelihood of coffee producers. 

In a recent interview with Barista Magazine, Ethiopia COE winner, Nigussie Gemeda, said: “Quality doesn’t pay most of the time. We were discouraged for a long time to produce specialty coffee because it takes a lot of time and effort and energy, and when the price comes, it’s always low.

“The fact that my coffee is now going to be around the world, and my neighbours and other farmers will get all this market opportunity and their coffee will get to new destinations, that gives me a lot of pride.”

COE also contributes to the sustainability of the coffee industry. For producers to continue growing quality coffee, they need to be earning a viable income; otherwise, there is a chance they will switch to other, more profitable, crops.

At the same time, high prices fetched by award-winning coffee motivate producers to learn and invest in the quality of their coffee. In the long run, having a quality-focused community – both on the producer and consumer side – will help with the development of the specialty coffee industry.

recyclable coffee bags

Why should roasters offer COE coffee?

For producers, the Cup of Excellence award is one of the highest forms of recognition for their coffees.

With its value and quality confirmed by a panel of experienced judges, offering COE coffee is a clear sign of commitment towards quality.

Additionally, selling a coffee with a lot of buzz around it can help roasters stand out in a saturated market. It gives consumers something to discuss, while providing an additional incentive to purchase the coffee.

The media coverage generated by COE auctions often spill over to buyers of the lot or roasters who sell COE coffee. The ACE even has a web page that directs consumers to roasters (who are members of ACE) selling COE coffee.

Furthermore, being involved with COE also allows roasters to develop close relationships with producers. For example, Maruyama Coffee has formed many direct trade relationships with producers from their years of involvement with COE.

Sasa Sestic, World Barista Champion and creator of Project Origin Best Of auctions also reported seeing many successful trade relationships stemming from coffee competitions and auctions.

kraft paper coffee bags

Cup of Excellence events are pivotal to the growth of the specialty coffee industry.

From improving the lives of coffee producers to elevating the overall standard for quality, COE helps drive the industry towards a more sustainable future, benefiting many of those involved.

At MTPak Coffee, we offer recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable coffee packaging options for specialty coffee roasters.

Our high quality coffee bags together with a dedicated team of designers can help you tell the best story of your coffee, as well as maintain all its finest qualities.

Our low minimum order quantity (MOQ) of 500 units is also ideal for roasters looking to offer limited and exclusive coffee.

For information on our sustainable coffee bags, contact our team.

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