Coffee Competitions: What They Are and Why We Do Them

Coffee roasting competitions seem daunting and unapproachable even for those of us that work in the specialty coffee industry.

Most people would assume that what tastes and smells good is a subjective experience, but these competitions use objective grading scales to rank some above others. Submitting roasted coffee samples, making drinks on the spot, or putting your taste buds to the test in front of a panel of judges is intimidating. It's a process that can inspire self-doubt and anxiety, but we think it's worth it, even if we don't win.

Aaron Roasting.jpg

I recently sat down with our Head Roaster, Aaron Hill, to talk to him about the roasting process and why competitions are important and relevant. Aaron spends the majority of his time in our roasting room at the West Café controlling and dialing all the variables that go into turning green coffee beans into the toasted brown that we're all familiar with. When it comes to roasting, just a few of the variables Aaron contends with are the amount of beans being roasted at once, the initial temperature of the roaster, all of the temperature adjustments that happen along the way, the amount of time the coffee gets to heat up, dry, and develop, and the temperature and light conditions the coffee is stored in just to name a few. For Aaron, roasting competitions make this degree of detail worth it.

"As a roaster, it's easy to get stuck," Aaron said. You can find a roasting recipe that works and then your days become a little monotonous.

Aaron appreciates the chance to compete because it forces him to learn more about his craft and experiment with new coffees and roasting styles. Aaron dials his roast down to specific degrees of heat and time margins of only a few seconds. From the outside looking in, these microscopic adjustments can seem a little ridiculous. You might wonder if this could possibly matter for the final product, and the competitions are proof that it does.

Most competitions will try to be as objective as possible to give their results legitimacy. Without knowing who roasted the coffee, the judges will score them on specific criteria such as fragrance, aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, sweetness, and balance. Certain defects such as being over/underdeveloped, baked, or scorched can subtract from total scores. This careful scoring process takes something that most perceive as subjective and turns it into something objective so the coffees can be compared to one another. At this level, under so much scrutiny, it absolutely matters at what specific degree or for how long (down to the second) that your coffee was roasted. This objectivity of competitions matters a great deal to Aaron because it offers him a chance to see if what he thinks is good aligns with what others think is good. Placing well in these competitions also wins Aaron and Honeybee the approval of our peers in the industry and is great publicity for us personally and for the specialty coffee industry as a whole. The entire process of competing is an invaluable learning experience that improves the quality of our coffee across the board. That's why we are happy to compete regardless of the outcome.

Here at Honeybee, we are feeling good after winning the Charleston Cup this past October. The competition was hosted by Balzac Brothers, the company that we import a large portion of our coffee through. After weeks of roasting, cupping, re-dialing, and roasting again, Aaron was finally pleased with our Washed Gedeb coffee from Ethiopia. Aaron chose to send this coffee because he had just finished getting Q Grader certified (we'll explain what this means in a future post) and predicted that it would score well for its brightness and acidity. His prediction was accurate and our coffee took home the prize.

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Washed Gedeb

Winner of “Best Coffee” at the 2018 Charleston Cup

Honeybee's most recent competition was the US Coffee Championships Roaster Qualifying Competition in Nashville on January 13th. This competition is a qualifier to advance to the national championship. The format of this competition is a little different from the Charleston Cup. For Charleston, we were able to submit any coffee that we wanted for scoring. This time around, Aaron was sent 20 pounds of green coffee from Myanmar as were all of the other competitors. The goal was to roast the beans to the best of his ability and submit it for review to the panel of judges. Aaron also gave a short presentation on how he chose to roast the beans and the reasoning behind his decisions. Because each roaster started with the same beans, this competition hones in on roasting style and technique.

This post on competitions will be a part of a larger series that we will pick back up next week with more specific information on the US Coffee Championships and how we did. We will also take a closer look at the coffee industry in Myanmar and its fascinating history and promising future.

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Author: Alex Wuethrich