Who Invited the Russian Judge?

I am the Russian Judge. It’s possible I’ve been bribed by Don Carlos, or the little girl I call the Candy Lord (she’s mastered the art of manipulation using her endless supplies of hard candies). I can be bought, and I know nothing of what I speak. I could hold up a “10” when all the other judges are holding a “6”. Just stand back and be ready to gasp at the results….

Breathing a big sigh of relief I woke up from this morning reality TV dream and got my bearings. It was day 2 in Monserrate, Colombia, and I was there to judge 59 coffee farmers’ hard work with a sniff, a slurp, and a pencil. The top 5 winners would take home cash prizes, and enjoy extra per-pound profits as a result, not to mention earn the respect and envy of every neighbor on the coffee growing hill top. That’s a lot of pressure, and the hopes and dreams of these coffee farmers were waiting on the judgment of 9 people, one being me.

My dream wasn’t far off, because among the room of judges were experienced Q Graders, coffee roasters with several years’ experience, and coffee industry professionals who’ve collectively slurped and spit more coffee than I’ve roasted in my career.

So here’s the gig: “Cupping” is the act of “tasting” coffee. There is a strict protocol to create an equal playing field for the coffees to compete. All must have been roasted the same way, ground the same, measured to precisely 12 grams, brew using water at 203 degrees for exactly 4 minutes, and then be tasted on characteristics ranging from aroma to acidity to body to aftertaste, among others. Scores are tallied and compiled to widdle these 59 coffees down to the top 10 on the final day for a showdown between the best.

I tentatively dipped my spoon into the first cup of joe for a slurp. Nope, it’s not a dainty act. It’s a big airy suck of wind that sprays the coffee into your mouth in order to expose all the flavors the coffee has to offer. A quick swish and the coffee is spit into my personal little spit-cup. Within that mini-moment, I’m supposed to get my head around that coffee. Does it taste like mango dancing in the sunlight of a lemon field laced with a cashew velvet? It was up to me to decide.

At first it was really really hard, and although I wasn’t completely off base, I felt like my assessments were contrived and unnatural. I talked with the others as they all gave me tips on what “body” really felt like, on what number to assign “aroma” and how to detect what really was a “nuttiness”. I was really trying to pick apart every bit of the coffee and mechanically decipher its features and benefits (the downfall of being a boxes and squares kind of gal). I quickly realized this just wasn’t going to work for me, and began wondering where the bribers were hiding because I was pretty sure my vote could be bought at that point.

We came back to the cupping table number 2 and I just decided that I was going to block out all the noise and words that I was trying to put to the coffee and just taste. The clouds parted, and I believe the Virgin herself paid me a visit because all of a sudden this coffee cupping pace gained a momentum and ease that could only be matched by a near effortless downhill ski run in fresh powder. I know, cheesy, huh? But really….just the same. If someone would tell you how to ski and describe every angle of the turn from your knees’ degree of bend, to the pressure assigned to each foot, to the intensity of the grip on your pole, you’d crack. Your first turn would end with a faceplant and yardsale. But instead, if you eased up, let go, and just felt the snow and what it needed to provide you a pillow upon which to arc your perfectly glossed boards? Pure Warren Miller ski movie magic baby.

In two and a half days of tasting, some tables were easier than others, but I seemed to be getting it. Even though my descriptions of the coffees lacked more than 3 adjectives, I could say yum, yuck, and so-so to every coffee on the table right at pace with the group. They taught me so much, gave me so much insight, and made me happy that I wasn’t the only one who could accidentally dip my nose into the cup, or choke on a slurp.

The grand finale was on the final round when we discussed our rankings of the coffees at the table. I knew which coffees I liked and wanted to share with my customers, and I knew what I didn’t like. I learned that not everyone has the same favorite, but I also realized that when a coffee was great, it was great. It was such a joy to realize we’d all voted on the winning coffee when all 9 of our hands went up in unison, and I was not, in fact, that crazy Russian Judge at all. Suck that Candy Lord.

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Just Getting There

At 8 p.m. last night I was casually sipping the last of my cold beverage, and enjoying a slice of pizza with friends at a local pizza joint. This is otherwise known as “skillful delay of packing for a trip.” With a 7 a.m. departure, I figured I had all night to pack if I wanted it, and I could sleep all day during the flights to Colombia.

At about midnight I put the finishing touches on the packing and climbed into bed for 5 hours or so of sleep–Total panic– I realized I’d left my boarding pass at my store, along with the pictures of kids whose gifts I was on a mission to deliver to Colombia. Arg!!! I just figured I’d have to get up half a crack of a you know what earlier to fetch this stuff, then I’d be on my way.

At 5 a.m. I was up and at ‘em…so far so good. I was out the door at 5:30 to fetch the stuff, and transfer a few computer files to the travel laptop….still good. 5 minutes and I’d be outa there. Five somehow turned into twenty five, and when I looked at my watch I had one of those pure freak-outs that comes when you realize you’ve just inflicted pain onto yourself that is now irreversible, un-repairable, and would require the most advanced of pleading and manipulation of airport personnel you are humanly capable of delivering.

Ok, into the car I went, with the gas pedal at full throttle to get to the airport in time for the flight. I grabbed my driver (my husband) with a 25 mph “get in the car- I’m late” move, pulled up to the airport, jumped out, ran to the ticket counter, and to my total (not) surprise, I was too late to drop off the pre-checked extra bag I had. (The bag that contained the soccer jerseys. The whole purpose of my trip, bag. The bag that now was going to require me to beg with TSA or someone else to allow it onto the plane with me.)

All I can say is that living in a small town has its perks. Not one of my ready-for-action skills of manipulation was called into duty, and I had full permission to just put it on the plane-side baggage cart (yes if you didn’t catch that, we actually have such a small airport that you walk across the pavement, unprotected and sort of wild-west like, and walk up the stairs into the awaiting 30 passenger prop jet.

Suweet! I’m on the plane, I’ve got my bags, and all I now have to do is get it checked in during my next stop. Perfect. Start the engines! Um, START the ENGINES, Ya…hello engines, did you hear me? Really I don’t know enough about planes to know if those are the “engines” or just the “props”. Bottom line? Plane has 2 props, one on the right, and one on the left. The left one just didn’t feel like starting. Are you kidding me?

Off the plane we went with no time to spare! My trip is a long dance of coordinated pick ups, rides, and rendezvous. I can’t show up late unless I want to be finding my own way through the back roads of Colombia, and I certainly can’t cancel. I had to figure out a way to make this work. After 45 minutes of line standing, new line standing, calling, bag grabbing, line standing, phone calling, and did I mention line standing? (My particular favorite line standing moment was when I stood behind 2 quite metropolitan ladies off to what looked like a fun weekend in New York, who were utterly perplexed by what they were going to do if they couldn’t get to their pre-booked $1000 per night hotel reservation refunded by the airline. Hmmm….I’m thinking if you’re booking $1000 hotel suites maybe you don’t need to be giving the completely un-empowered ticket agent a hard time right now. I’m guessing she’s not feeling too sorry for you.)

So, the bottom line? If I want to make it to Colombia, I’m going to have to get into my Soccer-mom mobile and drive it like the wind for the next 4 hours to make my flight at the next destination. Ok, then, game on.

I was pedal to the metal for the next 4 hours. Me, my music cranked, the roast beef man-sandwich that I stole at the last minute from my husband’s lunch, and my cell phone feverishly making calls to try to fix the big snafu that had now been created. I didn’t count the laws I broke, but just crossed my fingers, hoping everything would be ok.

Man Sandwich - high in protein

Man Sandwich - high in protein

I made it to the airport in time again (the luck I’m having at this point might have had something to do with my 85 mph in the 65 zone maneuvering). I parked my car in the “value” parking, which basically means that I was out in row D23, which is 23 miles removed from where the row D might be situated in any regular parking lot, found the courtesy bus, made it into the check in line, had the auto check in tell me “you’re too late to check in for this flight” (gulp, panic), got in the “agent” line, and had the nicest ever human on the planet check me in, calm my nerves and tell me to have a great day. Phew. I will!

I’m here in Houston, about to get on the red eye to Bogota, and hoping that all the strings “Juan” pulled are going to come together perfectly!

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Just Say Yes

The ticket is booked. Somehow there’s available credit on the American Express and I don’t care that I’ll be eating cereal for dinner the next several months to pay it back. If you get a chance to go on a trip like this, you say “yes”… then figure it out.

What started out as a spark of kindness by my son is now dropping me right in the middle of the home of Juan Valdez and his mule. It’s possible that Juan is now retired, after working his butt off in the 60s, 70s and 80s, hand picking beans and showing up at the back doors of housewives all across America with cans of Colombian coffee, perfectly timed to relieve the stress of preparing the coffee for the ladies luncheon. What would our moms have done without him? Colombia sits as the 3rd largest coffee producing country on the globe behind Brazil and Vietnam. I’m sure they could do better if they slowed down a little on the cocaine production. Who has time for coffee when you’re producing 80% of the world’s cocaine supplies? I laugh, but I give mad respect to those working their tails off cultivating coffee to make a legal living.

So how, you might ask, did I end up ticket in hand? Pretty cool story, actually. My son has been way into learning about coffee. Back in the late fall he was looking at the giant world map, marked with coffee origins of the coffees that I use in our blends, and asked what it was like for the kids who lived in these places. I told him about how the kids live a lot differently than he does. They don’t have 16 sweatshirts and talk about the latest game they played on Wii. They don’t go skiing for fun in the winter, and sneak episodes of “Ben Ten” on the TV when Mom and Dad aren’t watching. A lot of these kids work in the family business of coffee, don’t necessarily have shoes, may or may not have the privilege of going to school, and sometimes find themselves hungry when the cash is low and harvest is still weeks away. He pondered and said to me “I want to do something nice for a kid there”, with “there” being anywhere that coffee is grown.

I picked up the phone and called my coffee importer, and have to admit I felt a little bit like I was going to be bugging him with this little request. I told him that my son wanted to do something for a kid “there”, and asked if he had any ideas. Almost as though this was the exact phone call he’d been waiting for all day, he told me not only could he do something nice for one kid, but he could do something nice for a whole community of kids if he wanted to. He explained that the kids in the town of Monserrate, Colombia are soccer obsessed, but play in their multi colored tee shirts, and would be out of their skin with joy if they had real soccer jerseys. I hung up the phone, proposed this idea to my soccer-obsessed child, and it was game on without a blink.

Oooookaaay…so now my kid, who I thought might be getting a book or a pair of shoes for one kid in Colombia, is about to outfit the whole soccer team in uniforms. How the heck is this going to go down? Never underestimate the power of a kid, his school teacher, or the simple desire to just make something happen. My son talked to his teacher about his idea, because clearly he’d need some help, and she jumped on about as fast as I suck down an espresso. Before we knew it, we had the entire 3rd grade on board.

We made a learning experience out of it by bringing each of the classes to my store for a coffee field trip (See Raise Your Hand Please). Then, each of the kids in the classrooms created a potential coffee label, and the kids voted for their favorite 3. We sold enough coffee online to buy the kids in Monserrate 30 soccer jerseys, and that was that!

So back to the ticket? I called my importer again in May and said…”ok, the kids did it! I have the jerseys, hand-written letters, and a signed soccer ball here. What’s the best way to get this to Monserrate?”
He quickly replied “Well, the best way to get it all there is for you to join us as a guest cupping judge during the August harvest, and deliver the kids’ gift in person”.

The thought of this opportunity…seeing the special community of Monserrate, getting to know the people who harvest this amazing coffee that I buy, playing a game of soccer with the kids (and getting whooped), and just experiencing the unknown….Like I said, you say “yes” and just figure it out.

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