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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