We often read about award-winning coffees with exceptional profiles being sold for high prices. But what does “award-winning” really mean? How do green coffee quality competitions and auctions work? And what impact do they have on producers, buyers, and the local community?
To find out the answers to these questions, I spoke to Guilherme Salgado, Commercial Director at Minasul, a coffee cooperative in Minas Gerais, Brazil. For the last 25 years, the cooperative has run an annual coffee quality contest. This year, they are auctioning the best 600 bags from the competition. Signing up to Bean Auction will allow you to follow the auction. The winners will be announced on October 18th and the auction will begin on November 1st.
Who better to tell me how a green bean quality competition works?
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A coffee picker sorts through recently picked ripe cherries on Fazenda Colina, the winner of the naturals category in the 2017 Minasul Quality Contest. Credit: Minasul
What Is a Green Coffee Quality Competition?
A green coffee quality competition is, simply, a competition that awards green coffee of an excellent quality.
Minasul’s event, the Minasul Quality Contest, first began in 1993, and was the first one in Brazil to be organized by a coffee cooperative. As Salgado tells me, “The main goal of the contest is to promote coffees from our members [and] display their quality to the internal and external markets.”
Normally, coffee contests are separated by the type of coffee: at the very least, for Arabica or Robusta, the two most common coffee species. Often, however, there are categories for different processing types. In Brazil, for example, lots are normally divided into naturals and pulped naturals.
Minasul’s Specialty Coffee Department prepares samples to cup ahead of the Minasul Quality Contest. Credit: Minasul
But How Does a Green Coffee Contest Work?
Signing up for a contest is simple. Salgado tells me, “Generally, the producer selects their coffee and then enters it in the contest.”
The difficult part, however, is choosing which coffee to enter. Salgado says that, at the Minasul coffee cooperative, Q graders advise producers so that they can compete with their best lot.
The cost can vary. At Minasul, for example, participating is free for cooperative members. Often, however, there’s an admin or entry fee to cover the cost of running the competition.
The producer then submits their coffee with some basic information: farm name, lot number and size, and so on. From here, it’s in the judge’s hands.
The Champions of the 26th Minasul Quality Contest, 2017. Credit: Minasul
How Are The Winning Coffees Chosen?
Once all the coffees have been submitted, they are then cupped by judges in what is the industry-wide method for evaluating sensorial coffee quality. The majority of contests apply the SCA Cupping Standards: coffees are evaluated in terms of their flavor, aroma, acidity, and other aspects. They are ranked on a scale from 0 to 100. Those scoring 80+ are considered specialty coffee; those scoring 90+ are considered exceptional.
To make sure the evaluations are accurate and impartial, Q graders (certified cuppers) are used as the judges. Additionally, the samples are normally cupped blind: each sample is given a code or a number and then cupped without any identifying information, such as the farm name or region.
The winner is rarely selected in the first round. Normally, there is a pre-selection and several cupping selections before the finalists are defined.
The number of finalists varies from contest to contest. For example, in the Minasul Quality Contest, there are 20 in the naturals category and 10 in the pulped naturals. These samples will once again be cupped to determine their final scores; this will determine their ranking. Only then will the coffees be identified and the champions revealed.
In many competitions, all finalists are considered award-winning – although, of course, the top coffee receives special acclaim.
Renato Pita celebrates his first-place win in the pulped naturals category of the 2017 Minasul Quality Contest. Credit: Minasul
Who Benefits From a Coffee Quality Competition?
Coffee quality competitions are designed to benefit all involved parties. Here’s how.
For the farmers, the rewards are two-fold. They benefit financially and also from the marketing value.
The first-place winners of the contest usually receive a financial prize, in addition to the price paid for their coffee. For example, in the 2017 Minasul Quality Contest, the winner received R $3,000 (around US $800/£600/€690).
All the coffees that reach the finals tend to be sold for higher prices. Additionally, if there is an auction attached to the contest, the auctioneers may set a higher starting price for the lot.
At Minasul, Salgado explains, “Even if the coffee isn’t in the top few lots, it’s still allocated a premium price [for its starting bid]… This is a guaranteed premium, but… they can be auctioned for much higher prices, and we return this value to the cooperative member.”
Participating in the competition also means guaranteed exposure to roasters and buyers, as well as the possibility of their farms receiving attention in the press and on social media. It makes it easier to not just find buyers but align the farm name with the concept of quality.
As for roasters, they have easy access to high-quality coffees – and the assurance that producers will receive the financial premium they deserve, rather than it all going to a trader.
The Minasul Quality Contest, for example, uses the Bean Auction platform, which is open to the entire world. No matter whether they are in Asia or North America, Europe or the Middle East, third wave roasters and traders can start a relationship with a specialty producer at origin.
What’s more, the supply chain is both shortened and transparent. As Salgado says, “These coffees are completely traceable, all the way down to the ownership, altitude, latitude, and history of the farm.”
Coffee dries on patios on a coffee farm in Minasul, Brazil. Credit: Minasul
Part of a Long-Term Journey Towards Quality
Yet it’s not just the sellers and buyers who benefit from a quality competition: the whole region does. It promotes the area on an international level to roasters and traders, creating interest in the origin.
Over time, this has a strong impact. With greater international interest, higher prices, and the opportunity to win awards comes an increase in quality.
Minasul has always had the right conditions for good coffee: high-altitude farms sitting above 1,000 m.a.s.l. and varieties such as Yellow Bourbon and Acaia. Now, however, producers are paying attention to the specialty market.
Salgado tells me, “We see a lot of people, people in regions that had never heard of specialty coffees… suddenly, one of these producers participates in the contest and does well, and the whole region develops. [The other producers] go and get training on post-harvesting… It helps a lot.”
The evidence is visible in the cup scores. Salgado says, “Year after year, the scores rise. What is that about? It’s about the producer taking action and improving their post-harvesting, improving how they handle it. This is very rewarding.
“Let’s say that five years ago, a producer that achieved a cup score of 84, 84.5, would already be in the top five [in the contest]. Last year, out of the 20 finalists, there wasn’t a single score lower than 86.”
Yet it’s not just the top-scorers who benefit. Salgado says that there’s another way to measure the impact. “Five years ago, specialty coffee made up about 4–5% of the harvest. In the last harvest, it was 15%. In this harvest, we’re expecting 20% of the coffees to be over 80 points.”
Minasul represents over 6,000 people, making this a remarkable increase in just a few years. There are now around 900 more farmers producing specialty in this region – and the cooperative believes the quality contest is part of the reason why.
Fazenda Colina, the winner of the naturals category in the 2017 Minasul Quality Contest. Credit: Minasul
So, what does “award-winning” mean? It means a coffee that was selected by certified judges as being one of the best in the area. It means coffee that roasters around the world may have access to via auction. And, most importantly of all, it means traceable coffee, price premiums for the producer, and a region that works towards coffee quality.
The winners of the Minasul Quality Contest will be announced in mere days, ready for the auction to begin on November 1st. With a steady increase in quality in the last five years, I for one am looking forward to seeing how the best coffees score.
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All interviews conducted in Portuguese and translated into English by the author.
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