The World Coffee Championships are widely considered to showcase excellence in the coffee industry, including recognising the skills of numerous coffee professions. One of these competitions is the World Cup Tasters Championship.
Participants compete in several rounds to establish who can taste coffee in the fastest and most accurate way on the global stage. Both speed and accuracy improve every year, which means training must be becoming more intense year-on-year.
So, how should a World Cup Tasters competitor prepare to best demonstrate their skills? To find out, I asked two previous World Cup Tasters winners, Daniel Horbat and Kyoungha “Charlie” Chu, how they both achieved first place in their respective competitions. Read on to find out what they said.
You may also like our article on how to roast for cupping.
What is the Cup Tasters Championship?
World Coffee Events states that the Cup Tasters Championship “awards the professional coffee cupper who demonstrates speed, skill, and accuracy in distinguishing the taste differences in specialty coffees”.
Each competitor has eight minutes to taste eight sets of three coffees (referred to as “triangulation tests”, as the cups are usually arranged in a triangle). Only two of the coffees are identical, meaning competitors must guess which coffee is different from the other two.
For each triangulation test, two different coffees are brewed. Coffee A is poured into two of the three cups, while coffee B is poured into one cup. The coffees are all prepared using a drip filter brewer and are roasted to a medium profile no more than 14 days prior to brewing.
The coffees are brewed between 92 and 96°C (197 to 204°F) using 60g of coffee per litre of water. Total brew time is between four and six minutes and once extracted, the coffee is kept at 80 to 85°C (176 to 185°F).
The taster must identify which cup holds coffee B – the odd one out – using only their smell and taste. Cup Tasters competitors all taste the same coffees.
In the event of more than one competitor guessing the same number of different coffees, the winner is announced based on speed. Generally, the different coffee is marked with a sticker on the underside of the cup, so that the judges can quickly count points at the end of each round.
The competition consists of three stages: a preliminary round, semi-final round, and the final round, as well as precursor national competitions taking place in various countries. Only eight tasters proceed to the semi-finals, while the four top-scoring competitors enter the finals.
What skills are necessary?
The ability to assess the quality, origin, and processing of a coffee is important for many coffee professionals, but for Cup Tasters, it’s an essential part of determining which coffee is different. The skills acquired from working as a barista or roaster are certainly useful for the competition, but training methods will vary.
Rather than assessing fragrance, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, body, and balance of the coffees (a common practice for cupping), competitors need to learn how to confidently and instinctively identify the odd cup out. This means that while resources, such as the SCA cupping form, are necessary tools, they are somewhat less relevant for this competition.
Essentially, competitors have to develop a new method for assessing coffee.
Daniel Horbat is 2019 World Cup Tasters Champion, and the owner and founder of Sumo Coffee Roasters in Dublin, Ireland. He tells me that standard coffee education is “only one branch of the tree” when it comes to training for the competition.
Daniel explains that when cupping coffee, he assesses bitterness first.
“Our body is more sensitive to bitterness because we associate it with poison,” he says.
He tells me that he prioritises bitterness because acidity tends to fade as coffee cools, while sweetness is sometimes not as easy to assess. He adds that aroma can be a “distraction” for him.
Research shows that plant alkaloids are generally perceived as bitter. The most common examples of plant alkaloid compounds which taste bitter are atropine, quinine, and strychnine. Coffee naturally contains high amounts of quinic acid, which contributes to more bitter flavours.
While the tongue is capable of sensing all of the major five types of flavour (salty, sour, sweet, bitter, and umami), the back of the tongue is particularly sensitive to bitterness. This serves as a final check to ensure food is not poisonous before swallowing – a common and useful reflex for prehistoric populations.
Charlie is the 2021 World Cup Tasters champion and a barista at ONA Coffee in Melbourne, Australia.
“I always focus on flavour as a first priority,” he says. He explains he tries to find differences in aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, and body between the three coffees.
Both Charlie and Daniel emphasise the importance of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice. They both attribute their success to regular practice and pushing themselves to perform better each time.
In order to prepare for the Cup Tasters Championship, extensive training is essential. Trainees should attempt to replicate the competition as closely as possible in regular training sessions – meaning assessing eight triangular tests in an eight-minute timeframe.
Attempting to simulate the competition environment is key. Using the same equipment for brewing, the same brew ratio, the same number of cups, and carrying out several rounds of tasting one after another are all key to good training.
Having access to the right equipment is necessary, but having a space to practice in that is not distracting is imperative. Charlie tells me he set up a coffee lab at home to prepare for the 2021 Cup Tasters Championship. He had previously used his friend’s coffee shop, but after closing time so as to remain focused.
Charlie began improving his sensory skills in early 2019 and has maintained regular training since. He usually trains two or three times a week, averaging three rounds per session. He emphasises how “consistent and persistent practice” is key to succeeding in the competition.
Daniel, however, trains every day, using three sessions per day. However, he warns against “overtraining”, as this can be detrimental to developing sensory skills, as well as the competitor’s health.
Additionally, Daniel always tastes each cup only once before deciding which is the different coffee. He says this helps to refine his decision-making skills, as well as improving his ability to trust his instincts.
Tasting a variety of beans from different origins, as well as different roast profiles and processes, is also essential. Exposing the palate to a wider range of flavours hones your sensory skills and helps you detect even the most subtle differences between coffees.
However, training to identify simple differences, such as differentiating between a washed Kenyan and a natural Kenyan, can be too easy for the world stage.
To combat this, Daniel says that he blends two similar coffees together using a 60:40 ratio to create batch A, and then blends batch B using a 40:60 ratio. To improve his sensory skills even further, he “tightens” the ratios as his training goes on.
Both Charlie and Daniel point out how coaching and guidance helped them to win.
“You need someone to guide you, but you need the right person,” Daniel says.
Other notes for Cup Tasters training
In the lead-up to the championship, many competitors alter their diets. Charlie says that roughly ten days in advance of the competition he cuts out any “strong, stimulating, and spicy foods”.
Research from the Monell Chemical Senses Centre shows that spicy food inhibits other flavours as the pain and irritation from the heat can distract the taster, especially if they are not accustomed to spicy flavours.
For the duration of his training phase, Daniel tells me he abstains from salt and pepper, spices, and beer, often for months in advance. He says that he even goes as far as to eat baby food, but warns that drastically changing your diet shortly before the competition can be detrimental.
Both Charlie and Daniel agree that smoking will affect your palate, and note that it should be avoided in the lead up to the competition. Furthermore, the Journal of Tobacco Induced Diseases has also found that palate sensitivity reduces significantly after increases in tobacco consumption.
The centre’s research also concluded that full gustatory sensitivity normally recovers after nine weeks of quitting smoking, although some may notice improved sense of taste after a few days.
On competition day, it’s not just about the coffees, but also going against the other tasters. Playing tactically can be the difference between advancing to the next stage or being knocked out.
Daniel likens playing tactically in Cup Tasters to chess. He takes note of which competitors are fast and accurate in earlier rounds in order to assess what pace he should set for himself.
He says he has good accuracy with tasting coffees, and subsequently makes the competition about trying to outpace his competitors, which forces them to change their own tactics.
“If they change their game, they will most likely perform worse than before,” he tells me. “If I fail one round, they might fail two, and if I fail one round then they might as well, but my time might be faster.”
Drinking plenty of water on competition day is also essential for refreshing the palate. Daniel recommends sparkling water in between rounds and still water immediately before and during rounds.
Ultimately, the key to success in the Cup Tasters Championship is simple: practice.
The more you are able to imitate competition conditions in your practice, the better your chances of achieving your goals will be. Putting in the hours and tasting different coffees are the best ways to improve. There’s no substitute for hard work.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on what you need to be a barista champion.
Photo credits: Jordan Montgomery
Perfect Daily Grind
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!