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If you frequent high-quality coffee shops and cafes, you’ve probably seen the designation CoE on the menus or heard of the Cup of Excellence award for coffee. The Cup of Excellence program is managed by the Alliance for Coffee Excellence, a global coffee initiative based in the United States. ACE is a non-profit organization that works in close cooperation with coffee organizations in many coffee-growing countries to host annual cupping competitions and Internet auctions. In addition to the annual competition and auctions, ACE also provides training courses for coffee professionals in coffee cupping, background knowledge and coffee roasting.
Cup of Excellence Countries
Cup of Excellence competitions and auctions are currently held in 10 East African, Central American and South American countries that produce specialty coffee. They include Burundi, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Rwanda. Most coffee experts agree that the general coffee quality in each of those countries has improved considerably since they became involved in the annual Cup of Excellence programs.
How it Works
Every year, coffee producers in the Cup of Excellence countries can submit samples of their current year’s crop to the competition. Each farmer, regardless of size, can submit one sample coffee free. The entire competition is monitored by a 3rd party auditing company to ensure fairness and transparency at all stages of the competition. The coffees will be cupped by a jury of coffee cuppers who must have at least three years of experience cupping coffee.
Each competition has six rounds of cupping by two separate juries. Every cupping is done blind, so that none of the judges know the origins of any of the samples they are evaluating. The first three cuppings are done by a jury of coffee professionals in the host country, and each round eliminates coffees that don’t score at least an 85 on the cupping scale. By the third round, there are no more than 60 samples remaining to be forwarded to the international jury.
The final three rounds are judged by an international jury which consists of importers, buyers and other skilled coffee cuppers in the major consuming countries. In these three rounds, the highest rated coffee samples advance until there are only 10 coffees left. The final cupping consists of the top ten scoring coffees, which will be ranked in order of excellence. The winning farmers are recognized in an award ceremony, and the farms that produced coffees with scores above 90 are given special recognition.
After the awards ceremony, the winning coffee lots are prepared for sale. Samples of each winning coffee are sent to buyers around the world who have registered for the upcoming Internet auction. The auction is held online about six weeks after the competition finishes. The bidding is generally fierce, and the prices paid for the coffee lots generally range between $5 and $25 per pound. When you consider that Starbucks pays an average of $2.36 per pound for its coffees — and they pay a premium to farmers — you begin to see the difference that the Cup of Excellence can make in the coffee culture of a country.
What CoE Means for Producing Countries
The premium prices paid for the coffees sold at auction go directly to the farmer, where the money is reinvested in the crop or to make needed improvements to the community. Since 1999, when the first CoE auction was held, the competition has returned more than $35 million to coffee producing companies. The rewards for excellent coffee encourage coffee producers to innovate their methods of production and improve their crops, resulting in better coffee that sells for higher prices.
What CoE Means for Consumers
In short, the Cup of Excellence results in better-tasting coffee throughout the country, with Cup of Excellence winners being rated the best coffees that each country produces. Cup of Excellence winners are, by definition, a limited commodity, since only the coffee produced for the single winning lot may be designated with the CoE label. If you see a Cup of Excellence coffee on a cafe menu or for sale through a favorite roaster, you can be sure that you’re getting a coffee that meets the highest standards for excellent coffee.