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It’s springtime in Colombia, and coffee experts from every part of the globe have convened in Santa Marta, a small city on the Caribbean coast. It is time to award the coffee industry’s most prestigious prize. The taste mavens make ready: Alberto Trujillo is deep into his pre-sip calisthenics, which consist of knee bends and alternating leg shakes. The Tijuanan has to prime his body, nose, and mouth for the so-called cupping that’s about to commence. As any java snob can tell you, to cup is to scrutinize the tastes and aromas of freshly brewed coffee. But Trujillo is no ordinary java snob, and what he’s girding for is no ordinary cupping. He has been certified by the Coffee Quality Institute as a licensed Q Grader, a person who can boast experience in everything from roast identification to sensory triangulation.
And he’s about to serve as a judge in the annual Cup of Excellence competition.
Alongside Trujillo stands Geoff Watts, vice president of coffee and an unroasted-bean buyer for the Chicago gourmet retailer Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea (winner of Roast magazine’s 2007 Macro-Roaster of the Year award). It’s early morning, the day’s competition will begin in short order, and Watts is sucking deep breaths, recalibrating his olfactory system, waiting for his mouth to reset. “Toothpaste is insidious,” he murmurs.
Trujillo, Watts, and 18 other coffee connoisseurs will soon sample the 29 brews that have made it to the semifinals. Ten of these sit in front of each judge, in identical white cups with only a number to identify them, meticulously arranged in 20 straight lines on six broad tables. Each cup holds 11.5 grams of ground beans, measured out to the hundredth of a gram.
The competition began four weeks before, when 513 fincas (farms) from across this coffee-obsessed nation submitted samples of their finest unroasted beans. Now, after marathon tasting sessions with Colombian judges, the contestants have…