Blog Post – Judging a Coffee Brewing Competition: Palate Gymnastics

By Caitlin McCarthy-Garcia

Every year the Specialty Coffee Association of America holds a series of coffee competitions. Two of the more popular competitions begin at the regional level and the winners advance to the national, and finally, the world competition. This year I participated as a judge for the regional Brewer’s Cup competition held in southern California in October. This competition awards competitors that brew the tastiest coffee, and in the final round, combine that skill with a sophisticated taste experience while delivering excellent customer service.

Round one of the competition was…grueling. Each competitor was given the same coffee shortly before competition, with little time for preparation. The challenge for round one was to breBrewers Cupw the best cup for each judge. I judged seventeen baristas and tasted seventeen unique brews of the same coffee, all behind a curtain so as not to be biased. I was surprised how different the cups were, and I found myself doubting whether they were the same coffee.

The final round, “Open Service,” was more varied and interactive. Judges sat through a short performance by the top three competitors from round one. Each barista prepared individual brews for the three judges. We were led through a tasting experience that included a background on the coffee, information about the brewing method, and detailed tasting notes. It was important for competitors to choose their words carefully. For example, during one performance, I found myself questioning whether their descriptor of “melon” should really have been “stone fruit.” To some, this may seem trivial, but this is the attention to detail that the coffee industry relies on to maintain consistency and uphold quality standards.

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