Cup of Excellence Roundup 2009, Page 1

Of course, we think the Cup of Excellence program is fantastic on quite a few levels. It demonstrates for farmers and coffee exporters the importance of cup quality, showing them that the marketplace is willing to pay more for carefully produced and prepared coffees. I have participated on the CoE juries for years, we cup every full set of auction samples, and participate when we are motivated to, and can. This year has been interesting, with the global economic crises. You see a very different mix of bidders in the auctions, with most lots going to Asia. The main reason is that Asian businesses put an extremely high value on accredited coffees and seals of approval, and they can charge very high prices in their markets. You also see a new set of jurors coming in and their cupping skills and preferences are reflected in the coffees chosen to represent the best of each respective country. When we cup the sets of winning auction coffees before each auction, we normally do it blind and without regard for placement, from the top to the bottom. We also compare the lots to our own offerings, which are often sourced from farms that are in the auctions, or have previously been winners in the auctions. This informs our participation. One odd thing we find is that coffees with lesser quality in the auction get bid up to unreasonably high prices, whereas it seems the same bidders aren't willing to pay .20 or .50 cents more for better quality in their normal dealings with that origin. Is it auction fever? Or the value of the CoE logo? It's hard to say. Despite the "irrational exuberance" of the auctions, there is much more to Cup of Excellence than this. In many countries, I feel the ability of a company like ours to travel to origin, meet with farmers, have input on improvements to production, buy small lots, vacuum pack coffees or use special lined bags, and find shared transit for these "less than container" loads, is partly due to the CoE influence and model. Anyway, these are just some brief and candid comments ... don't read much into it.

Anyway, the odd thought I had about the Cup of Excellence program was this: as it succeeds, is it doomed to make itself obsolete? I mean, we buy coffee in a different way than we did 10 years ago. We don't just cup a bunch of coffees that arrive from brokers and importers. We have relationships with farms, many that have been in the CoE program, and we have an open dialogue, and we find an importer willing to handle the logistics. We don't do that with every single coffee we offer, but quite a lot. We also have special programs, like in Colombia or Costa Rica or Kenya, were we participate in intensive cupping and discovery of great small lots. Sounds a little like CoE! As we are successful in these programs, buying in a CoE auction becomes a little redundant. We already have found the coffee qualities we want to offer. Why dive into the auction frenzy against a Japanese or Korean bidder with deep pockets, who wants that logo on the bag that says auction winner, when we have a parallel coffee that I can offer home roasters at a more reasonable price (and a price that I know pays the farmer very well!)? Am I serving our customers by making them pay more for an auction coffee? It's something I struggle with because we are participating less, even though we love the CoE program. But things have changed. At one time the auction prices were not so inflated, and I used CoE as a real coffee sourcing tool, not as a way to have one symbolic CoE lot, then turn around and buy every other coffee on a tight budget. It was an effective way to get high quality small lot offerings. Now I can travel to origin, work with farmers, cup intensively, and have an ongoing relationship with farms and farmers who produce exceptional quality. That's just the way things have gone, and of course, I can't have remorse about that! It's a great success, and CoE has in some ways, aided in that. -Tom

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