A few times every year we pile into a chiva with 20 or 30 of our roaster friends from around the world, drive into the heart of a coffee-growing community, cup for days and days, and discover some of the most exquisite microlot coffees in the world by ranking the top 30 out of hundreds of submitted samples. Then we all wake up on the last day of a long week and top the whole thing off with a wild and wooly live auction, surrounded by dozens of coffee growers and their families in a sea of auction paddles, music, food, tears, and camaraderie.
While that’s how Best Cup cupping competitions and auctions look these days, they haven’t always been such a big noise: Only four short years ago Cafe Imports founder Andrew Miller was asking himself whether anyone would fly all the way to Cauca to stand in a town square and attempt to outbid each other for tiny lots of exceptional coffee from otherwise unknown producers.
Thankfully they did just that—and Best Cup was officially born.
“The initial motivation was just like Cup of Excellence, which is about quality discovery: Who and where are the great producers, and how can we meet them and reward them?” Andrew says, reflecting on that first competition. “Then it’s also about price discovery for growers, to see that people are willing to pay more money for top-quality coffees. It’s about trying to keep them in the quality game, otherwise you can’t keep young people in farming—they leave to go find work in the cities. Now we keep seeing these examples of young guys who take a small piece of land and they want to do something innovative because they think that’s the future. It’s awesome.”
That first Best Cup, organized and hosted in collaboration with our export partners in Colombia at Banexport, was a total leap of faith: Would producers submit samples of their coffees for this out-of-left-field regional competition? Would the coffees be as good as we knew they could be? Though there was plenty of nail-biting in the months leading up to the Cauca contest, about 50 producers did offer their coffees, and about 15 roasters took the plunge on plane tickets and the promise of aguardiente flowing freely on a bus after the cuppings.
That was 2014. In September of 2018, Banexport had received samples from over 500 producers for Colombia Best Cup, an event so big it featured the top coffees from Cafe Imports’ four main sourcing regions in Colombia, Cauca, Huila, Nariño, and Tolima.
“The thing that I love about this is that these are small farmers—the average farm is only 1.5 hectares, so they are only producing 20 or 25 bags of coffee a year,” Andrew says. “The prices they get make a difference in their lives.”
This year’s top winner in the auction, Jairo Quiñones, for example, sold his 6-bag lot for $26.75/lb. The coffee scored 90 points on the auction cupping table, with notes of sweet cherry, sparkling lemonade, orange blossom, peaches, coconut, raspberry, agave… The list goes on.
“The producer was shaking [during the final bidding] when it got over $20, he’s really kind of a quiet and conservative man. We asked what he’s going to do with the money, and he said, ‘I think I’m going to build a parabolic dryer, and build a new patio, and clean up my washing station.’ He’s going to reinvest.”
Luis Arocha, one of Cafe Imports’ primary green-coffee buyers for both Colombia and Brazil also felt the difference in this year’s auction. “It was the most successful so far,” he said. “All of the coffees in the auction were sold to the roasters, and with really good pricing. Also what was very positive, I saw that we had some of the producers in the finalists from other Best Cups. That means it’s working, that the producers are motivated and their quality is consistent.”
That same motivation is clear elsewhere, as Best Cup has expanded to regions other than Colombia: In Brazil, producers of all sizes came back for a second year of cupping and auction frenzy in Carmo de Minas for the Carmo Best Cup, which followed Colombia’s event by just a week and was held in collaboration with our export partners at CarmoCoffees.
While the two countries are huge players on the global coffee market, they are also very different from each other: As Andrew mentioned, the average farmer in southern Colombia owns less than 2 hectares of land, while many estates in Carmo de Minas are hundreds of hectares, used for coffee as well as livestock and other crops. There are exceptions to every rule, however, and in terms of discovering who is growing the best coffees in the world, Best Cup has been an amazing resource for both buyers and innovative, quality-focused producers. In fact in 2018 about 70 percent of the top-30 coffees came from producers with 20 hectares or less.
“This year Brazil was surprising in a good way, too, because some of the producers who won were small guys who had never won a competition before, who never thought that quality pays,” Luis continues. “[The winning farmer] was shocked, his wife and daughter were with him onstage and you could see in their faces they were surprised.”
“In Brazil the other way they approach this is on the experimental side with the big estates,” Luis says, describing how the motivation and incentive of the contest can be transformative not only for the smallholder producers in Brazil who own 20 or 30 hectares, but also those who own 300 or 400 hectares: “The big estates are already producing some quality, but they want to go a bit further, so they do experiments. This year the most exotic one was a Hydro-Honey process, which the farmer [CarmoCoffees cofounder Luiz Paulo Dias Pereira] replicated from another producer, Elkin Guzman in Colombia. It turned out to be a good coffee!”
Well, to be fair, all of the coffees submitted for Carmo Best Cup were good coffees—including, of course, the top-prize winner, a Natural process lot from Sítio Bom Começo that tasted like cooked pineapple, grape candy, papaya, lychee, and watermelon lemonade. The small lot scored nearly 91.5 points and sold for $16.50/lb in the live auction.
In addition to quality and price discovery, of course, there is the incredible added benefit—and advantage to both roaster and producer—of relationship-building potential from these competitions, as well as full price transparency. Roasters who attend Best Cup every year not only find ways to connect and expand their sourcing with farmers from whom they’ve bought auction coffees in the past, but they also discover new growers every year, which creates a diversity of offerings and a real spirit of in-it-together-ness.
“Something that we hope comes out more and more from these trips is being able to establish relationships, and then the farmer just knows they have a good home for their coffee,” says Noah Namowicz, Cafe Imports senior vice president of sales and an origin expert for Brazil.
“This year during the farm visits we went to visit a farm in Pedralva, where there are farmers who are renting out smaller portions of land, like 4 hectares where they’ve planted coffee,” Noah continues. “We visited a grower who produces like 20 bags of coffee a year, and one of the roasters on the trip had bought his coffee in the 2017 auction. This year, they made an agreement to purchase the coffee again at a high fixed price, so the farmer’s coffee wasn’t in the auction, but he sold the full 20 bags to someone that was at Best Cup last year.”
“That’s exactly what it’s about,” Andrew agrees. “It’s to connect roasters with producers and hope that they have an ongoing relationship. Because you know, ‘relationship’ means in good times and in bad—so that’s what we’re trying to do now is to say, you know, you don’t only have to buy their microlots, you can buy all that they produce at different price points and use it for different things.”
That type of sustainable impact is what Best Cup is designed to have: We want to match the immediate joy a producer feels at hearing the winning bid on their coffee with the promise of a future of higher prices, better quality, and true partnership with a roaster who is willing and excited to invest in that mutual growth.
“There are lots of tears, it’s really cool,” Noah says. “The farmer gets called up onstage and honored for their work, and people were just very emotional. These events are great, there’s so much good that comes out of them. It’s my favorite thing I do every year.”
As Best Cup continues to grow in its original locations of Colombia and Brazil, Cafe Imports continues to look in other areas where the cupping contest and auction might make a joyful noise: A silent auction of microlots from Chalatenango, El Salvador in the spring of 2018 served as a “discovery” event for a potential future Best Cup, with other possibilities arising in Guatemala and in the coffee-growing regions surrounding Lake Kivu in Rwanda, Burundi, and DR Congo. More information about upcoming Best Cup competitions can be found at cafeimports.com/resource.
No matter where the paddles are raised next, we hope that you’ll join us on this wild chiva ride to find the best coffees, reward the best producers, and build real sustainable relationships that will make a brighter and more delicious future for us all.