Tasting Better Brews

By Beacon Staff

How many cups of coffee does Montana Coffee Traders roastmaster drink in a day? “Usually only one,” says Scott Brant, “but it’s really strong.” He’s an aficionado who won’t just chug a mug for the buzz. He knows how to relish redolent flavors. Yet this coffee connoisseur has been known to taste up to 120 cups of java in one day. Those, however, are very extraordinary cups whose beans are just now hitting the Montana Coffee Traders warehouse near Whitefish.

In recent international auctions, Montana Coffee Traders bought the most diverse collection of these elite beans purchased by any Montana roaster. These Cup of Excellence beans recognized through national competitions, international judging, and international auctions certify coffees with prestige.

In 1999, the Cup of Excellence introduced a new way to grade and sell specialty coffees. Its certification and auction process connects coffee roasters with farmers who harvest around 15 bags or 2,200 pounds of beans. “Specialty roasters are much more interested in buying smaller lots from an individual farmer,” says Susie Spindler, executive director of the Alliance for Coffee Excellence based in Missoula. “For more upscale coffees, they go right to source. They’re building a relationship with the farmer, and they want to know how it’s grown.”

Previously, all regional beans were lumped together and mass-marketed nationally. Remember the Juan Valdez Columbian coffee advertisements? But now, Cup of Excellence competitions identify premium products from local farmers. “It’s now an anti-mass marketing approach,” clarifies Brant. “We’re recognizing unique flavors that have been blended away in the past,” adds Spindler.

Currently, eight Central and South American countries hold national cupping, or tasting, competitions for 400 to 1,000 of their own coffee farmers. “Central and South American coffees share characteristics of bright, high acidity,” notes Brant. Then he clarifies, “Acidity is a liveliness, not a sour, harsh taste. It’s kind of like citrus in lemons or oranges, not like the acidity in a jar of pickles.”

Each country hosts its own international jury through several days of cupping to judge their top 60 winning bean lots. Last year, Brant joined the international jury of 24 judges from North and South America, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, and India in selecting the top coffees produced in Columbia. This May, he served on Nicaragua’s international panel, spending a week sipping hot, tepid, and cool coffee from a spoon. “This year’s Nicaraguan crop was really excellent,” says Brant. Sounding akin to a wine taster, he rattles off memories of sweet coffees, with the best having a chocolate aftertaste and a bright liveliness.

In what Brant terms a “slurp and spit,” jurors taste 10 coffees at a time against each other, scoring for sweetness, acidity, balance, flavor, aftertaste, and its feel in the mouth. Over several cuppings, coffees are eliminated. Those with scores of 84 and above – usually about 25 bean lots – are certified as Cup of Excellence coffees. The handful of coffees scoring 90 and above receive Presidential awards, and those ranking in the top 10 are cupped again to determine a clear winner. Both these rankings command higher prices. Most beans auction for $4 to $6 per pound, with the local farmer normally receiving 85 percent. This year, the winning Nicaraguan beans sold for $47 per pound.

All Cup of Excellence certified coffees enter into a one-day international Internet auction. Buyers, like Brant, order samples to determine which farmer’s lots they want to bid on and how much they are willing to pay. While several nations hold auctions one week apart in the spring, others vary auctions throughout the year depending on harvest seasons. During the auction, frantic internet bidding continues as long as action continues on a coffee in any three minute period. After three minutes of dead bidding, a lot is sold.

Brant’s discerning palate paid off. Montana Coffee Traders won the purchase of seven Cup of Excellence coffees from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and Costa Rica – all of which ranked in the top 10 lots in their nation, and most won Presidential awards.

Pit these elite coffees against regular beans, and Brant swears you’ll taste a wonderful difference. But then, he adds “I also pay five times as much for Cup of Excellence coffee than regular beans.”