This April, competitors from around the country will gather in Seattle, Washington, for the US Cup Tasters Championship (USCTC) where they will put their sensory skills to the test and push their cupping abilities to the edge and beyond. They’ll slurp and spit (personal preference) and cup faster than they’ve most likely ever had reason to before. All of this for a shot at glory and the opportunity to represent the United States at the World Competition in Budapest, Hungary this June. I am both incredibly excited and a little bit terrified to say that I will be amongst them.
The USCTC is a series of timed triangulation cuppings. Competitors are presented with eight sets of cupping bowls grouped into threes to form a “triangle.” Two of these bowls contain the same exact coffee; the other contains a different brew. Competitors are given eight minutes to correctly identify the matching coffees and push forward the cup containing the unique coffee. The competitor that correctly identifies these outlier cups in the shortest time emerges victorious.
Coffee professionals and sensory science nerds descended on Knoxville and Austin this past January and February, respectively, to compete in two USCTC qualifying events. The participants ranged from seasoned competitors to cupping newbies, but all had to earn their spot on stage at the US championship event. Sixty people competed in these combined events, with 24 advancing to throw down at the USCTC.
Competing in Cup Tasters requires less planning for its participants than the procedural and performance driven Barista competition or even Brewer’s Cup. There are no nuanced routines to put together, complete with music and oral presentations. Instead, Cup Tasters is a simple measure of a competitor’s ability to taste and quickly evaluate what they taste. Of course, when you add the crowd, the other competitors on the stage, and a time limit of less than ten minutes, even a straightforward competition can cause weak knees and shaky tasting spoons.
So, how does one prepare to compete in a coffee tasting competition when they have no idea what coffees they will be tasting? Well, for me, it’s simple. Keep cupping coffee! In my role as Quality Control Assistant at Olam Coffee, I have the luxury of cupping a variety of coffees every single day. This has provided me the opportunity to hone cupping and sensory analysis skills to succeed not only in my job, but on the Cup Tasters stage as well. I qualified for USCTC in Austin last month without a single practice triangulation in the months leading up to competition. I just did what I always do as part of my job – I cupped coffee!
This isn’t to say that cupping different coffees is the only thing you can do to prepare for the USCTC. I have heard of competitors doing everything from repeatedly cupping a single coffee brewed at slightly different strengths to limiting their entire diet to walnuts in the days leading up to the event.
I don’t go to these extremes, however, and while I take basic precautions like avoiding spicy foods and doing my absolute best to not get sick (queue obsessive hand washing) the bulk of my preparation is my cupping duty at work. Whether or not this will be enough to take me all the way to Budapest remains to be seen, but it’s gotten me as far as the national stage and for that alone I am proud and grateful.
For those who have never participated in a coffee competition, Cup Tasters is a great place to cut your teeth. The premise and execution of the event are simple enough for even amateur coffee enthusiasts, but like any competition, you are sure to improve the more you hone your skills.
Even if competing in a Cup Tasters event doesn’t interest you, the event is a blast to watch, offering real time results and a surprising amount of suspense as the competitors lift their bowls in front of the audience at the end of each heat to see if they’ve tasted correctly. So if you find yourself in Seattle this April, I encourage you to come watch this exciting competition and see me take the stage, spit cup in one hand, tasting spoon in the other, as I set my sights (and other senses) on becoming a national coffee tasting champion.