November 2, 2023

CoE updates rules for the first time in over two decades – what does it mean for specialty coffee producers?


Out of all the green coffee competitions in the industry, Cup of Excellence (CoE) is arguably the most recognisable and influential. Designed to acknowledge exceptional coffees and promote more transparent pricing, since 1999, the competitions (and their ensuing auctions) have helped shape specialty coffee as we know it today.

On 23 October 2023 – for the first time in 24 years – CoE updated its rules to now include three distinct categories: dry process, wet process, and experimentals

“We’ve observed a necessity to evolve and adapt in ways that will continue to uplift the incredible work and dedication of coffee producers,” said Erwin Mierisch, Executive Director of Alliance for Coffee Excellence, in a press release. “This categorisation allows us to honour the diverse methodologies in coffee processing and recognise excellence in its many forms.”

So it’s clear that CoE wants to focus on and highlight a wider range of processing methods – some of which are becoming increasingly popular in specialty coffee. But how could the new rules affect producers who want to submit their coffees to the competition?

I spoke to Erwin Mierisch and Henrique Cambraia, president of the Brazil Specialty Coffee Association, to find out more.

You may also like our article on how specialty coffee roasters buy rare lots at auctions.

A sensory expert tastes various coffees at a Cup of Excellence cupping session.

How does Cup of Excellence work?

Since the first competition took place in Brazil in 1999, the format of CoE has remained the same:

  • Each farm, estate, or co-operative in a participating country can submit one sample for free
  • A pre-selection stage takes place where a national jury cups all samples
    • All samples that score 86 points or above advance to the next stage (which includes no more than 150 samples)
  • Two rounds of cuppings are led by a national jury, with coffees scoring 86 points or above whittled down to 40 samples
  • Three rounds of international jury cupping
    • In the first round, judges cup all 40 samples
    • A maximum of 30 samples that score over 87 points are cupped again in the second round to be awarded the Cup of Excellence
    • The international jury then cup the ten highest-scoring samples one last time to determine final rankings

It’s also important to note that all cuppings are blind to ensure fairness and impartiality.

Around six weeks after the international jury cuppings, the top 30 coffees are sold via an online auction on the Alliance for Coffee Excellence website. The three highest-scoring coffees are split into two lots if they score 90 points and above. 

Winning farmers are also recognised at an awards ceremony, where producers who submit coffees that receive over 90 points are given a “Presidential award” to acknowledge their hard work and dedication.

Breaking down the new rules

So with the new rules announced, what has actually changed?

Each participating country can now choose to include three categories in its competition – and thereby the auction as well. These are:

  • Dry process (natural processing methods)
  • Wet process (including washed, honey, pulped natural, and semi-washed processing methods)
  • Experimentals (which includes both wet and dry processes with special treatments, provided that the producer doesn’t use any additives other than water)

If a participating country decides to follow this new format, all coffees will be divided into these three categories so they can be cupped and scored separately. This will result in three sets of CoE winners. 

Henrique Cambraia is the owner of Fazenda Samambaia in Minas Gerais, Brazil, and also manages Sancoffee – a carbon-neutral co-operative in the same region of the country. In addition to being the president of the BSCA, Henrique has been a member of the association for over 20 years.

“We believe that these new categories reflect the constant evolution in coffee processing,” he says. “Therefore, separating lots with specific characteristics will provide better opportunities both for growers that use different methods, but also for coffee buyers that may have preferences in terms of cup profile.”

Two women prepare coffee for a Cup of Excellence cupping session.

What does this mean for judges & competitors?

Erwin is an award-winning third-generation coffee producer at Fincas Mierisch – a collective of 14 farms in both Nicaragua and Honduras. Fincas Mierisch also hosts its own Los Favoritos Private Collection Auction in partnership with Alliance for Coffee Excellence. Private auctions are becoming increasingly popular in specialty coffee, and can often fetch eye-watering prices.

In July 2023, Erwin was appointed executive director of both CoE and ACE following the resignation of Darrin Daniel, who had held the position since 2017.

“Cup of Excellence’s new rule change marks a significant evolution in the coffee industry fostering a culture of excellence and innovation,” he tells me. 

“The rule change is a game changer, especially for younger, less experienced cuppers,” he adds. “In previous competitions, analysing cleaner, more subtle, and nuanced coffees alongside ‘louder’ and less refined ones posed a challenge.”

It’s certainly true that in a competition environment, cupping different processed coffees alongside one another isn’t exactly an easy task. In terms of assessing quality, comparing cleaner, brighter flavours of a washed coffee to the more complex and funkier notes of anaerobic fermented lots, for example, is difficult to say the least – even for experienced coffee professionals.

Moreover, it’s possible that judges can also exhibit unconscious bias towards washed and honey processed methods. As these techniques tend to result in sweeter flavour profiles that are more expressive of terroir, these coffees tend to perform well at certain CoE competitions.

The decision to include three distinct categories certainly opens up CoE to be a little more inclusive. In theory, it could make it easier for natural and experimental processed coffees to score higher at certain competitions – especially in countries where washed processing is the most popular.

Impact on future Cup of Excellence competitions

The first competition to take place since the launch of the new format was the 2023 Brazil CoE, with the results announced on 28 October. The winners of each category are:

  • Experimental category – a 91.32 anaerobic fermented Gesha from Fazenda Rio Verde
  • Dry process – a 91.38 natural Gesha from Fazenda Rainha
  • Wet process – a 92.15 pulped natural Gesha from Fazenda Rio Verde

Over the years, many coffees have received 90 points or more at CoE Brazil competitions, so these results aren’t particularly surprising. And given that the majority of Brazilian coffee is processed using either natural or pulped natural methods, the 2023 CoE Brazil results are unlikely to accurately reflect how the new rules could impact other competitions – particularly ones where washed and honey processed coffees tend to perform better.

For example, at the 2023 CoE Guatemala competition, the vast majority of the top 28 coffees were washed, with three scoring over 90 points. In line with this, participating countries like Guatemala – and other Central and South American and African countries – could decide to stick with the original format where judges cup and score all coffees together. Whether this puts them at an advantage or disadvantage is up for debate.

Acknowledging more novel processing methods

For competing producers, one of the biggest advantages of categorising coffees by processing method could be creating more space to celebrate and reward new and advanced processing techniques.

In recent years, more experimental processing methods like anaerobic fermentation, carbonic maceration, and lactic fermentation have become increasingly popular in the specialty coffee sector. Enjoyed by both coffee professionals and consumers, these methods have helped to change and enhance the experience of drinking coffee – and opened up a whole new world of flavours. In some cases, they can also help to fetch higher prices, too.

“Now, with these revisions, we are comparing apples to apples in order to allow the next generation of coffee enthusiasts to appreciate and understand the attributes of different processing methods,” Erwin says. “We’re helping to bridge the gap between tradition and innovation in our ever-evolving coffee landscape.” 

Fair game?

At the same time, however, not all producers have the means and resources to implement these processing techniques successfully. It requires great skill and specialist equipment to carry out most advanced processing methods – or farmers risk a drop in coffee quality.

The outcome of opening up the competition to have more of a spotlight on different processing methods could go in several directions – for better or for worse. At the 2023 CoE Brazil event, “marco aerobic system”, “Pedro Bras Top”, and “CD Honey” were some of the more unique-sounding ones – but how do we even define these processing techniques? 

According to the new CoE standards, they must not include any “additives other than water”, which obviously rules out certain methods.

What’s more, over the past few years, we’ve seen more and more experimentally processed coffees included in the top 30 highest-scoring coffees. It’s becoming more common to see anaerobic washed or natural coffees receive 87 points or above for certain participating countries, so the new rules could see this trend continue.

A Latin American farmer rakes coffee beans as they dry on a farm.

Whether the CoE rule changes will have a positive or negative impact on the future of the competitions is purely a matter of opinion, and people are sure to have plenty.

With the Ecuador and Indonesia CoE competitions soon to take place, it will be interesting to see if they follow in Brazil’s footsteps and adopt the new category format. And if they don’t, it leads us to question the reasons behind these decisions.

Enjoyed this? Then read our guide to green coffee auctions.

Perfect Daily Grind

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