Since 1999 Cup of Excellence® has been an innovative, educational and life changing program for coffee farmers.
Utilizing a stringent competition and selection process the Cup of Excellence has fundamentally changed the entire high quality coffee industry and in fact has created and supported advances in farming and premiums to farmers that would have been impossible without it.
In its infancy the transparency to the farm required by the program ensured that winning farmers directly received the premiums they so honestly deserved and that had been held most often by middlemen. But as the program expanded both buyers and farmers globally understood the sustainability value of transparency. Farmer identification is now a hallmark of the specialty coffee industry in countries with and without a Cup of Excellence program but it is due to the original structure of the competition that this has occurred. Where there is no Cup of Excellence program there is less motivation for transparency. Cup of Excellence continues to push recognition to farmers of every size and gender in countries where it operates. These individual farmers then can enjoy building direct and long-term relationships with those buyers that appreciate the coffees they produce.
Smallholder farmers gain the most from Cup of Excellence since historically they had the least education in recognizing their own quality and much less power in demanding fair value. Most coffees were blended- higher qualities were mixed with other lower quality coffees in order to push to a medium quality. While there was often no malicious intent since blending was the standard it benefitted the larger commercial exporters and importers.
As small micro lots stand on their own uniqueness many coffees no one knows about are discovered- much to the surprise of jurors and buyers who often have pre-conceived flavor profiles for coffees grown in a country. This surprise gives rise to the marketplace searching out quality for increased premiums. It also supports the rise of appellation development when coffees from the same region continue to win. As efforts to recognize these regional flavor profiles and their value succeed entire communities prosper. Even after 20+ years small farmers enter and win for the first time, flavor profiles continue to amaze, small unique regions are mapped and communities not known for specialty coffee thrive.
Farmers are generally not cuppers and rely on others to let them know the quality and value of their coffee. The competition process pushes this quality analysis to a level that is stringent, neutral, blind and without any commercial bias. Since the competition process is free and open to all farmers it has given thousands of farmers the tools needed to improve their coffees, experiment with varieties and processing, build economic relationships with the marketplace and financially motivate farmers and their families to stay on the farm- in fact young educated people are returning to the farm with degrees in agronomy, marketing, and sensory analysis. For a sustainable coffee industry, especially one fraught with climate change and economic hardship it is critical that there is a financial motivation for innovation to remain on the farm.
The educational value of the competition goes well beyond the coffee score as it builds technical knowledge and skill that remains in-country for cuppers, roasters, event planners and organizers and builds a shared international vocabulary to describe quality that remains with the thousands of volunteer cuppers making up the national and international juries.
The Cup of Excellence organization has developed a unique set of training programs to give cuppers of all levels across all marketplaces a greater ability to understand and discuss quality. However, many of these programs will target the under-served youth and women in coffee communities giving them skills for professional advancement. Farmers are a priority as an educational program to help small farmers increase their chances of winning and of producing higher quality coffee is being rolled out.