The 2012 US Cup Tasters Championship

The US Cup Tasters Championship is in its fourth year. This time around, three-time champion Ben Kaminsky of Ritual Coffee Roasters sat out the competition to emcee. That’s right: until this year, no one has been the US Cup Tasters champion but Kaminsky, and he won’t let that slip by you. “My name is Ben Kaminsky, I work for Ritual Coffee Roasters, I’ve won this competition every year they’ve had it so far.” This isn’t Muhammad Ali telling you he’s the greatest – it’s more Bob Newhart breaking the ice – and that’s just the beginning of one of the best displays of emcee showmanship we’ve ever seen in coffee competition.

We didn’t know much about the Tasters Cup Championship, but we were drawn in to the spectacle this time around, so we sat down with Mr. Kaminsky to find out more.

The first thing to know about the Cup Tasters Championship is that it’s not a cupping competition, it’s a tasting competition. There’s no dry fragrance evaluation, and no breaking the crust; coffees are prepared uniformly using Technivorm brewers to diminish human input. Participants aren’t evaluating coffees, but rather, they test their skills to discriminate between tastes in a triangulation format.

Each round contains eight sets of three cups where two are identical and one is different. The goal is to identify the odd cup, a task that tests sensory skills against an eight-minute running clock. The competitor with the most correct answers in the shortest time wins. The cup triangulations range in difficulty in each heat, and become more and more difficult over the course of the three heats: The same 16 coffees are used heat to heat, but arranged differently to reflect a greater difficulty. The identity of the coffees aren’t revealed to the competitors. An easy triangulation might be, for example, two cups of a Brazilian coffee – chocolatey, nutty – against a floral, zingy washed Ethiopian. A difficult triangulation could be something like two cups of one high-acid Kenyan coffee, and an odd cup of another high-acid Kenyan coffee from a different co-op. Sounds easy? Kaminsky explains:

“Under the pressure of time and the audience, discerning between two similar Kenyan coffees is very difficult in that moment. Once the time stops and you can go back to it, you think ‘oh God, how could I have possibly made s mistake?’ when the pressure is off, but when the pressure is on, it’s very difficult.”

It’s not as cut and dry up on stage as it may seem. “The thing that’s really not understood about the competition is that there can be quite a bit of strategy involved,” Mr. Kaminsky told Sprudge. The most correct answers in the shortest amount of time will win, but the most correct answers total will trump the shortest time. If your opponent score 6 out of 8 in five minutes, but you take six minutes to score 7, you still win; US Cup Tasters becomes a high-stakes poker match to judge your confidence against the competition. Do you go back and re-taste the once you’re iffy about, at the risk of being beat out on time? Or do you stick with your gut and hope that your competition has fewer correct answers?

The Cup Tasters Championship is unique among other competitions in specialty coffee, because results are immediate. Mr. Kaminsky told us: “We’ve missed out on that really exciting aspect of instant gratification of getting to know the results, which none of the other competitions have. Having competed in the brew competition this year, as a competitor, it’s so frustrating to just know whether of not you’ve done well, because I’ve done the cup tasting championship.”

The real-time results are good not only for competitors, but the audience.  At the World Cup Tasters Championships, which will be in its 9th year at Vienna, hundreds of people attend. “It’s all very exciting. [Emcee] Alf Kramer does a really good job stirring everyone up and building the excitement and anticipation to see who has actually won.” Kaminsky’s goal with emceeing was to create that tension and engagement, because he believes that more people should be watching this competition. After this weekend, we vow to never miss out on another Cup Tasters Championship.


The moment of glory at last year’s Cup Tasters Championship. Note the aforementioned Alf Kramer and his irrepressible giggle.

This year’s US Cup Tasters champion, Steve Bauer of Paragon Coffee Trading Co., will represent the US at the World Cup Tasters Championship in Vienna, to be held June 12th-15th. Stay tuned to Sprudge this June for more on World Cup Tasters.

Photo credit: SCAA

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