The Cup of Excellence is the coffee world’s foremost competition, a cross between “American Idol” and the Olympics that can bring a measure of profit and fame to farmers growing the most exquisite beans.
Held separately in 10 coffee-producing nations, it gathers an international jury of coffee experts to pick and rank the best coffees after days of blind tasting. An auction follows, in which specialty coffee roasters bid on the winning lots at prices that often flare up to $50 a pound.
That’s about 30 times the benchmark price for ordinary mild Arabica — and it’s paid only by the highest of the higher-end roasters and cafes, almost exclusively from coffee-crazy Japan, South Korea and Australia.
But at a recent Cup of Excellence auction in Brazil, an unlikely entrant — Starbucks — made a splash when it bought the entire lot of the top-ranked coffee, from a family-owned farm in southeastern Brazil, for $23.80 a pound.
Now the coffee is being sold exclusively at the company’s Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood for $80 a pound, or about $7.50 for a cup.
Starbucks coffee buyer Ann Traumann, who discovered what’s been dubbed “Sitio Baixadão” (pronounced SEE-tee-o by-sha-DAH-o) during a blind tasting as a juror at that Cup of Excellence competition in January, describes it as having a mango-like flavor, with tropical fruit aromas and a creamy finish. “I had never drunk coffee like that,” says Traumann.
Many in the very-high-end side of the coffee industry were surprised to see Starbucks buy that lot. Until then the company had been a stranger to these auctions, mainly because they don’t offer the massive quantities of reasonably priced coffee it needs. In 2014, the company paid for its coffee an average $1.72 per pound.
But Starbucks now is working to shed its middlebrow image and regain control of the very top of the coffee market, where in the last decade it lost ground to the likes of Portland’s Stumptown and Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee, which on its website sells a Burundi 12-ounce bag of coffee for $130.
To that end Starbucks is boosting its Reserve brand, through which it sells more exclusive, and expensive, beans.
The ultimate showcase for this brand is the Capitol Hill roastery and cafe, a veritable coffee Disneyland, where the best of the company’s savoir-faire is on display. Coffee there is described in the overwrought prose usually associated with wine tasting.
A Starbucks employee at the roastery recently described the Brazilian coffee bought in the auction by Traumann as tasting like olives. A little card handed out at the roastery says it has “head-spinning sweetness and complexity,” and “green apple-like acidity” in addition to hints of “mango and crushed dark fruits.”
The card cites Traumann, in a bout of lyric anthropomorphism, characterizing the coffee as a Brazilian man. “I fell in love with a Brazilian,” whom she recognized “by his perfume and knew right away he would be my favorite.”
Traumann’s passion for the coffee “would not be denied,” says the card, so Starbucks ended up with the whole lot.
The entrance of a giant such as Starbucks is likely to add to the disruption of a small market that was already heating up — the average price of beans at the Cup of Excellence has grown 21 percent in the past two years as Asian and Australian buyers competed for the best lots. Purchases by Starbucks may make it even more competitive.
Experts, however, say that Starbucks will bring this rarefied market out of relative obscurity. “I think it’s going to bring a big shining light on it,” says Stephen Hurst of Mercanta, a specialty coffee trading outfit based in London.
In a world where most beans trade at rock-bottom prices based on commodity markets, or through opaque deals made with a handshake, the Cup of Excellence is an example of unbridled transparency and sustainability, says Hurst. So if Starbucks’ participation makes it more well-known, all the better, in his view.
“Somebody is paying insane amounts of money for coffee from civet cats in Thailand,” he says, describing that as a gimmick.
“At least here if you’re spending lots of money, you’re spending it correctly.” Moreover, most of the money goes directly to the farmer, he says.
Debbie Hill, executive director of the Portland-based Alliance for Coffee Excellence, which holds the Cup of Excellence contest and auctions, says Starbucks may extend some of its brand power to the rest of the high-end coffee market.