Rwanda Cup of Excellence® Competition - Part 1

One of the most anticipated coffee events of 2010 is about to happen – the Cup of Excellence® competition being held in Rwanda at the end of August! I’m honored and thrilled to have been selected as one of the handful of international cupping judges for this competition, proudly representing Coffee Bean International. The Cup of Excellence competitions – this year held in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Brazil, and Rwanda – epitomize the search for stellar coffees, and the desire to recognize and appreciate the farmers behind those coffees by roasters around the world.  

The upcoming competition is only the second COE competition ever held in Africa! (The first competition was held in Rwanda in 2008, at which I was similarly honored to participate in as a judge). Coffee Bean International is one of the leading roasters world-wide in its support of these competitions through our participation and purchase at auction of winning Cup of Excellence lots. In fact, in recent COE auctions, Coffee Bean International has set two world records for the highest amount per pound ever paid for coffees from both Colombia and El Salvador! What I think is particularly cool about buying any of the winning COE coffees – whether we are setting a world’s record price or not – is that the majority of the auction proceeds from each lot goes directly to the farmer, and can literally be life-changing for them and their families.

This year’s Rwandan competition is being held in Rwamagana, a small market town located adjacent to the main highway leading from Kigali – Rwanda’s capital – eastward toward Lake Victoria. As I’ve mentioned in other blog postings from the road while judging at COE competitions, one of the great things about these competitions is that the organizers like to set them up outside and away from the Big City (although it’s a bit of a stretch to start thinking of Kigali as a major metropolitan area…). Instead, the competitions are held in the country’s rural coffee-producing areas. It’s an idea that I whole-heartedly endorse, as I love driving the same roads, seeing the same hills, and eating the same food as the country’s farmers. Even if it does add hours of travel by bus or truck onto the trip – which, in the case of the upcoming Rwandan competition, is already some 27 hours worth of travel in getting from Portland to Kigali.

Rwamagana, in the district on Ngoma, is barely mentioned on the Internet, so my research into where I’ll be living for a week later this month has been somewhat limited. What I have been able to find so far on Rwanda’s official government tourism website (quoted below) is a little less than encouraging, but more than makes up for that in its character:

  • “The district of Ngoma has got god [sp] hotel that can accommodate a variety of people and are cheap, too.” [Always wanted to stay at a hotel fit for God, and everyone knows how I like to pinch francs…]
  • “The western part of the district is made up of vast wetlands… Most of these swamps are occupied by swamp vegetation sheltering some species of fauna and water flora. One can find in the thalwegs some rare relics of the drill natural to dimensions so negligible that their existence goes unnoticed.” [I have no idea what a ‘thalweg’ is, but hope the ‘rare relics’ they shelter don’t bite or carry diseases…]
  • “Fauna of Ngoma is made of various bird species and reptiles, hares, jackals, and a variety of snake species.” [Oh, stop! I’m getting too excited! Jackals and an abundance of snakes?! They really need to work on their marketing…]

All kidding aside, one of the things I look forward to as a Cup of Excellence judge is the opportunity to spend a few days with fellow cuppers from around the world. In Rwanda this year, I will be privileged to cup with some of the best in the world. Some I know quite well from within the industry or from cupping together at previous competitions – Jason Long from Café Imports, Tom Owen from Sweet Maria’s, Addy Hedinsdottir from Kaffitar in Iceland, and Joe Hsu from Oscoffee in Taiwan – with others I haven’t met yet from Japan, Poland, Denmark, England, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere. There is an incredible feeling of family and fellowship amongst COE cuppers that is pretty hard to describe, but wonderful to experience! It might be that said that the time spent together with others who are as passionately involved in coffee as we are helps us feel less alone (which is different than lonely) in the world. In the same way that everyone loves listening to a talented musician, everyone loves and admires what a great cupper can accomplish - but few besides other cuppers understand this mostly solitary pursuit of perfection and commitment to one’s craft.

I’m going to try to post additional entries and pictures to the Coffee Bean International blog from the Cup of Excellence competition in Rwanda later this month, if I am able to get on-line (not always a given in Africa!)


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