Many people may believe that they’ve had the “best” coffee in the world whether it be from their favorite cafe, or the cup they make for themselves every morning. However, if flavor is subjective, how can you know if your favorite coffee is truly the best? To answer this question, I interviewed Joel Lohner, who has judged the Specialty Coffee Association's national and preliminary roasting competitions and has participated in a couple of categories as a competitor. He will guide us through the roasting competition process to determine what or who makes the best coffee beans in the world.

In order to do so, the internationally recognized Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) established an annual coffee competition, where coffee professionals from all over the world are able to compete to see who actually makes the best coffee. The SCA is the non-profit organization responsible for setting global standards for specialty coffee. The coffee is judged based on a variety of points including coffee quality, barista techniques, coffee practices, and more.

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Coffee Competition Categories

The coffee competition has a total of six categories and four stages. Competitors can sign up and compete in multiple categories (as long as there is no conflicting schedule). The categories are as follows:

Barista: contestants make multiple espresso beverages and a final original espresso drink of their own creation.

Latte Art: contestants make specific designs of their choosing with milk over espresso shots.

Coffee Brewers: contestants brew coffee using the brewing method of their preference.

Cup Tasters: contestants taste sets of three coffee cups trying to determine the odd cup out.

Coffee & Spirits: contestants create espresso based cocktails. Roasting: contestants roast coffee that has been pre-selected. 

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Competition Stages  

The competitors for these categories have to go through four different stages of competition: preliminary, qualifiers, national, and international.

This year, one of the preliminary roasting competitions was held in Oakland, California at The Crown—a coffee shop and coffee education center, as well as a green coffee importer. The Crown opened its space for us to capture different elements of this intricate competition. 

While many categories have a similar judging process, the roasting competition is the only one where the coffee is not judged on performance but solely on the taste of the coffee, from roast to cup. In the preliminary stage, coffee roasters sign up to compete from all over the nation. Many coffee shops and roasters across the U.S. host these events, and contestants sign up in whichever region they want to compete in. However, only the top three roasting competitors from each of the preliminary competitions are guaranteed a spot in the qualifiers stage.

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Judging Process

The preliminary and qualifiers stage have a similar grading format. Joel explains that three weeks before their submission deadline, each competitor receives the same green coffee for them to roast however they find best. Next, they submit two roasted pounds for evaluation where judges will blind taste each coffee. The competitors get to explain to the judges their coffee roasting approach, tasting notes, and attributes such as acidity and body. The judges have to see if the competitors’ description matches what they are tasting and observing, and if their coffee is up to the standard of the SCA scoring sheets. At each stage of the roasting competition, the roasters get a different green coffee picked by the SCA. Once the top eight competitors for the qualifiers stage are selected, they move on to nationals where only one competitor gets to represent their country internationally against the winning national coffee roasters of the world.

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We might never compete in these competitions or even come close to attending one. However, how can we know what makes a good roast? Joel states that taste is very subjective, but there are qualities that good coffees share. Great coffees have a lot of flavor, meaning that while you are drinking you should be able to recognize multiple flavor notes and be left with a pleasant aftertaste. It should also have a good body. Coffee body is how it feels on your tongue. A sign of an excellent coffee is a heavier body, like milk. As Joel says, “There should be a balanced sweetness. Coffee is naturally bitter, but when roasted well, the sweetness is highlighted in the aftertaste. The final category, which to me is the most important one, is the overall balance. Taking into consideration all that we've said before, a great coffee should have the acidic balancing out the sweetness and vice versa."

You might subjectively not agree with your friends or family's taste in coffee, but now you can objectively determine whether they are drinking a good roast.