Are coffee roasting competitions good for business?
I started The Golden Bean Roasters Competition 20 years ago in Australia to give coffee roasters a real voice. The wine industry has been having competitions and awards for over 100 years globally, and the coffee industry which is much larger by volume and dollar value had very few roasting competitions. Coffee roasting competitions are slowly evolving, however many of the bigger coffee groups are making it exclusive to only a few roasting companies. This needs to change. The Golden Bean is now a global competition run in Australasia and North America. We have judged nearly 25,000 coffees over the last 20 years.
In the past the coffee industry has been all about the barista, both for coffee presentation as well as for being an important part of the sales chain in coffee. Yet baristas are not always fully committed to the whole process of coffee production, and most don’t really understand the roasting process in full. Most coffee roasters started out as baristas and moved on to roast for themselves or work for a larger coffee business, now being dedicated to the whole cycle of the coffee process. Roasters are often the forgotten people left in the back corner of the warehouse with the earmuffs on, concentrating on the beans in front of them, as well as their other million tasks.
In fact, a coffee roaster has a big role within the business, having to basically follow the coffee from the farmgate, through processing to storage, the roasting process, sampling/cupping and testing and finally to the customers’ brewing process. The roaster also has to deal with many variables, from purchasing available coffees, understanding flavour profiles of origins and regions, know the roast parameters of the coffees and understanding all brew methods involved in the final service to the customer.
To answer my own question, roasting competitions are vital for the continued education of a coffee roaster. Like all good chefs you will never know every recipe and method of cooking and the same goes for a coffee roaster, different beans are always coming through the system and new roasting equipment and technology is always moving forward within the industry. Coffee roasting is a science that can always be improved with better education.
Roasting competitions like The Golden Bean are a process by which you are judged by your peers not just the consumer. We all know the consumer palate can be steered sometimes in the wrong direction by large coffee companies that have big marketing budgets.
When another roaster judges you, they are looking for lots of different aspects of the tasting process to help them critique your coffee entry. Competition also exposes you to what flavours and roast profiles are on trend – which flavour will the consumer adopt as the next up and coming coffee? Roasters will also mentor other roasters in competition, that is why it’s so important to attend these competitions in person. At The Golden Bean Competition you get to taste all the winning coffees, so it will calibrate you to where the global taste census is at the time. People often enter rare and expensive coffee in competition so as a bonus, by participating it allows you to enjoy coffees that are generally out of reach. Additionally, a big advantage for a competition roaster is that you get the marketing benefits from these events.
If you do win medals they can be displayed as stickers on retail bags, they can also be displayed on any printed marketing material, websites and press releases. When you are preparing to enter a competition it’s a good idea to have customers, staff and other coffee experts taste the entries to obtain overall feedback. You should create content with your internal competition format setup so customers can see the effort you go through to give them amazing coffees. Video cupping sessions for social feeds and use testimonials from customers about their tasting experience with your competition coffees.
Not all coffee roasting competitions are the same! Some competitions limit the number of entries, and you need to pre-qualify to get selected. I believe coffee roasting competitions need to be open to all businesses, regardless of their size, as the educational side of competition is the most important reason to get involved. You always need industry feedback from a competition; it’s nice to win a medal, but it is also nice to know if you have some faults that need recognizing.
I often get questioned about why a coffee may have received a low score and most of the time it is because the roaster has not aligned the right roast profile with where the current market trend is. As a competing roaster you need to think globally and understand that the majority voice is where you need to be pitching at. Just because your customers enjoy your coffees, they might not be keeping up with global taste trends. Because we judge so many coffees each year globally, we have a good read of where the market is sitting in specialty coffee.
The last details I would like to express is coffee roasting competitions need to be transparent with their judging criteria. The rules need to be clear, and the communication lines need to be open from the organisers. With The Golden Bean competition, we use an independent company who has designed a portal that makes it fool proof in preventing anyone from seeing results until all the coffees are coded and judged. Entries can’t be manipulated or changed by the organiser. Blind cupping is also crucial, so judges only see the coffee presented in the cup. Some competition judges see the beans, and this can create doubt and affect the end tasting score by seeing physical defects from roasting or shapes and sizes of the bean.
My summary is coffee roasting competitions make coffee roasters better roasters when they are judged by their fellow coffee professionals. Competitions are a fun way to gain notoriety, while at the same time enhancing one’s skills.