From latte art throwdowns to Aeropress championships, it always seems to be baristas that are bathed in the spotlight. This is not to say they don’t deserve it or that celebrity baristas are by any means bad for business, but just that meanwhile, the only lights shining on the people that actually roast the coffee tend to be the ones aimed down at the viewing windows on their roasting machines. A few roast-focused contests and get-togethers do exist, though, and the Compak Golden Bean roasting championship is one of the biggest.
Over the past 10 years in Australia, the contest has grown to rope in more than 2,000 entries from over 60 percent of roasters across the country. For the Australian coffee industry, Golden Bean spurs innovation, fosters camaraderie and brings colleagues together for good times, networking, and insightful presentations. And the winners, of course, gain a story to tell and some eye-catching bling on their packaging and marketing materials.
This past weekend, the founders and organizers of the Compak Golden Bean took their show stateside for the first time, partnering with U.S. industry leaders to stage the inaugural Compak Golden Bean North America in Portland, Ore. More than 400 entries from roughly 150 roasters poured in from coast to coast, although the event itself was a relatively intimate affair. Held in a venue called the Flex Space in the upscale Pearl District near downtown Portland, only a bit over 30 people were seated around tables to attend the seminars and judge the coffees as the event began — a number which expanded and contracted on different days and at different times.
Seminars were fairly brief but enlightening, and included presentations by sponsors and other organizations on such topics as women in coffee, water quality, industry trends and sustainability. Evening social events included a ping-pong tournament and pub crawl. Sean Edwards, founder of the Golden Bean competition, was quite pleased with how the event unfolded for its first year in a new country. “I’m very happy to say we’ve had a very similar response, and the same feel, the same vibe,” Edwards told Daily Coffee News.
Attendance and participation were proportionally similar to Year One in Australia, and notably hassle-free. “We’ve had no arrests, we’ve had no punch-ups,” Edwards reported happily, noting that these and other incidents have occurred at the larger and more raucous Golden Bean events in Australia over the years.
The only mild dissatisfaction for Edwards was a low turnout specifically among local Portland roasters, including those that submitted coffees for the contest. “We’ve got people flying in here from Hawaii, from Canada, the east coast,” said Edwards. “You’ve got your local roaster here just a hundred feet down the road and they haven’t even stuck their head in the door, and they’ve had the same invitation and the same opportunity to be involved. But I believe that’s just a city thing, you know some people can be too cool for school.”
Matt Milletto, Vice President of the American Barista & Coffee School, Founder of BaristaExchange.com and partner at Portland’s Water Avenue Coffee, was among the baristas pulling shots in the “engine room” for service to judges during the contest. An upstanding figure in Portland’s coffee community, Milletto served as Engine Room and Social Director for the event and was neither surprised nor discouraged by the hometown response. “A lot of roasters take a sort of ‘wait and see’ approach to new competitions,” Milletto told Daily Coffee News. He expects attendance to double and triple in the coming years.
Edwards agreed with that prediction. Said Edwards, “We’ll double the number of roasters for sure. A lot of people are already regretting not being here. I’ve already looked into getting a bigger venue for next year.”
Everyone in attendance — including sponsors, venders, and journalists — was corralled into judging coffees, in order to have as wide a pool of palates as possible. Judge calibration was undertaken thoroughly by head judges Pete Licata and Anne Cooper — two respected coffee consultants that both have various competition victories, business achievements and expert credentials under their belts. Licata has his own consultancy firm and is now the founder and head taster of a new consumer-oriented coffee rating system called Roast Ratings. Cooper, a certified SCAA Cupping Judge and Q-grader, is also a two-time Golden Bean winner herself.
“Every competition I’ve ever done a calibration with, you always want more time,” Licata told Daily Coffee News regarding the calibration process. “I think that we covered the bases on a fundamental level.” The stable of judges ranged from nationwide chain representatives, small regional micro-roasters, equipment retailers and other industry personnel, all grouped into random pairs.
During tasting sessions, Licata and Cooper combed the room and devoted individual attention to each pair of judges for almost every coffee served. They offered insight or guidance wherever it seemed helpful in getting judges not only to clarify and communicate their sensorial data within the scoring rubric of the contest, but to do so without too much disparity, despite some considerably divergent tastes and backgrounds. “It’s not that we want people to just come in line and all score the same thing,” said Licata. “The responsibility of the head judges is to make sure that we’re scoring accurately and fairly.”
The purpose of the contest isn’t solely to congratulate winners on their achievements in quality. It’s also to provide valuable, practical feedback to every roaster on every submission, to help them hone their craft. “Two wildly different scores, one really high and one really low, is not really going to help anybody,” said Licata. “All it will ever do is create confusion to have two different people taste a coffee and have wildly different interpretations of that coffee. So we need to make sure that the judges have their interpretation be accurate to what the coffee is.”
The Golden Bean awards dinner was held on Saturday night at the Jupiter Hotel. The theme of the event was “Portlandia,” for which jeans and flannels abounded as attendees were encouraged to dress in the manner of their favorite Portland archetype. Sean Edwards and Matt Milletto emceed the ceremony, reading off the bronze, silver and gold medal winners in each of eight categories from a stage upon which stood three generous prizes: a Proaster sample roasting machine and two of the Compak grinders used in the competition, painted white and emblazoned with the Golden Bean logo. The official Golden Bean champion trophies were made by renowned tamper craftsman Reg Barber.
Roaster, writer, educator, consultant, entrepreneur and all-around coffee pioneer Bruce Milletto was inducted into the Cafetto Hall of Fame. And at the center of the heartstring-tugging, fairy-tale-caliber finale to Golden Bean’s inaugural U.S. contest, there was Mike Perry, head roaster, founder and CEO of Klatch Coffee. Having snagged three bronze, two silver and one gold medal for Klatch’s various submitted coffees, Perry was awarded the official Golden Bean trophy for Overall Champion Roaster. Earlier that same night, Perry’s daughter Heather, the Director of Training and Consulting at Klatch and a champion barista herself, gave birth to the Golden Bean winner’s first granddaughter. The gold medal winners in each of the eight contest categories were:
Chain/Franchise Milk-Drink Espresso: Dillanos Coffee Roasters, Wake Up blend
Chain/Franchise Espresso: Gloria Jean’s, Blend 2
Overall Chain/Franchise Champion: Gloria Jean’s
Decaf Milk-Drink Espresso: Temple Coffee Roasters, Decaf Colombia Narino
Single Origin Espresso: Sisters Coffee Company, Ethiopian Ardi
Organic Espresso: Roast House Coffee, Ride the Edge
Immersion Brew (Espro): Augie’s Coffee Roasters, Fiesta Honey
Milk-Drink Espresso: Oceana Coffee, Espresso Blend
Espresso: Klatch Coffee, Competition Coffee
Golden Bean and the Future of American Coffee
The Golden Bean contest in Australia has made a strong contribution to that country’s nationwide advancements in coffee culture, in terms of top-quality coffee being the norm instead of a niche. “We’re a country that has standards that are government-approved,” said Edwards, who is also Managing Director of the Australian industry publication and marketing firm Café Culture. In his home country, Edwards was part of the commission that developed the government manual on the subject — meaning he helped write the book on how to prepare and serve espresso in Australia.
Edwards observed that as the quality of coffees has increased over the past five or ten years around the world, so has the complexity of roasting and brewing to highlight its subtle but most desirable qualities. “You’ve got to be a scientist to get the most out of some coffees,” said Edwards, holding recent evolutions in extraction technology as indicative of baristas’ and roasters’ desire to experiment with water temperatures and pressures. “It’s good for quality, but there’s got to be a point where you’ve got some standards. This is the first time in my coffee career I’ve been really confused, and I don’t know if the coffees are tasting any better than they were five years ago.”
Contests such as Golden Bean not only help set and maintain standards for coffee preparation, but they also help steer the roasting industry by revealing what attributes of roasted coffee people are actually appreciating. “Five years ago in Australia we were seeing the light roast scenario that’s happening here now. Everyone was going with that glass of lemon juice,” said Edwards. “What’s going to happen is the consumers are going to push people back to that medium roast. In Australia people are going back to a medium roast, because that’s what the consumer wants. They want to taste coffee, they don’t want a glass of bloody apple cider.”
Edwards looks forward to returning to Portland next year, and several subsequent years as the contest grows. Starting it up in other countries is also under consideration for the long term, although Edwards would never want to hand the reins to someone else. “We’ve always thought it’s a great concept to franchise out to do in each country, but it’s something that I’m pretty passionate about controlling ourselves,” said Edwards. “We’re not an association, we’re roasters working for roasters.”