Caffeinated Competition: World’s Best Tasters Grind in Chicago at Specialty Coffee Expo

The Specialty Coffee Expo, a business-to-business convention dedicated to beans, brewing, and everything in between, brought coffee and competition to McCormick Place over the weekend. Vendors from around the world represented every aspect of coffee on the convention floor, which doubled as battlegrounds for some of the world’s most refined palettes and sophisticated pours. The World Coffee Championships, or the “coffee Olympics,” have included a variety of java jousts since 2000, including tasting, brewing, and latte art.

It was Chicago’s first time hosting the cafe throwdown and one of its marquee contests: the World Cup Tasters Championship. Caffeinated crowds gathered early in the day to watch competitors try to pick the odd cup out of three in eight different sets of coffee — all in under 10 minutes. Eric Jara Davila, the Peruvian national champion as of November, competed in his first international competition as he faced off against tasters from Hong Kong and Poland, among other far-flung locales.

Jara Davila works in logistics connecting coffee farmers to companies, which inspired him to taste more coffee to better understand the industry. That led to him competing and eventually taking on eight hours of training everyday, which includes restricting his diet to largely just water and salt-free soup. The field of more than 40 competitors was being narrowed down to 16 Saturday.

On the other side of the convention floor, a different kind of competition was brewing. Bill Alameda, the production manager at Washington-based Astra Manufacturing, spent much of Saturday afternoon standing among his company’s espresso makers. He said such conventions are important to an ever-evolving industry. “Coffee isn’t just coffee anymore. It’s become an art, and these people are out here trying to put that art into machines,” Alameda said.

South Korean company Irhea’s automatic drip coffee machine, which changes temperature at different parts of the brewing process, sits on display at the Specialty Coffee Expo at McCormick Place Saturday.

Budding local entrepreneurs got a taste as well, including North Central College’s Coffee Lab, a bagged coffee business run by professors and students. The program started as a fundraiser for student organizations but has turned into a full-fledged business that brings college students on trips to Guatemala so they see the business “from growing the coffee all the way to the consumer.”

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