Competitive caffeine: Inside the wild world of professional coffee tasting

“Go, three, two, one! Please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please” On the screen, I’m watching a coffee tasting competition unfold, but not a single mouth touches a cup as the participants begin to compete. Rounded spoons hurriedly slam into what appear to be tiny soup bowls. A hand reaches forwards and places a single bowl beyond a table line, then returns to spooning coffee from bowl to nose to mouth.

Techno music plays in the background as the action unfolds, and a throng cheers on the tasters from only a few feet away.

This is the World Cup Tasters Competition, in which participants smell, scrutinise, and slurp eight sets of three cups in order to swiftly and properly identify the “odd cup out” in each set. A “triangle test” is a difficulty known to individuals with sensory training.

Jen Apodaca, who represented the United States in the 2019 Worlds tournament in Berlin, says, “It’s about precision first, then speed.” “If a contestant finishes in under two minutes but only gets seven of the eight cups accurate, they will finish behind someone who takes five minutes but gets all eight cups correct.”

Daniel Horbat of Ireland, the 2019 World Champion, won with seven correct cups in under two minutes and 33 seconds.

The mood at the tournament, according to Apodaca, was “extremely heated.”

“To prepare for it, some contestants ate nothing but chicken and rice for six months.” This was done to protect their taste buds, and rivals were wearing masks to shield their finely calibrated sniffers from irritating scents a full year before wearing a mask in public became the standard.

Ken Selby, who represented the United States in the 2018 World Coffee Tasters competition, thinks the meticulous preparation is justified. “At Worlds you’re in the position to instantly advance your career, if you do well,” he says.

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