words by Sophie Albanis, photos by Clarke Surrey Photo

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Following the success of April’s Thursday Night Throwdown at Café Virtuoso, the San Diego Coffee Network returned on May 10 with its fourth community-building event of the 2018 season. However, this month’s gathering differed from previous SDCN competitions in its focus and format: behold the Cup Taster’s Competition! In a departure from the classic latte art throwdown, the SDCN presented its very first cupping challenge, which tested participants’ palates over several rigorous rounds of coffee tasting. The friendly folks at Coava Coffee Roasters offered up their sleek new location as a venue for the competition, with the slurps getting underway at 7pm.

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In each of three rounds, participants were presented with five triangulations of brewed coffee. Each triangulation contained two cups of the same coffee and one that was different. For each set, the contestants attempted to identify which cup was the odd coffee out, completing their tastings in less than five minutes. The contestant who correctly identified the most cups in the shortest amount of time was crowned the winner. Rather than testing competitors’ proficiency with espresso equipment, as in a latte art throwdown, the cupping competition allows one’s own palate as the only tool—which, in many ways, makes it a more accessible and inclusive event.

The tournament kicked off with an initial bracket of 24 participants, each of whom paid a $10 entry fee. Together, the contestants represented twelve different coffee companies, while several of the competitors were unaffiliated coffee enthusiasts and/or home-roasters. Andrew Gomez from Wilbur Curtis presided over the event, offering commentary and entertainment as the competition progressed.

 From left to right: Amanda, Pablo, and Gan

From left to right: Amanda, Pablo, and Gan

At the end of the first round, twelve participants remained: Derrick (Hook & Ladder), Leslie (Copa Vida), Connor (Coava), Amanda (Holsem), Pablo (Global), Michael (independent), Steven (Pop Pie), Gan (Pop Pie), Ryan (Bird Rock), Miguel (Bird Rock), Weston (Manzanita), and Garret (Zumbar). In the final round, Amanda, Pablo, and Gan duked it out, but it was Pablo who—after guessing correctly in all five triangulations—emerged the winner. Congratulations, Pablo!

In addition to providing a venue for the event, Coava also supplied a selection of their specialty coffees for use in the cuppings: Santa Luzia pulped natural Brasil, Kilenso natural Ethiopia, Meaza washed Ethiopia, Familia Mancia washed Honduras, Robinson Figueroa washed Colombia, Alto Mayo washed Peru, Ubwiza washed Burundi, and a special 5% density separation of the Ubwiza. Coava’s San Diego shop, which opened its doors last fall, is located at 400 West Broadway, on the ground floor of the Westin Hotel. Coava was founded in Portland in 2008, where the company quickly earned recognition for its ethical sourcing practices, exceptional roasting quality, and elegant retail locations. The downtown San Diego café is Coava’s first shop to open outside of its Northwest hometown, but instead of expanding to a giant coffee market like New York or San Francisco, Coava selected San Diego as its second home. It was our city’s burgeoning coffee industry and love of unique craft beverages that made it the obvious choice for Coava’s first expansion.

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The café’s polished wood-paneling, charcoal-gray accents, and collection of leafy vine plants provided a stately backdrop for both the Cup Taster’s Competition and the onlookers’ socializing. Between rounds, attendees milled around the café, scoping out Coava’s new digs and sipping complimentary Ballast Point Sculpin—although many of the contestants opted for palate-cleansing mineral water, instead. Despite the event’s competitive nature, the community-oriented spirit of all those in attendance made for a warm, welcoming environment. Thanks to all those who participated in, hosted, and volunteered at the SDCN’s first-ever cupping competition! San Diego Coffee Network co-director Kat Adams shared that the SDCN plans to host one Cup Taster’s Competition per season, so those who missed this month’s event can look forward to attending contests of this format in the future. Next month, however, we’ll return to our regularly-scheduled latte art throwdowns. Be sure to stop by Blackmarket Bakery on June 14th at 6pm to find out who will become the city’s next Latte Art Champion. See you there!

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