Three cups are placed in a triangle. Two contain identical coffees and the third is different.
The challenge? Using skills of sight, smell and taste, the top coffee tasters in the United States compete to determine which cup is the odd one out through eight groupings, or triangulations as they’re called in the coffee business.
Amanda Juris, a Starbucks green coffee quality specialist, is the best coffee taster in the country.
She won all eight sets and had the fastest time in a preliminary round of the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship. She sailed through the semi-finals, and today (Friday, April 25) she won the championship. It's one of the coffee competitions being held during the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s 2014 exposition and symposium, underway in Seattle now through Sunday. Juris will now compete in the World Cup Tasters Championship next month in Melbourne. Australia.
“I’m very conditioned to going through many cups of coffee and picking out the one that doesn’t taste like the rest,” Juris said.
Her palate has been conditioned and fine-tuned by a regular ritual of slurping her way through more than 500 cups of coffee a day as part of her job evaluating coffee beans for Starbucks Global Coffee.
“Earlier this week it was 676,” said Juris, who might seem to be the most caffeinated person on the planet. “Just as with wine tasting you spit it all out after you have the taste.”
Juris has been with Starbucks for seven years. She’s a former Starbucks barista who spent the last two years as a product developer for the company’s hardware design studio, testing the effect various machines have on coffee taste and consistency. It’s her new role as a green coffee specialist that has her skimming a spoon across hundreds of cups of coffee a day.
When containers of coffee beans arrive at domestic ports for shipping to Starbucks roasting plants, a sample is sent to Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. Green coffee specialists need to approve the samples before it can be blended or roasted.
“The first cup of coffee in the morning is my baseline, and after that it’s a matter of comparing each cup to the one before,” Juris said, making it sound easy and natural to do. “A good strong slurp cools and aerates the coffee and sprays it to all parts of your mouth where you have taste receptors.”
Her palate is calibrated like a machine and is so accurate that she’s one of only a 1,000 or so “Q Graders” in the world. A licensed Q Grader is a professional cupper, accredited by the Coffee Quality Institute. Juris had to pass a rigorous three-day exam to earn certification. The test related to roast identification, coffee cupping, sensory skills and sensory triangulation.
“We have a protocol to formally assess the market viability of green coffee,” she explained. “There’s a scoring system from 1 to 100. Specialty coffees are 80 plus, for example. I can taste a coffee and say that’s an 85, a specialty coffee that deserves a premium above the market price. The idea is that every other Q Grader would taste the coffee and score the same or within one point of my assessment.”
In addition to competing in the SCAA Cup Tasters Championship, Juris is also a judge for the U.S. Barista Championship. Baristas have 15 minutes to prepare 12 beverages – four espresso drinks, four cappuccinos and four signature beverages – using one coffee.
Technical judges watch to make sure the barista doesn’t stream excess milk or even take steps that aren’t deliberate. Juris is a sensory judge. If a barista serves a signature beverage with a shot of espresso that tastes, for example, like lavender and strawberry with a citrus acidity, Juris evaluates whether the beverage has those characteristics.
The SCAA is also hosting a competition for brewers and latte artists. This is the 26th annual SCAA expo dedicated to the development and promotion of specialty coffees. Starbucks is the official host and shares the organization’s commitment to meeting the challenges of a rapidly changing industry. Starbucks executive vice president of Global Coffee, Craig Russell, explains some of those challenges in this guest column.
“Coffee is an agricultural product that is not going to taste the same from year to year,” Juris added. “Coffee is a fusion of art and science.”
For more information on this news release, contact the Starbucks Newsroom