A day after being named one of the best coffee tasters in the world, Amanda Juris was back at work for Starbucks loudly slurping a spoonful of coffee from each of more than 600 glass mugs lined up on a table.
Slurping, which we’ve all been told is poor etiquette, is essential for a coffee taster – or cupper as they’re called in the industry. A quick slurp spreads coffee to taste receptors in all parts of the mouth and helps an expert identify specific aspects of a coffee’s texture, flavor, acidity and sweetness.
When containers of coffee beans arrive at domestic ports for shipping to Starbucks roasting plants, a sample is sent to the company’s headquarters in Seattle. Green coffee specialists need to approve the samples before a coffee can be blended or roasted. That involves tasting test batches made from every newly arrived shipment of beans.
Juris has developed a precise palate for cupping coffee that resulted in her winning the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship in April. Last weekend Juris was among three dozen cuppers vying to be crowned the world’s best coffee taster at the 2014 World Cup Tasters Championship in Melbourne, Australia.
In the final round, Juris and three other cuppers from Taiwan, Finland and Netherlands had to distinguish the taste differences between eight sets of coffee varieties. Two of three cups placed on a table in front of the contestants contained identical coffees. The third held a different variety. The challenge was determining which cup of coffee was the odd one out in the shortest amount of time.
Liu Pang-yu of Taiwan won the world title by correctly identifying the different coffee in six of the eight sets within three minutes and 48 seconds. Juris had five of the coffees correct with a time of 3:51.
“It was a whirlwind competing for the first time,” Juris said. “I didn’t know how my skills were going to rank in the industry.”
In the first two rounds of competition, Juris came in second place. She was in first place after the third round. The final round was “extremely challenging.”
Later, after talking with the person who roasted and prepared all the coffee for the competition, Juris learned why it was the ultimate test of her skills. The differences between the competition varieties were subtle, with all of the coffees originating from sub-regions of Colombia in South America.
One of the most memorable parts of the competition for Juris was getting support from Starbucks partners (employees) around the world through social media.
“It was awesome to be able to read all the tweets from partners who were watching the live stream and sending me messages,” Juris said.
Since returning to her job this week, she’s received high-fives and words of congratulations from fellow partners at the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle. Juris is often found in the Starbucks cupping room, where Bloomberg Television recently took viewers to profile “The Elite Team Testing 600 Cups of Starbucks a Day.”
Juris, a member of that seven-person team, is also 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 final exam involved roast identification, coffee cupping, sensory skills and sensory triangulation.
In an effort to improve her already substantial skills, she wants to continue challenging herself through Cup Tasters competitions. The next event is in Sweden in 2015. Juris plans to be there to further her personal coffee journey that began seven years ago as a Starbucks barista.
“The cupping competitions have been great experiences,” she said. “Yeah, it would have been cool to be in first place, but I’m happy with my performance.”