LESSONS FROM THE
UK CUP TASTER CHAMP

So, I still cannot believe I won the SCAE UK Cup taster competition, in early November. Winning a competition like Cup Taster is different than a barista contest, or brewers cup. You won't become a superstar and be showered with products. I am like Cinderella, life is still the same afterwards, and I still have to lift coffee sacks in the roastery.

You might wonder what exactly this competition is about. Unlike barista competitions, or a brewers cup, where you have to find competition coffees, find the best brewing ratio or extraction, and likely prepare a speech about the coffee beverage you prepared, the Cup Taster is mainly based (unsurprisingly) on taste! Working on the principle of "odd one out". There are eight sets of coffees, with three cups in each set. Two of the three cups are identical coffees, with the last being different. This contest is primarily a challenge of the accuracy of your palette, and secondly, the time you take to perform the task.

 

This contest is primarily a challenge of the accuracy of your palette, and secondly, the time you take to perform the task.


Cup Taster was always THE competition I wanted to try. Compared to ratios, numbers and brewing accuracy, I am a more emotional person, when it comes to coffee. Taste means more to me, than anything. When drinking or consuming something, I always care about the "journey" through taste and aroma. This pushes me to explore more aspects of sensory, in life and work.


HOW DID I GET HERE?


Through sensory, I found I can engage in a truly emotional and artistic way, with coffee. The idea of being able to taste different flavours, and experience mouthfeel in coffee, fascinated me. Throughout last year, I continuously challenged myself, through the sensory aspect of my coffee career. It wasn't until I passed my Q grader exam, that I realised I am skilled at tasting. This presented the possibility of forging a career, in this respect, which is an idea I had never considered. Through attending SCAE Sensory courses and acquiring a qualification as an AST in Sensory, I understand how to describe what I have tasted and have built up a constructive language to communicate with other coffee professionals. And now, I have successfully made my way through the UK Cup Taster competition, and am on my way to the worlds in June 2017, in Budapest.


To get where I am, right now, has been long battle and has required understanding of myself. Looking to my past, it is actually a difficult subject to discuss. I have previously struggled with bulimia. I won't go into detail because it was very difficult, and many times I thought I might never get better.


However, I accepted and embraced it, and see it as a blessing now. I would say it is the best thing that could have happened on me. It pushed me to accept and understand myself, and learn to cope with stress. Never before did I eat and drink as consciously as I do now. Sensory for me is a learning process that will last a lifetime, and I am grateful that I have this skill. Combining sensory and my passion of coffee, is indeed a perfect match for me.

MY REGULAR SENSORY TRAINING WITH FRIENDS. // Semi-final round. Great competitors from many different companies across the UK.

 

There were so many talented people in the competition, and they are truly exceptional at what they do. I compared myself to them and instantly felt so little, and frustrated about my own achievement. I was truly scared of not achieving my goals. Yet, I realised it is so silly to compare myself to another, because we are all coming from different backgrounds and experiences, and my fiercest competition was to face myself. During the competition, I tried to talk to myself and not to be emotionally bonded with the idea of winning. This removed any expectation, with regard to the outcome.


I treated every round as my normal production cupping, even the final! I let go of the burden of "I have to do well", and let go of the mistakes I made in the previous rounds, with only one clear mission: "Choose the odd one out." In the end, I walked away from the competition with not just the gold plated spoon and a trip to Budapest, but a self-fulfillment and confirmation that all the hard work and difficult personal development has truly paid off.


HOW DID I PREPARE FOR THE COMPETITION?


In June, while at University, I tried to join Caravan on their production cupping, twice or more per week, in order to keep myself sharp. Before the competition, I also trained myself in competitive methods, such as, coffee from the same farm, but different varietals. Or, the same region and varietals, just to force myself to search for minor differences. I did not give myself a hard time, despite regularly finding it a difficult task. In the end, it is only coffee. Furthermore, believing in myself also played a big part in the competition. Doubting and beating myself up, will never take me anywhere. I had to learn how to deal with the critical voice, that comes from within.

Production cupping at Caravan Coffee Roasters.

 

In a way, this competition is truly spiritual and was deeply challenging for me. I have come so far, and I believe you can do it, too. I cannot recommend this competition highly enough. And, suggest taking every opportunity to gain sensory practice, as it is the best way to connect with yourself and learn about your own abilities.


Follow my sensory journey @imfreda on Instagram

BY FREDA YUAN