Coffee cupping is a standardized way for evaluating the qualities of coffee. Photo by René Porter on Unsplash.
The Cup Tasters Championship is the kind of challenge where you compete with yourself. No judges are debating your technique or ability — it’s about being first and being right.
This year, Black Rifle Coffee Company’s Q-grader and quality assurance & quality control specialist Genifer Ness has been first and right on their way to the Cup Tasters National Championships.
What started as a trip to support a co-worker in a separate competition led to what Ness had assumed would be a humbling experience as they competed against the instructor who certified them as a Q-grader.
“I never had any intention of getting into the competition circuit,” Ness said. “Edwin [Parnell] happened to be participating in the [US National] Aeropress Championship when we were in Indianapolis in October, and the prelim round for cup tasting was happening at the same time. Edwin and Matt [Leviner] suggested I join, and I ended up in first place.”
BRCC Q-grader and QA/QC specialist Genifer Ness at the Cup Tasters Regional Championship on Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Denver. Photo by Matt Leviner/Black Rifle Coffee Company.
Parnell is the director of coffee culture for Black Rifle Coffee Company, and Leviner is the senior commercialization manager.
The preliminary cupping competition in Indianapolis qualified Ness for the West Coast regional competition, held March 4 and 5 in Denver, where they were up against 45 other coffee experts. From there, the top 15 from Denver and the top 15 competitors from the East Coast regional competition head to Portland, Oregon, for the National Cup Taster Championship. Ness placed 12th in the regional competition, identifying five out of the six cups in 3 minutes and 48 seconds.
“Really, it’s either you do it or you don’t,” Ness said of the competition. “The biggest thing is consistency [because] when you get on stage, your heart is racing while trying to do a sensory analysis, which can be overwhelming.
“The biggest thing for me [to prepare] was drinking coffee daily. Our coffee lab flooded back in December, so I ended up visiting a lot of different coffee shops and just drinking a lot of hot, black coffee.”
BRCC Q-grader and QA/QC specialist Genifer Ness reaches to identify the odd cup in one of the sets at the Cup Tasters Regional Championship on Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Denver. Photo by Matt Leviner/Black Rifle Coffee Company
In addition to co-workers cheering on Ness during the regional competition, they also had other competitors, BRCC coffee supplier partners, and their mom present.
“It was definitely cool to have my mom there,” Ness said. “She’s watched me work with coffee my whole life, and [in Denver] it really clicked for her that I know what I’m doing and I’m good at it.”
One of those coffee partners, Sam Demisse of Keffa Coffee, has been competing in the Cup Tasters Championship since it began 14 years ago.
When the championship started, it was a $25 registration fee. Registrants went straight into the first round with no regional qualifier before competing in the semi-finals and then finals in the national competition.
The rules and system of getting to Nationals have evolved as the competition has grown, but at its core, the challenge remains the same. Cuppers are scored on accuracy first, and time is used as a tiebreaker. Regionals consist of an 18-cup challenge, called a “triangulation test” in the regulations. Competitors must identify the “b cup” in each set of three. At the national level, there are 24 cups, divided into eight sets. The ability to assess coffee quality, origin, and processing are all essential to finding the odd cup in each set.
BRCC Q-grader and QA/QC specialist Genifer Ness shows the judge the bottom of her cup for scoring at the Cup Tasters Regional Championship on Sunday, March 5, 2023, in Denver. Photo by Matt Leviner/Black Rifle Coffee Company.
“For other kinds of competitions, like Aeropress or barista, you always have people judging you, though there are technical judges that may have subjective preferences toward certain coffee washes or roasts,” Demisse explained. “But when it comes to cupping, no one is judging you; it’s up to you to identify the best coffees. You have to rely on discipline and your palate.
“This is what we in the coffee community do daily, cup coffee.”
It’s also essential to have the cleanest palate possible leading up to the competitions, which means avoiding spicy foods, eating blandly, and not drinking or smoking. Demisse recalled one year when he ate nothing but bananas and bagels for three days before competing.
“When I started out in coffee in 2010 as a barista, I briefly considered the barista competitions, and they’re so crazy, giving you like 15 minutes to present three signature drinks,” Ness said. “You have to know every routine and make something special on top of the expected preparation process and impress the judges with an espresso, cappuccino, and a signature beverage. The great thing about the cup tasting is that it's just about your palate, experience, and discipline.”
Ness attributes their level of preparedness to the fact that they are constantly cupping BRCC coffee, which comes naturally as part of their job in quality control and assurance. They have trained their palate to identify beyond the darkness in the darker roast offerings, but they also give credit to their workout routine.
“I’ve got a workout plan in place to help put me in a competitive mindset,” Ness said. “I’ll do a bunch of reps of lucky sevens to get the shakes out of my hands and then some cardio to keep my breath mellow. This, along with meditating right before the competition, really helps to ground me.”
“Gen did an amazing job; they just really nailed it down with five out of the six cups,” Demisse said of Ness’ regional performance.
“Having Genifer represent BRCC is a great honor,” Parnell, BRCC’s director of coffee culture, said. “It helps drive the coffee culture here at Black Rifle Coffee and further expands awareness of our brand in the specialty coffee world.
“They’ve blown us away as this is only their first year of competing. We are excited to watch where they go from here.”
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