I was honored and flattered by my inclusion - and a bit intimidated by the list of other judges. As a result, I went into the experience looking to learn as much as I could from the opportunity.
In the end - that was a good thing, as there was an enormous amount in the process and experience for me to learn from.
A day later - with marginal time to think and digest I admit - it feels like there are a couple really big take-aways (for me) from this amazing experience.
Taste truly is subjective
I have, for years now, told everyone that taste is subjective and that universal pronouncements about taste are pointless and incorrect and perhaps destructive.
But this event brought home not only how true this really is - but also how little I'd actually accepted the truth of the statement.
It was incredible to see a single coffee get scored 90+ points by one judge and 80 or below by another -- and to have each judge present a compelling, rational and well-reasoned argument for why their scoring was correct. It's amazing to realize that both judges can, in fact, be correct -- despite this enormous disparity in judged value.
It was even more incredible to see these judges make their arguments - while respecting the differing opinions.
This made me realize that while taste is (really and truly) subjective - opinion is not of equal value. Someone presenting a clear and complete and logical argument for why something I hate is actually good results in my respecting their opinion and the truth in their judgement (while not changing my own opinion at all). On the other hand, someone agreeing with me but being unable to give any clear and enunciated explanation for why has little to no validity.
The so-called "under-development epidemic" might be overstated
Development (full, under, "proper") was definitely a topic of discussion - and was a source of enormous controversy at times. But the number of coffees that were severely under-developed (in my opinion) was actually quite small. Out of 51 coffees, there were probably less than 10 that were really under-developed and fewer than 5 were severely so.
Now... what was most interesting is that there was only once coffee (to my recollection) that was under-developed and was an average or inferior green coffee. The under-developed coffees were more likely to be very (very) high quality green. This is (obviously) a concern. But it also points to a possible conclusion - that much of the under-development of these coffees is due to fear or timidity when roasting.
That being said - the controversy around under-development was very real - and there were judges on both sides of the argument.
Technique is objective, style is subjective
Perhaps the single largest challenge of judging this event was figuring out how to approach the stylistic differences issues.
There are styles of coffee that each of us prefer - and styles that each of us doesn't like. I (for example) really don't like dark roast indonesian coffees. That is a stylistic preference.
The problem is that there are those who love that style. So how does one judge a style that you simply don't prefer?
In the end - I had no choice but to try and judge against the style rather than just my preference. In other words, I tried to look at the coffees and evaluate the technique behind the coffee rather than the style of the coffee.
So a well-executed dark roast east african natural (while not to my own taste) would score well if the technique were ideal and the beans well selected (again for that style).
The idea is that the technique of roasting (the craft) should be universal and tangible - while the style of the coffee can be personal and subjective.
This is not the way any of us have been trained to cup - and it's a hard shift to make.
The largest problem in US coffee is old green
It was shocking to me (and I think to many of the judges) to encounter so much past-crop or baggy or just old green coffee. I think I probably cupped more baggy coffee yesterday than I've cupped in the last 2 or 3 years.
The old coffee issue was (for me at least) more of a problem than roast degree and more of a problem than dirty coffees and more of a problem than any stylistic differences.
If I were going to give one single piece of feedback to roasters in the US based on this event it would be, "stop buying / selling old coffee." I don't know if the issue is that roasters are buying more than they can sell before the coffee goes off - or if the roasters are buying old baggy coffee from the importers. But it doesn't really matter in the end. What matters is that the consumer is being sold inferior coffees.
If roasters want to move the needle the most with the least effort - this is where they should focus. Stop selling old coffee.
Finally, a couple side notes.
1 - The judges were amazing. Honestly, it was amazing to cup and have these conversations with such incredible people. I am not worthy. I was probably the least experienced cupper of all the judges. But I was welcomed by all. It was great. Thank you.
2 - I have to give huge props to the folks responsible for this event. To the organizing committee... to the volunteers... you all rock. And big thanks to Peter Guiliano for your fantastic facilitation efforts and to the crew who worked all day Saturday to select the top 50 for us to judge. Most of all, it absolutely could not have happened without the incredible hard work of Brent and Mie. Thank you too so much.