SEATTLE — The Cup of Excellence is the coffee world's foremost competition, a cross between "American Idol" and the Olympics that can bring a measure of profit and fame to farmers growing the most exquisite beans.
Held separately in 10 coffee-producing nations, it gathers an international jury of coffee experts to pick and rank the best coffees after days of blind tasting. An auction follows, in which specialty coffee roasters bid on the winning lots at prices that often flare up to $50 a pound.
That's about 30 times the benchmark price for ordinary mild Arabica — and it's paid only by the highest of the higher-end roasters and cafes, almost exclusively from coffee-crazy Japan, South Korea and Australia.
But at a recent Cup of Excellence auction in Brazil, an unlikely entrant — Starbucks - made a splash when it bought the entire lot of the top-ranked coffee, from a family-owned farm in south-eastern Brazil, for $23.80 a pound.
Now the coffee is being sold exclusively at the company's Reserve Roastery and Tasting Room in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood for $80 a pound, or about $7.50 for a cup.
Starbucks coffee buyer Ann Traumann, who discovered what's been dubbed "Sitio Baixadao" (pronounced SEEtee-o by-sha-DAH-o) during a blind tasting as a juror at that Cup of Excellence competition in January, describes it as having a mango-like flavor, with tropical fruit aromas and a creamy finish.
Many in the very-high-end side of the coffee industry were surprised to see Starbucks buy that lot. Until then the company had been a stranger to these auctions, mainly because they don't offer the massive quantities of reasonably priced coffee it needs. In 2014, the company paid for its coffee an average $1.72 per pound.
But Starbucks is working to regain control of the very top of the coffee market, where in the last decade it lost ground to the likes of Portland's Stumptown and Chicago's Intelligentsia Coffee.
To that end Starbucks is boosting its Reserve brand, through which it sells more exclusive, and expensive, beans.
The ultimate showcase for this brand is the Capitol Hill roastery and cafe, a veritable coffee Disneyland, where the best of the company's highend refinement is on display. Coffee there is described in the overwrought prose usually associated with wine tasting.
A Starbucks employee at the roastery recently described the Brazilian coffee bought in the auction by Traumann as tasting like olives. A little card handed out at the roastery says it has "head-spinning sweetness and complexity," and "green apple-like acidity" in addition to hints of "mango and crushed dark fruits."
The card cites Traumann, in a bout of lyric anthropomorphism, characterizing the coffee as a Brazilian man. "I fell in love with a Brazilian," whom she recognized "by his perfume and knew right away he would be my favorite."
Traumann's passion for the coffee "would not be denied," says the card, so Starbucks ended up with the whole lot.