MACHADO, Brazil (Reuters) - Some of the coffee world's most discerning palettes came together in the heart of Brazil's coffee belt on Friday to judge which brews in the world's top grower are best for an expanding specialty market.
After hours of painstaking swilling, spitting and note making this week, judges at the Brazilian round of the international Cup of Excellence competition whittled the field down to 11 finalists from 56 entries.
The judges said quality of the Brazilian coffee had improved this year despite a wet harvest period that spoiled large quantities of produce in the world's top grower.
"I honestly think the quality is much better this year. A lot of people told me quality would be lower because of the rains but the top-tier coffees are presenting much better characteristics than in other years," said chief judge Erwin Mierisch.
Cup of Excellence, sponsored in Brazil by the export promotion agency Apex, holds annual competitions to seek South and Central America's best produce. It aims to expand the market for high quality coffee to give growers the incentive to produce better beans.
Begun a decade ago to counter the perception that Brazil had little to offer beyond its large supply of bulk coffee, it has spread to other producers in the region. East African nation Rwanda now also takes part.
Judges paced up and down with silver spoons, sampling the line of coffees, each of which had been roasted for the same time and at the same temperature and ground in a machine cleaned repeatedly to avoid contamination. Their faces gave nothing away as they made notes in silence before moving on to the next sample.
"I immediately spotted one which was outstanding. I gave it a 97 score," out of a possible 100, said Vytautas Kratulis, director of Sviezia Kava, a roaster in Lithuania after the cupping process ended.
He also preferred this year's coffees over last year's. Still, he said he expected quality coffee would be in shorter supply in his country this year and at higher costs. The global economic crisis has hit Baltic states particularly hard, making Lithuanian coffee drinkers in reluctant to pay premium prices.
Judges drifted out of the sampling room, mouths tired after forcefully drawing coffees dozens of times from the spoon with loud rasps, and congregated to discuss the qualities of each entry.
Numbers 8 and 11 emerged as two potential winners. Judges compared their flavors to fruits like pineapple or red berries while others were more often likened to chocolate or savory flavors like butter.
Judges laughed as one peer described a coffee as having a "taco" taste and another's acidity as "polite, not aggressive".
Coffee number 8 emerged a fraction of a point ahead of its rival and the farmer who grew it would be identified on Friday night at the award ceremony.
Japanese coffee roaster Yuko Itoi, who has traveled to competitions in Nicaragua, Colombia, Bolivia and Guatemala as well as Brazil this year, said the Cup of Excellence label was increasingly recognized there.
"Little by little we can now see Cup of Excellence coffee in famous department stores and coffee stores," she said. Japan is often one of the main buyers in the online auctioning of the winning and runner up coffees in the Brazilian round which will take place on January 19.
Itoi said Japanese consumers had a soft spot for Brazilian coffee, even though not an elite origin like Colombia or Guatemala, because their countrymen had helped make Brazil into the world's biggest producer.
"For Japan, Brazil coffee has a very special position because we immigrated 100 years ago" to farm it in Brazil, she said.
editing by Reese Ewing and David Gregorio