A Manifestation of the Ninety Plus Experience
By Joseph Brodsky

“Let things taste of what they are.”—Alice Waters

In Dublin at the world championships this year it hit me. Eleven years and countless farming and market projects later, the original Ethiopian coffee experience I’d had while a cupping judge in 2005 was being manifested by 19 national champions in the two biggest coffee competitions in the world. All of these amazing people were filled with the same experience of pursuing better taste while advancing a new farming model.

On a purely competitive level, it was a sweep. We saw our coffees used to win the World Brewers Cup for the third consecutive year with Tetsu Kasuya of Japan winning overall, Chad Wang of Taiwan coming in third, and Odd-Steinar Tøllefsen, 2015 World Brewers Cup Champion, coming in sixth. In the World Barista Competition, Yoshikazu Iwase from Japan took second and Ben Put of Canada placed third. Overall, Ninety Plus Coffees were used by two of the top-three brewers and two of the top-three baristas. That is unprecedented.

  • The Dublin Epiphany 1
  • The Dublin Epiphany 2
  • The Dublin Epiphany 3
  • The Dublin Epiphany 4
  • The Dublin Epiphany 5

(for more photos of the World Coffee Event in Dublin, view our photo gallery on Facebook)

Although all of the competitors carried the experience gracefully, the Ninety Plus Experience was so tangible in the top three finishers of both competitions, where the most passionate competitors carried messages informed by their direct cherry-to-cup experiences in Ninety Plus farming communities. They knew their coffees and stories from cherry to cup, and they conveyed that Ninety Plus Experience to the judges and fans with passion and expertise.

But for us it has never been about winning any more than our coffees have been about the score. What I realized in Dublin is that the Ninety Plus experience I’d had in Ethiopia 11 years ago had spread around the world. And what was most important and priceless was the story.

I flashed back to 2005 when I had been invited to be a cupping judge for the first Ethiopian Cooperative Coffees competition in Addis Ababa. At the time I was working for my family’s roasting business, Novo Coffee of Denver. I was still relatively new to coffee so this journey to the motherland of coffee was a steep learning curve.

I intended to spend one week with the cupping group, but I ended up staying two months and absorbed everything coffee. I went on a coffee marathon trek…tasting more than a thousand coffees from every reach of Ethiopian coffee country with the government export authorities. Then traveling to the deep southwest, I hiked far into indigenous coffee forest looking for rare coffee plants that never see full sunlight. Finally, I went to Illubabor, the origin of that first coffee, the one that showed me the original Ninety Plus Experience.

I took a first intense smell of the dry grounds of a coffee grown in forest near Illubabor, powerful even at a meter above the cup.  It was one of ten samples in one of the day’s competition rounds. Taking in the dry aroma fully, it was like I had an injection of clear and beautiful berry and floral aromas, directed powerfully to the spine. On smelling this coffee, every cupping judge had to break the rules and make an approving groan of pleasure or steal a glance at the others. There was a need to share the instantaneously unanimous excitement of such an extraordinary sensory experience.

I realized that when a coffee generates this kind of shared excitement, the experience goes well beyond the score. Of course, most would be uncomfortable publicly granting anything less than 90 points for a coffee that moves people so much. But the shared excitement is what I wanted to feed off of, with origin and market communities committed to discovering and sharing Ethiopian heirloom variety taste.

Eleven years of Ninety Plus farm process and systems innovation have aimed to share a Ninety Plus Experience with everyone from farm worker to end user. This Ninety Plus Experience, the tastes we get to sense getting better and more diversified every year. This taste discovery is helping to drive industry evolution. That is the Ninety Plus Experience. And we’ve barely scratched the surface.

On to the next taste, for the betterment of the next person and place.