Matt Holden

The Australian International Coffee Awards gives awards for coffee roasting excellence.
The Australian International Coffee Awards gives awards for coffee roasting excellence. Photo: Bonnie Savage

"Spit it out, drink some water, eat a biscuit,'' says Sensory Lab's Ross Quail. ''It's easier than judging a barista competition, where you have to swallow it.''

Quail was one of 32 coffee industry professionals - including roasters, baristas and green bean buyers - who made up the judging panels at the Australian International Coffee Awards, held at Melbourne's Showgrounds recently.

The competition, in its second year, is run by the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria as part of its food and wine program, and gives awards for coffee roasting excellence (rather than skill in preparing it, as in a barista competition).

Over four days of blind tasting, the panels evaluated more than 800 entries from 167 roasters in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan: 2.5 tonnes of coffee were submitted.

That added up to a lot of sipping and spitting for the judges. Quail, who was on the plunger coffee panel, tasted 24 one day and 18 the next.

Wendy De Jong, a green bean buyer from Sydney's Single Origin Roasters, says she tasted about 80 different espressos in four days.

''My comfort level is about 40 a day when I'm cupping,'' says De Jong. ''Espresso is a little different, though I'm paying attention to the same key indicators: flavour, acidity, sweetness, body, balance, finish.''

The coffee was brewed by a team of volunteer baristas working at a bank of Nuova Simonelli machines in a room the judges were not allowed to enter, and served by RASV stewards.

David Christian, a Sydney hospitality trainer who managed the baristas, says they typically extracted each coffee six or eight times before they were happy to send it out. With two judges on each panel, and more than 600 coffees entered in the espresso and milk-based categories, that made for an awful lot of shots.

On the last day there was a taste-off between the top espresso and filter coffees to determine the trophy winners.

A total of 170 medals were awarded: 12 gold, 43 silver and 115 bronze. The trophy winners - Champion Espresso, Champion Milk-based, Champion Filter Coffee as well as Champion Australian Coffee Roaster and Champion International Coffee Roaster - will be announced at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo in May.

And the leftover coffee? It was, says the RASV's Ross Karavis, either used for promotional purposes, training and education, or given to hunger relief charities and to interested lovers of coffee.