The owner of two Lawrence coffee shops traveled 1,779 miles to sniff, swish and slurp world-class java from El Salvador.
After serving as a judge for the country's Cup of Excellence coffee contest late last month, Mark Zwahl soon will be following the results of the competition's real payoff: an online auction, whose participating farmers will be able to sell their prime beans to a worldwide market thirsty for high-quality roasts without middle-man markups.
Registered roasters will be able to bid June 29; for more information, click on www.cupofexcellence.org.
"It's basically a program trying to show coffee farmers that there's a big market for really fine coffee, and that people are willing to pay," said Zwahl, owner and president of Z's Divine Espresso Inc. "If they win, they get to sell their coffee directly to a roaster, and there's no middle man."
Zwahl joined 24 other coffee connoisseurs on the international jury, passing judgment on 49 entries - which were selected from a national contest of 180 entries - during a five-day competition designed to pay back the dedicated growers that form the ground level of his industry. Twenty-three entries ended up with the coveted "Cup of Excellence" designation.
Cup of Excellence contests are run in various countries for the promotion and prosperity of coffee farmers. Coffee beans, as a global commodity, typically sell for less than $2 a pound, Zwahl said.
Some batches qualifying for auction through the most recent Cup of Excellence competition in Panama fetched more than $50 a pound.
"It gets it out of the commodity market," he said.
The El Salvador contest also took Zwahl out of Lawrence and into a region where coffee is an economic engine. Jury members - from Brazil, El Salvador, Finland, Japan, Malaysia, The Netherlands, Norway and the United States - met with growers, "cupped" coffees from fresh-picked beans and toured some of their operations.
Zwahl found himself getting an up-close look at the business. He managed to meet with farmers, stand beside their burlap-bagged beans and peer across their fields with at least a little trepidation.
There wasn't a combine in sight.
"What they call a coffee farm, we call a mountain," Zwahl said. "I was like, 'Are you kidding?' Everything's hand-picked, and it's all on 45-degree angles."
Winning coffees typically are purchased by small-to mid-sized roasters throughout the world.
Two U.S. roasteries were along with Zwahl for the trip: Stumptown Coffee Roasters, from Oregon, and Intelligentsia Coffee Inc. in Chicago.
Whether Z's Divine Espresso ends up with a bag or two depends on whether Zwahl himself can swing a deal with fellow roasters. Contest-winning coffees are sold as complete lots, which typically can include 20 bags, each weighing 150 pounds.
Zwahl is confident the people who do buy winning entries will be pleased. El Salvador has had an "exceptional year" for its coffee crop, making his judging choices all the more pleasurable.
"To taste the best of the best was phenomenal," Zwahl said. "These coffees were astonishingly clean and sweet and interesting and just loaded with character. It was pretty incredible."