At the N.C. State Fair, blue ribbons are handed out for pound cakes, pickles and quilts. This year, coffee joined the ranks of the ribbon-worthy contests.
For the first time ever, the fair hosted a coffee tasting competition Friday featuring a dozen coffee roasters from Blowing Rock to Raleigh. It is the first such statewide contest on the East Coast and only the second at a state fair. (Oregon beat us to it.)
Folks tied to the state’s specialty coffee industry were happy to have some visibility at an annual event that brings almost 1 million people to the Raleigh fairgrounds over 11 days.
“I think it’s great in terms of getting exposure for local roasters,” said Rusty Angel, a judge who works for Bunn, which makes home and commercial coffee equipment.
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And those roasters would love to find more customers among those fairgoers. Andrew Cash, who owns two Jubala Coffee shops in Raleigh, said: “A lot of these people drink coffee here and probably don’t drink great coffee.”
The idea for the contest came to Sarah Ray, one of the fair’s public information officers, while – of course – she was drinking a cup of coffee. She reached out to Stockton Graham & Co., a Raleigh-based coffee roaster for more than 20 years. The company solicited roasters for the competition and assembled a panel of six judges, all of whom gathered Friday afternoon at the fairgrounds.
The contestants were squirreled away in a back room in the Education Building practicing the precise art of pour-over brewing. They would grind the beans to the right texture, heat the water to an exact temperature and gently pour a steady stream of water over the coffee grounds into a “chemex,” which could be described as the coffee world’s equivalent of a wine decanter. The contestants were armed with Fiji water, kitchen scales and small wooden paddles for stirring.
Meanwhile, the judges were seated at a table outside in the same hall where fairgoers line up to get their free samples of House-Autry hushpuppies. As fairgoers streamed past the judging table dropping peanut shells on the floor from the Exchange Club of North Raleigh’s peanut stand, the judges sniffed, slurped and spit coffee. (It turns out coffee judging is a lot like wine tasting.)
The judges had five minutes to taste the coffee as it cooled and evaluate it based on aroma, flavor, balance, body, sweetness, aftertaste and acidity. Armed with “cupping spoons,” akin to small gravy ladles, the judges scored each coffee, and those with the highest scores advanced to semifinals and then a final round.
What did the fairgoers think? Cash of Jubala said the most common question while they were judging was: “Can we taste it?”
Today at the fair
Hours: Gates, 8 a.m.-midnight. Midway, 10 a.m.-midnight. Exhibit halls, 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
Tickets: Adults (13-64), $10; children (6-12), $5; military with ID, $6; children 5 and younger and adults 65 and older, free.
Dorton Arena concert: Delta Rae with Katelyn Read, 7:30 p.m., free.
Forecast: Sunny, near 70.
Friday’s attendance last year: 126,666