Counting Down to WOC Berlin with Cup Tasting Champion Thabang Maluleka May 10 2019

This year’s World of Coffee is also the venue for the prestigious World Coffee Events: the 2019 Championships for World Latte Art, World Coffee In Good Spirits, World Cup Tasters and the Cezve/Ibrik Championship. South Africa's Thabang Maluleka (from Ciro Full Service Beverage Co.) who surprised at February's National Coffee Championships in Balito, will be representing South Africa 6-8 June in Berlin.

(Thabang Maluleka with SCASA Chairman, Bernard Muneri)

The World Cup Tasters Championship awards the professional coffee cupper who demonstrates speed, skill, and accuracy in distinguishing the taste differences in specialty coffees.

Coffees of the world have many distinct taste characteristics and in this competition format the objective is for the cupper to discriminate between the different coffees. Three cups are placed in a triangle, with 2 cups being identical coffees and one cup being a different coffee. Using skills of smell, taste, attention and experience, the cupper will identify the odd cup in the triangle as quickly as they can. A total of 8 triangles are placed in each round. The top 8 competitors with the most correct answers and the fastest time proceed to the next Semi-Finals round. Then the top 4 will compete again in the Finals round to determine the next World Cup Tasters Champion.

The 2019 Berlin World Coffee Championships will also feature South Africa's Christopher Abrahams, competing in the Latte Art World Championship, more on Christopher's preparations to follow.

Both Christopher and Thabang's disciplines start on Thursday 6 June between 09:30 and 16:30 with LIVE streaming covered by World Coffee Events (more updates on their sets to follow).  

SCASA sat down with Thabang to hear how things were going for the World Championships.

How has your preparations been going for Berlin thus far? And is it different to how you prepared for Nationals?
I am not necessarily doing anything different, the difference is the frequency of my cupping and the amount of cups that I taste. My strategy has always been to try and get the slightest difference in any cup, this can be the same sample of coffee at different temperatures, the same origin/blend roasted with long roast compared to short roast, different origins, different blends, same origin/blend with different water to coffee ratio. I am privileged that I have a scientific background so anything that I think can affect taste I do an experience to test my scientific hypothesis.

(Thabang Maluleka competing at Nationals in February 2019)

How has your life changed since Nationals in February?
One thing for sure is the pressure imposed on me by my supporters especially those that are not in the coffee industry. Most of them think it’s just an easy thing since I have done it before but a lot don’t know what goes into cupping, just like athletes anything from geographical area to nerves can affect your palate. I’m not really complaining I’m enjoying the attention. The respect that I get from people who are in the industry on the other hand is overwhelming, I have received a lot of social media invites and inboxes from coffee fanatics.

When do you leave and what creature comforts will you be taking with you to Germany?
I’m leaving on the 3rd of June. I’ll be going with my mates Christopher Abrahams the latte artist and Tim Krynauw the judge so this should distract me from over thinking.

What extra magic can we expect from Thabang Maluleka at the World Cup Tasters Championship? Have you been doing extra or different training
LOL, there’s really no magic that can be performed when cupping, for me at least. The goal is still the same, get all cups in the shortest possible time. I am not doing anything extra except that I’m guarding my palate the same way people would guard money. If it were possible I would put my palate safe elsewhere until the due date.

Who are you looking forward to seeing and meeting in Berlin?
I don’t have any particular person that I am looking forward to seeing, I am looking forward to the experience at the world stage. I am mostly looking forward to meeting other cup tasters and possibly starting friendships. I consider myself a student of coffee so I need all the knowledge I can get.

Tell us a bit more about your coaches or mentors, who are they and what have they been helping you with?
My mentor at work is Gitika Diah who is the factory coffee master. Gitika is the first person who introduced me to coffee as she was my manager at the time. Every chance we get we do cupping me and her and compare notes, she’s always bringing different origins and blends for us to taste. My other mentor and coach is Johnson Sehoro (I call him Bra-Tshwaro). Bra-Tshwaro owns his own coffee business, this is the man who introduced me to coffee competitions to start with, and at the time he used to come to my work place and motivated me to try this competition. Besides him being a great coffee professional he is a great role model, he is one person that I call when my nerves are getting out of hand, when I aim low he always reminds me the sky is the limit and that’s what he has been doing to help me prepare, he is more of my mental coach over anything. There are however a lot of people from National Brands Ltd and Ciro Full service beverage co. who are continuously motivating me to do better every time.

What are the top 3 abilities a cup taster must have?
Attention to detail and a good memory. Be able to shut the world out and live in your head for those 8 minutes (calmness). The most important one for me is to be dismissive or time will make a decision for you, this works for all aspects of my life.

As you know anything can happen on the day, but what would you do if you won the World Cup Tasters Championship?
Most probably faint, I hope they have medical assistance nearby. Anything I will do at that point will be involuntary.

The best advice received thus far going into a competition of this magnitude?
Remain calm and breathe from both Lani Snyman and Bra-Tshwaro.

(Thabang Maluleka, 2019 Cup Tasting champion with a four time national champion, Donovan McLagan)

The best of luck Thabang, South Africa is behind you! Any message you would like to give to your supporters?
Firstly thank you to everyone who believed and still believe in me, for everyone who is a cup taster or wants to be a cup taster, I’d say aspire to be better than you were a second ago.

Photos: The Coffee Magazine