South African Cup Tasters Champion 2019: Introducing Thabang Maluleka!

Tuesday, 14 May, 2019

Thabang Maluleka on winning the 2019 Cup Tasters Championship

Thabang Maluleka will be representing South Africa at the 2019 World Cup Tasters Championship in Berlin at the beginning of June 2019. We got a chance to chat with him about his recent win and preparations for the upcoming World Cup Tasters Championship.

Congratulations on winning the 2019 Cup Tasters Championship! How did it feel to win? 

“Thank you, honestly even today I still can’t describe the feeling, but the closest I can get to describing it is like a dream, I felt like the inner me was excited to a point where my body could not really contain the excitement!”

How does the cup tasting competition format work?

“You have 24 cups that you must taste within 8 minutes. The cups are grouped in threes and the objective is to find the odd one out in each three within those 8 minutes. Basically, you are finding a defect in that set of threes.”

You completed your rounds with six correct identifications out of a total of 8 in just over a minute. What was going through your mind?

“Nothing, when I’m on my set, I think only about the three cups that I’m tasting. At that point, I think I wouldn’t even hear you screaming my name during the session. You know that feeling you get when driving through a long tunnel? I feel like that – for a moment I’m alone in the world.”

What’s the secret to your success?

“The secret is really where I see myself in the coffee industry. The coffee factory was my first formal job; I didn’t know anything about coffee, let alone pure coffee, but when I walked in the lab I saw that there was an opportunity to be something great in the industry. I started calling myself a coffee and roast master before I could even taste coffee without making a funny face. So, the secret really is me aspiring to be a coffee master, and competitions help me gauge how far I am from my goal. No other secrets besides my aspirations.”

You’ll be competing at the 2019 Berlin World Coffee Championships – how do you train for a competition like this?

“Coffee tasting is something that takes years of practice, and some learn this skill faster than others. To answer this question, I must say I’ve been training the same way I have with other competitions. I love tasting coffee and I do it every chance I get, hence I always say every time I order coffee it’s another tasting session for me. The frequency of tasting is really what changes, not necessarily the method. Yes, here and there I experiment with roast profiles and such, but really if something is your lifestyle you just continue living as you have been.”

Do you change what kinds of food you eat in the days leading up to an event to prepare?

“Generally, I don’t like food; I eat because I have to eat. I stay away from extremely hot and spicy food. On the day of the event I’ll probably eat two slices of brown bread or anything similar when I wake up, and the next meal I can only eat after tasting even if it’s hours after my breakfast.”

How did you develop your skills as a professional coffee cupper?

“Tasting is part of my day job; it’s the passion that helped me develop the skill. I started attending other tasting sessions outside of work, I started researching more about coffee, started to interact with people who really live for coffee, and that’s how the skill started developing.”

How do you distinguish between the huge range of coffee profiles and flavours? 

“Some coffees are very close; I haven’t tasted even 10% of coffees which are out there, but I always tell myself, get that one thing… It could be acidity, sweetness, body or even sometimes a flavour that I’ve never came across before. Tasting coffee takes years of conditioning your palate, hence sometimes you can even distinguish between coffees you’ve never tasted before.”

What do you specifically look for during a cup tasting?

“The slightest difference that makes a change in how I experience the coffee; sometimes they all taste similar but one cup might have low body compared to other cups.”

What does your day-to-day work with Ciro involve?

“I’m a Quality Assurance Technician – this basically means I’m in charge of checking the quality of coffee from raw beans to the final packed product. This also includes packaging of the coffee. Part of my job is also to monitor and verify quality systems that are put in the factory to assure that we are producing up to standard. Coffee tasting is one of the many tests that I do in the lab to assure product quality.”

How did you get started in the coffee industry? 

“After tertiary education, I was looking for in-service training. Fortunately, I landed a job in a coffee factory. The people who trained me were very passionate about coffee, very knowledgeable and were willing to share the skill. There was an old man in the factory who was then the factory manager; his name is Donato Bove – Donato was a coffee master, everyone called him if they suspected something to do with coffee taste, and it was amazing! ONE person who knew all that about coffee! I wanted to have the skill that he possessed.”

Good luck for the World Cup Tasters Championship in Berlin, Thabang – we wish you all the best!

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