Slurping to success on the world stage

Article written and published by The Magic Roast and shared by us with their permission.

Han Jong Lee knows his way around a spoon

Chicago is known the world over for being the ‘Windy City’. But back in April, it wasn’t the wind battering the eardrums, it was the sound of the world’s best coffee tasters slurp slurp slurping.


34 of the greatest mouths descended on Chi-town for the World Cup Tasters Championship. And New Zealand’s very own Han Jong Leefrom Meebz Coffee Roasters in Auckland, tasted his way to third place!

Holy heckers – such as massive result.

Han Jong Lee, third from left, repping all black, Huffer and New Zealand on the big stage. Stoked.


What even is the a tasters championship?

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

It’s an incredibly hard skill, honed through years of tasting, learning and experimenting.

Three coffees are placed in front of the competitor. Two are the same, and one is different. The key to winning is not only to pick the odd one out.

Each round has eight ‘triangles’ to work through, meaning the ‘cupper’ will taste 24 coffees, trying to figure out which one is different, using smell, taste, mouth feel and texture.

You not only have to get the most right, you have to do it fast. Time is what separates the winners if they all choose the right coffees.

It’s a mad skill. I once ate an entire lemon thinking it was an orange. I can’t tell the difference in anything, let alone under pressure.

Han could though.

So many coffees, so much concentration.

You might think that you could bluff your way through a blind taste test, but Han didn’t. He was consistently in the top 5 of the standings, showing just how good he was during this competition.

On top of that, Han was perfect in all four rounds – successfully picking the 32 odd ones out of all 96 coffee he had to taste. Not even the eventual winner was able to do that. Insane.

Making his achievement even more incredible, is that fact that Han was a last minute stand in for New Zealand. Han came second in the New Zealand Cup Tasters competition, with Pat Russell taking the gold medal by ten seconds. Unfortunately for Pat, he wasn’t able to make it to the big dance, and only a month before the competition, Han was called up to the big leagues.

Han was gracious enough to share some of his time, energy and knowledge with The Magic Roast, for all of you to enjoy.

Meet Han Jong Lee

TMR: Congrats on the amazing result at the World Cup Tasters! Did you feel more pressure to do well as the stand in New Zealand representative for Pat?

Han: Representing the country for Pat is such an honour, but it also comes with much more pressure to do great.

TMR: And you rose to that pressure! So amazing. What does this result mean for you?

It means a lot to me and my family, not just the outcome, but the whole challenging journey that we’ve gone through together. My three kids are very proud of my achievement on the world stage.

This milestone in my coffee career has broadened my perspective and threw me some questions about the future. I really look forward to seeing how this platform will guide me in the times ahead.

The big reveal – that’s a perfect score.

TMR: Your kids should be very proud indeed! How have you developed your tasting skills and pallet across the years? How does tasting a coffee at home differ to tasting one under time pressure?

I believe the sensory skill is one the most crucial tools for a coffee roaster. Since day one I’ve never skipped cupping of the roasts that I’ve done, keeping the attitude of not leaving the cupping table until I’ve found what I’m looking for. It is like wrestling with flavours.

For me, what sets the competition apart from cupping at home is the pressure to perform in front of people on the stage, engaging the mental muscles. Maintaining sharp focus when everyone’s eyes on you is not easy. I remember the first time I cupped in public, I couldn’t help but shake the spoon.

TMR: What can home baristas do to develop their tasting skills?

It is always helpful to compare more than two different cups, trying to describe the difference in taste. You don’t have to use different coffees all the time. By adjusting the grind size and the recipe, you can still create variations in flavors and texture in the cups.

TMR: What’s next for you? Is the gold in your sights?

I really enjoyed being on the stage competing and also talking with other competitors off the stage. Although it was nerve wracking and challenging, I just loved the whole championship vibe. If my wife would allow me to make a mess in the kitchen again, I would go for the gold!

TMR: Hopefully she does! What do you do to relax yourself?

I try to make some deep breaths and remind myself that I am prepared and deserve to enjoy this moment.

TMR: Enjoy this moment, it’s such a great achievement! What’s your go to coffee to make at home?

I enjoy V60 pour over using a light roast at home which is simple and consistent.

TMR: My V60 gets a smashing at home. Finally, outside of competition, what has been your most memorable coffee experience?

After the championship, I visited the Intelligentsia roasting works and was offered two different single-origin coffees from Colombia and Peru. They were classic, sweet coffees, nothing too fancy. As I sipped them while touring their roastery, I encountered the rich history and the tradition of specialty coffee. It was amazing how their legacy made the cup I was holding even more delicious and special. It was truly the most impressive coffee experience of my Chicago trip.

What an absolute legend

Han is an absolute legend of the New Zealand coffee scene, and its so awesome to see him take on the world and slurp his way to the top. He has a world class mouth (I don’t love that I said that, but I stand by it.).

New Zealand flying high

It was less than a month after Han’s success that Honoka Kawashima took on the world and did so well at the World Barista Champs.

And maybe Tsubasa Nico Nozaki will be taking notes as he preps for the World Latte Art Championship next month in Denmark.

It’s clear that our coffee scene is in great hands. With legends like Han, Honoka and Nico leading the way, we’re sure to continue reaping the rewards here.

Watch the final

You have to watch the final to get an appreciation of cuppers in action. Watch how fast they taste and make a decision. It’s a fun watch!

Many thanks to Magic Roast

A Wellingtonian living in the sunny Bay of Plenty, getting deep on coffee to help lovers of the magic bean navigate this wonderful, and sometimes consuming, world.