Hosting Competitions During COVID-19 in Korea

In mid-August, South Korea held its first in-person coffee competition since the pandemic.


Photos courtesy of SCA Korea

For much of the world, countless coffee championships and competitions around the world have been postponed and canceled in 2020. Amid most of these events moving to a digital space, South Korea recently hosted an in-person Korea Cup Tasters Championship (KCTC) organized by the Korean Chapter of Specialty Coffee Association (SCA).

While the concerns about potential health risks from holding in-person events continue to exist, the recent competition in South Korea provides us with some insights into how we can plan for future events as we navigate the uncertain times.

A competitor evaluates a coffee at the Korea Cup Tasters Championship.

On August 11-15, SCA Korea hosted one of its six competitions for the year, the KCTC. Over the course of five days, 300 competitors participated for a chance to win the National Champion title for the Cup Tasters in person. Prior to the event in August, SCA Korea had already postponed the competition twice due to safety concerns over COVID-19. After conducting a survey with the 300 competitors, and having closely observed the governmental recommendations, the competition finally took place in mid-August. However, since then, all other events that were planned for the year have been postponed until further notice, complying with the governmental recommendations corresponding to the recent increase in cases of COVID-19 in the country. At the time of writing (August 30), Korea has had approximately 300 new cases daily, and a total of 19,699 cases.

The three crowned competitions at the Korea Cup Tasters Championship, from left to right: Sang-min Joo (second place), Heon-Gwan Moon (first) and Harin Yeom (third).

Cera Jung, the SCA Korea branch manager, says that at the time when the decision was being made to hold the KCTC in person, there were fewer than 50 new cases of COVID-19 a day nationally in Korea, and that the cases were on the decline for weeks. Across many industries, events resumed, and they were being planned having adjusted to the new socially distanced, post-COVID-19 era at that time. And the team at SCA Korea took a cue from it.

Inside the brewing prep room at the KCTC.

She adds that because SCA Korea was also confident that they had preventive measures quite well-established internally, if they were to strictly follow and implement these measures, they would be able to host the event safely. In fact, the event ended in success, with no single case of COVID-19 directly associated with the event to date, and with Heon-Gwan Moon from Month Coffee as the crowned champion.

During the competition, SCA Korea’s competition committee strictly reinforced mask wearing and maintaining a safe distance between everyone. At the entrance, everyone’s body temperature was measured, and they were obligated to sign in on the electronic registry in line with the country’s testing and tracing policy. Moreover, unlike pre-COVID-19 competitions, no audience was allowed into the competition hall. Both in the competition hall and the prep room, the ventilation system and acrylic divider were installed. Additionally, in contrast to the previous competitions where there was active staff involvement, at the post-COVID-19 KCTC, the competitors themselves were responsible for disposing of their own cupping cups, spoons, and spent coffee after their turns to prevent any possibilities for cross-contamination.

A ventilation system was installed in the competition hall as a safety precaution.

The competition committee also went the extra mile to plan and instruct everyone’s movement within the competition hall. The goal was to hold the competition with minimal interactions between the 300 participants, and it meant that they were to keep fewer than 20 staffers—which was at 50% capacity of the previous competitions —and to practically plan out concert-like interactions between everyone involved.

Cera says that keeping everyone on track with the concert-like interactions was one of the hardest parts and required a lot of energy from everyone on the staff. She, however, says that this meticulous planning is essential as competitions, except for the Latte Art Championship, involve tasting, and that can expose everyone to the potential risks of COVID-19.

“I think we need to devise ways to hold competitions while preserving the core purpose and distinct characteristics of each competition, and minimizing the risks of COVID-19 as soon as possible,” says Cera. “It is something that all of us at SCA Chapter of Korea are hard at thinking about, and I’m sure everyone in other competition bodies and WCC is also. I hope to share our learning and collaborate with others as we reimagine what the future of competition can be like.”

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Sunghee Tark is the co-founder of Bean Voyage, a feminist organization that collaborates with smallholder womxn coffee producers to build an equitable coffee value chain. She is also a freelance coffee writer, Specialty Coffee Association LEAD Scholar, and Re:co Fellow.

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