Sunday, May 21, 2017

My Coffee Cupping Adventure

I love coffee. I love to smell it, look at it, and drink it. I love it hot or cold. I love it black, I love it fancied up with syrups and creamers, and I love it any day of the week. 

A few months back, I watched a documentary about coffee, and learned about coffee cuppings. These are occasions when roasters or others in the coffee industry sniff, slurp, and critically examine a variety of different coffees, to discuss the different unique characteristics of different roasts and beans. As I read books from the library on coffee, and learned more about coffee cuppings, my desire to participate in this ritual grew. So, I hopped on the internet to search for "free public coffee cupping" in my area. To my utter delight, I learned that a local coffee shop hosts free public cuppings periodically. And so it happened that I drove down to Coffee Slingers Roasters on Saturday afternoon. 


I followed the gentle stream of people, many of whom sported tattoos, skinny jeans, or man buns, and found myself standing in a little area by a large coffee roaster. Crammed in this small space with about twenty other men and women, I listened intently as the man who roasts the store's coffee beans described the steps we would take to analyze and appreciate the three types of coffee that were sitting before us. 

 

Fragrance


In this step, we smelled the dry, ground coffee and tried to determine the unique characteristics of each. For example, as I sniffed one coffee, I had a sensation of an earthy, nutty, rich scent. Another coffee's smell seemed lighter and floral. The third coffee seemed to be an in-between light and dark, and its fragrance seemed to hint at chocolate. 


Aroma


Now, hot water was added to each glass, and the coffee steeped for a few minutes. Then, we each "broke the crust" that was formed by the coffee grounds at the top of the glass. To do this, we each took a spoon and quickly broke it through the crust three times, then immediately put our noses down by the glass and deeply inhaled the aromas surrounding the back of the spoon. This step was a little intense and slightly stressful for me at first, because we each had ONE CHANCE to break the crust and analyze the aromas from each coffee. The aroma of the first coffee seemed full, sweet, and earthy. The aroma of the second coffee seemed slightly nutty, and wasn't as strong and bold as the first coffee. The aroma of the third coffee seemed slightly sour, bitter, and was lighter than the other two. 


Flavor and Aftertaste


This was the exciting part where we finally got to taste the coffee! We each took a small spoonful of coffee and slurped it quickly and loudly, intentionally making note of the subtle and bold characteristics of the flavor and the aftertaste. I thought the first coffee seemed a little lighter, with an earthy aftertaste. Coffee #2 was light and floral with a full aftertaste. Coffee #3 was light, with a seemingly slightly nutty aftertaste. 


Acidity and Body


We went through the coffees to slurp a second time, this time noting acidity and body. This part was really tricky for me, and it was hard to note the acidity. One of the women helping us through the cupping mentioned that with acidity, we could get as specific as "the acidity of this coffee is similar to apples" or "the acidity is a bit like oranges," but I could not get that specific or discerning. Coffee #1 seemed full-bodied, Coffee #2 seemed to have less body and a fair amount of acidity, and Coffee #3 had a weaker body. That's as specific as I could get ;) 


Sweetness


Fun fact: The man in charge informed us that coffee is sweetest at about 130 degrees! That's why we waited until the final slurp to pay attention to the level of sweetness. I thought that the first coffee wasn't very sweet, and that the second seemed fairly sweet, while the last coffee was mildly sweet. 


After we went through this process and wrote down some notes, the man in charge led us in a small discussion and Q&A session. 



He asked us about some of our experiences with the coffees, and I thought it was interesting to see the range in people's observations. For example, some other people thought that the final coffee was the sweetest, while I thought the second coffee was the sweetest. Coffee cupping is fairly subjective, because each person will make different connections and pick up on different subtleties. So, there is no "right or wrong answer." The professionals told us that there are terms on a wheel which professionals use to find some common ground. They can say, for example, "this coffee has a floral aroma" and know that they are all seeking to describe one characteristic of the coffee. 

My scattered notes on the coffee tasting process.

Additionally, he talked about the coffee farmers. He named the men who grew the coffee beans that we had used that day, and talked about their farming techniques and their personalities. He mentioned that within the past year or so, he went to Central America to meet with the coffee farmers, and to cup several different coffees. I loved hearing about the specific individuals who have worked to grow coffee. It was a great reminder that coffee doesn't just come from machines or factories or anonymous foreign farms; it comes from people. People who have been growing and cultivating it for generations, and work tremendously hard so that I can enjoy my midday cup of coffee. 

Coffee cupping is an art, and learning how to taste the subtleties in quality coffee takes time and practice. I know that I have much to learn, and I am excited that I got to be exposed to the world of coffee tasting. Critically tasting coffee has helped me to appreciate the goodness of coffee more, and it has really elevated my "coffee breaks." Hopefully, I'll be able to attend another coffee cupping someday, so that I can continue to learn how to analyze and evaluate coffee. In the meantime, I'll be sitting over here, casually sipping a steaming mug of Honduran coffee. 

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