Let’s get one thing perfectly clear… I am not a coffee pro. I’m an enthusiast, certainly. An aficionado, even. But a coffee professional? Nope. Not me.
I am not a globe-trotting buyer of green coffee. I’ve made exactly one trip to origin, to visit several coffee producing farms in Guatemala. (As it happened, I actually visited two coffee-producing countries on that trip, but landing in El Salvador was entirely unplanned… And, for the record, not my fault.) I have never placed a contract for greens, and I have never known the heartache of having to tell a coffee grower, “Sorry, this coffee is good, but not good enough.” I don’t know that I could.
I have the great good fortune to work with people who are coffee pros… Some of the very best in the specialty coffee trade. I also have the remarkably good luck to be able to spend some time with these folks on the roasting floor, and in the cupping room, and I soak up as much information as I can ’cause these folks have likely forgotten more about coffee than I have yet learned.
This all goes to explain why, when I was invited last week to cup a number of coffees with the coffee team I was of two minds. The first of these — my eager to learn and enthusiastic for all things coffee self — leapt to the occasion and said, “Great!” and, “Sure! and, “Love to!” The second — my more introspective and aware of my limitations self — quietly murmured epithets at that eager so-and-so who seemed to be in control of my vocal cords.
This second self had already taken in the scene: the large, round cupping tables are laid out and ready. There are seven lots of coffee arrayed on the circumference of the tables. For each lot there are 10 open bowls of ground coffee. My eager self was just getting around to the math: 7 lots, ten samples each… 70 cups of coffee.
I am by now very familiar with the formal cupping protocol. The madly skilled Barry Jarrett schooled me on the essentials of cupping early in my obsession with the bean [I wouldn't blame you if you clicked away right now to buy a pound or three of his coffee... just bookmark this page first] and I’ve whiled away many happy hours at my kitchen counter exploring the many and delightfully varied attributes of coffee from diverse origins. I’ve lined up as many as five or six coffees, singly, or in pairs or triangles, making for a total of maybe eighteen cups. But seventy cups?
The mechanics of cupping are another matter of concern. That single, sharp, explosive aspiration of coffee from the storied silver cupping spoon… well, quite frequently I aspirate the coffee all the way into my windpipe. Still. After years of practice and how-to tips from expert cuppers. It’s one thing to splutter and cough over inexpert aspiration in your own kitchen [to giggles from herself and amused chuffs from the neurotic golden retriever.] It’s another to demonstrate your lamentable technique in the cupping room. Seventy cups is opportunity enough to make me the first man known to drown in coffee… While standing.
At the root of it all, though — what my introspective self is really muttering about — is this: what if I get it wrong? What if my sensory evaluation deviates substantially from these folks who cup coffee every day? What if, in the course of cupping seventy cups of coffee I simply wear out my ability to discern anything? I grab a silver spoon and tell Mr. Introspective to shut the hell up.
Each bowl holds a measured sample of coffee, each sample ground individually, so that a defective bean might contaminate only a single bowl. Each set of samples, or flight, is labeled with only a sample number, and its origin: Colombia, Mexico, Honduras (there’ve been some quite good coffees from Honduras of late… it’s about time!) Score-sheets are likewise labeled with sample numbers and origins, only. The origin disclosure here can be quite important, as it’s all well and good for a coffee from Sumatra to be loamy and earthy; the same flavors from a Central would be quite another matter.
I’m not told what we’re cupping for — quality control of production roasts, perhaps, or evaluating pre-ship or post-ship samples from contracts — that could bias the results. Just the same, it’s clear from the very light level of roast, these are not production samples; this is all about the greens. And so it begins…
First, evaluating fragrance. Here’s where that spinning cupping table comes into play… Take a deep — deep! — whiff of the dry grounds in the bowl. Got that first sample in your head? Now, slowly spin the table and take in the fragrance of the other samples in the flight. You’re looking for anything different than what was in that first bowl. If you find something, it may be a defect, and certainly it’s a notable inconsistency from sample to sample… Not a good sign (unless it’s from an origin where inconsistencies are part of the game: Sumatra and Yemen come to mind.)
Next, aroma. The cups are filled to the very brim with water just off the boil, and the coffee grounds float to the top, capping each bowl. This is an opportunity to again spin that table and sniff for inconsistencies. A better opportunity presents itself in a few minutes, as you break the crust… using your spoon to push aside that cap of coffee to get the strongest sense of the coffee’s aroma. What’s in that aroma? Spice? Sweetness? Fruit? Flowers? Give the bowl a quick swish to settle the grounds, rinse your spoon in hot water and move on to the next bowl…
As the coffee cools, this is a good opportunity to reflect a bit on the cups, make a few notes, spoon off any remaining grounds, and — in my case — to mentally prepare to make a fool of myself.
Sudden loss of tire pressure. That’s the warning they have on those gates in the airport parking lot… Go the wrong way, run over the hollow spikes with your tires and SPFFT! If you can imagine the sound your tires would make as they suddenly, explosively expel all of their air through a slender tube, then you have a pretty good grasp of the sounds of cupping. ‘Cept this isn’t sudden exhalation… it’s inhaling. The idea is to spray tiny droplets of coffee all over the tongue and soft palate and into the nasal passages all at once, so that all of the tools of taste and smell are brought to bear at a single moment.
This is retribution for all the times my mother told me not to slurp my soup… Spoon some coffee from the bowl, and SPFFT! (Splutter, cough.) Now, what flavors are there? Is it a zippy, acidy cup? How’s the coffee’s body — the sensation between the tongue and the roof of the mouth — weighty? Oily? How’s its finish? Is there a lingering taste? Is it good? Make notes. Rinse spoon. Next bowl… there’s 69 to go. 68… 67…
In the end, I survived. I didn’t make a complete fool of myself, either by spluttering, or by scoring something curiously. Mind you, my tastes are not calibrated to the professionals on the coffee team… These folks are so finely attuned that over the course of a month their cumulative scores for all of the coffees they’ve tasted will deviate by only one or two points. However, while my scoring varied from the pros, the variance was itself consistent. On the whole, you could add five or six points to each of my ratings, and you’d arrive at the numbers the rest of the tasters scored. What they panned, I panned more harshly. What I liked, they liked still more.
Nope… I’m still not a coffee pro. But there’s hope for me yet.