Cupping Coffee with the Pros

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...

From Tasting, To Taste

While your trusty author is caught up in the net of another conference, here’s one from the archives… This first appeared on Bloggle February 7, 2002. In a recent article on tasting coffee I suggested a ritual that’s both more appealing and less compulsory than the traditional “cupping” form. It’s sparked a number of conversations on the sense of taste — ranging from what flavors we might discern, how we describe them, and, in particular, how we compare them to other flavors — flavors have nothing to do with coffee, or with what we’d generally consider edible things. You’re no doubt aware that taste and smell are inexorably twined — to taste fully you must be able to smell what you’re tasting. Want to test the idea? Pinch your nose while you’re eating your next meal… you’ll not only experience how tasteless the food becomes, you will also become very aware of the texture of the food. [Interesting how the mind works, isn’t it?] Not only is smell bound up in the tasting experience, it contributes to our taste memory. Let’s try another exercise… Take a deep breath. Release it. Now recall the smell of Scotch tape… it might be jumbled up with other smells of birthdays and Christmas and other gift-giving events. Maybe the memory of the smell is lurking near other school supplies…. Got it? Good. Now… how does it taste? Even if you’ve never had it in your mouth, your sense of smell is talking to your tongue and describing it quite well. Let’s try some more… Freshly sharpened pencils. Magic markers. Elmer’s glue. Fresh-mowed grass....

From Tasting, to Taste

From tasting, to taste…In a recent article on tasting coffee I suggested a ritual that’s both more appealing and less compulsory than the traditional “cupping” form. It’s sparked a number of conversations on the sense of taste — ranging from what flavors we might discern, how we describe them, and, in particular, how we compare them to other flavors — flavors have nothing to do with coffee, or with what we’d generally consider edible things. You’re no doubt aware that taste and smell are inexorably twined — to taste fully you must be able to smell what you’re tasting. Want to test the idea? Pinch your nose while you’re eating your next meal… you’ll not only experience how tasteless the food becomes, you will also become very aware of the texture of the food. [Interesting how the mind works, isn’t it?] Not only is smell bound up in the tasting experience, it contributes to our taste memory. Let’s try another exercise… Take a deep breath. Release it. Now recall the smell of Scotch tape… it might be jumbled up with other smells of birthdays and Christmas and other gift-giving events. Maybe the memory of the smell is lurking near other school supplies…. Got it? Good. Now… how does it taste? Even if you’ve never had it in your mouth, your sense of smell is talking to your tongue and describing it quite well. Let’s try some more… Freshly sharpened pencils. Magic markers. Elmer’s glue. Fresh-mowed grass. These are all things that you might have never tasted — never licked, chewed or swallowed — yet still you know their tastes...

A Visit to Riley’s Coffee

What you notice first is how quiet it is. At 400 plus pounds of iron and brass, chrome and enameled steel, it’s quieter in operation than any of the tiny air-roasters I own. I’m at Riley’s Coffee in Fairview Heights, Il, in the company of Barry Jarrett, the shop’s owner, roaster and torch-bearer of good beans. To the good folk of Fairview, Riley’s is a coffee shop in a busy corner of St. Clair Square — a convenient stop between Dillard’s and J.C. Penney’s department stores. To the single-minded folk of alt.coffee I am at Mecca — maybe not a singular center of compulsive pilgrimage — but certainly a focal point of devotion… Barry’s coffee is just that good. And here I am, my hands on the controls of Barry’s Diedrich IL-7 coffee roaster. It’s a one-off… an early production model, maybe even pre-production. Call Diedrich and they’ll tell you there’s no such thing. It’s a gas-fueled, infrared-powered seven kilo roaster with its control group mounted on the left-hand side. Thus, the “L”. Of course, left-hand or right-hand has little bearing on me… I’m in a coffee-roasting happy place. As Barry steps through the controls of the machine, two things become clear. The first is that this is a very clever piece of engineering: a single blower performs triple duty of drum convection, chaff collection and cooling. The drum itself is open-ended — at both ends — allowing not only a front-mounted sight-glass and tryer [a little piston-like scoop that’s used to snag beans from the drum for closer inspection] but also making it possible to mount an array...

On Tasting Coffee

Slurp. Swish. Spit. Not very attractive, is it? And certainly not the romantic stuff that much of the business of coffee is built on. Still, slurping, swishing and spitting — better known as cupping — is the foundation of professional coffee tasters the world over. Armed with silver spoons, twirling tables and the ever-present spittoon, cuppers have employed the technique for more than a hundred years. Just the same, there are iconoclasts even within the community of coffee professionals who feel that cupping is a bit of a throwback to earlier times, when it’s purpose was not so much to identify really great coffees, but to cull those that had defects, those that had been damaged in storage or shipment — even to ferret out those rascals who might try to pawn off inferior beans for the good stuff that was originally purchased. Cupping coffee is a ritual. Ken Davids, author of Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, suggests that there really is no like ritual for “the lay person”– those outside of the professional coffee world. I disagree. Consider the breakfast cup. For hundreds of millions of people around the world their day simply hasn’t begun ’til they’ve had their morning cup — whether alone, or in the company of croissant, beignet, bagels or bacon and eggs. There is perhaps no more contemplated cup in the world. Consider the ritual of the dessert cup. Whether your after-dinner treat is tiramisu, death by chocolate, or a few chocolate chips, there are few better companions than an equally rich cup of fresh-brewed coffee. There are more… coffee and...

A Second Cupping

A Second Cupping of the Tarrazu Triple Play yielded notes enough for a formalized review. Formalized, in this case, means I scribbled down tick-marks and cobbled together some charts. What I don’t do is try to suggest an overall rating–a la Wine Spectator–as I’m not at all certain that coffee can be rated in such a manner, and I’m absolutely certain that I’m not the guy to do such a rating. While I was at it, I finished the charts on this year’s St Helena, and have filed those cupping notes in the articles section as well. I have no idea how what little remains will last the rest of the year as I keep dreaming up occasions which warrant roasting some...
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