First unOfficial Attempt at Coffee Cupping

I know how cupping should be done; I know that I am supposed to use very small samples of single origin green coffee beans, roasted to order to a light Vienna or half-City roast. I should then grind these to French Press level - not too coarse, not too fine. Then I have to smell it. Then I add boiled water straight on top of the beans, and allow it to cool and for the grinds to settle. After that I break the 'crust' - that is, all the grinds still forming a skin on the surface of the liquid, with my trusty Cupping Spoon, smell it again, then slurp it off the spoon, and slosh it round my mouth. Unlike wine tasting, I have to swallow it, because I am also supposed to record the aftertaste as well. After washing mouth out with water, I am supposed to repeat this with many different types of coffee from many different origins. There are people who are paid to do this. These people, be it unwittingly in some cases, hold a great deal of power: if they don't like the flavours and aromas of the coffees they've cupped, it doesn't command a high price globally. Given the state of the gree coffee market at the moment, this can actually mean life or death, survival or starvation for the farmers.

Not wishing to demonstrate any signs of hubris, I am not going to 'cup' in this manner. Mainly because I can't - I have no access to green beans, single origin or otherwise. I have no roasting machine. I do not have a grinder of sufficient quality. Also, pouring hot water on to coffee grounds does not for a pleasant drink make, anyway. And finally, because I sincerely doubt anyone really cares what I think of coffee.

Instead, what I have got is independent-coffee-shop house blend, called Mokarabia. It's an 100% arabica blend, from Costa Rica and Mexico. Espresso roasted - that is, very dark, the grinds are almost black, and still shiny with oils. (which is unusual for 100% arabica). This roast has less of the sweetness and caffeine, and more of the smoky, heavy flavours, designed to make good, Italian style espresso. I am putting it in my little French Press pot - a cafetiere to anyone who isn't American. This means that the coffee is squashed through the hot water and reserved. I won't get the 'crust' to break through as I would with traditional cupping, but this method does at least produce a palatable cup of coffee!!

At first sniff, the ground coffee smells delicious. Not a strong, overpowering smell - though this is possibly because it is not freshly ground. It is sweet, like melting black chocolate, but the smell in the air is more vanilla and caramel. It is almost synthetic, far more like the blasphemous Frappe Lattes at Caffe Nero, where the tiniest amount of espresso is drowned in a pint of milk and blended with vanilla-sugar powder. To me, this would make a good after-dinner coffee, possibly with a shot of rum in it.

Pouring on the hot water releases a whole new array of smells; not very pleasant ones, either. Very acrid and slightly bitter, and smoky to the point of being burnt. Hot rubber: like burning tyres from a distance. You know it's there but it's not choking. Nothing like the scent of the grounds on their own, but also nothing like the scent you are supposed to perfume your home with to lure estate agents....

Pressing it and pouring it rids it of unpleasant burnt aromas, it is still smoky but with a savoury, nutty tone. On first taste, there are walnut notes, a slight metallic base. The flavour is acidic but not heavy. A big slurp (and I like doing this) results in a full, strong but bright flavour - 'clean' in that it doesn't cling round the mouth, and there are some hints of the fruity black chocolate that the original smell promised. The aftertaste is nicely bitter but floral - to me, it tastes like eating dandelion stalks. It does not linger too long.

Interestingly, in swigging this (8oz cup, black, unadulterated), I still get the little buzz of the stimulants. I know that this blend/roast would rid the coffee of most of its natural caffeine, so maybe it is psychological. The colour and the fragrance give the impression that this is strong coffee, and guzzling any hot liquid quickly and actually concentrating on the drink must focus and stimulate the brain a little!

Such is my first recorded tasting. I don't think I'll be indulging in this experiment again. As with any food critiquing, identifying flavours and fragrances has a tendency to sound highly pretentious. Also, I don't think it says anything useful about the coffee. Dandelions, metallic notes, burning tyres, bitter black chocolate, smoke, acidity... none of them sound particularly appealing! Overall, the coffee tastes good. It tastes like Good Coffee. I may not be a supertaster, with my tongue honed and trained to pick up every little subtlety, but then, that doesn't mean I can't appreciate coffee. I certainly drink enough of it. Personally, although finding these flavours is interesting, and testing my taste ability is a new experience, I can't see much use in being able to pronounce a coffee 'floral' or 'acidic' or even why I should want to!

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Comment by Bel Townsend on September 20, 2008 at 5:11am
Cheers hon... I am off to San Jose... Costa Rica soon,but I take it that's not the one you're referring to! Thanks for the kinda words though, and cupping classes would be fantastic at some point!
Comment by Monica Rae Hill on September 19, 2008 at 3:07pm
Totally awesome blog about cupping! I smiled, cringed, and laughed out loud. I totally relate to the first time... and I admire your honesty. I've been cupping pseudo-regularly for at least 5yrs. now and teaching classes on it, and I still feel insecure with what I'm tasting/smelling, especially in front of Roasters. But you just have to do it and say it out loud. It gets better though... especially if you have the opportunity to try some really unique coffees out there. If you come to San Jose, CA ever, shoot me a line, and we'll cup and cup and cup...
Comment by Bel Townsend on May 17, 2008 at 4:32am
Thanks for all the comments and encouragement! I will certainly try this again, perhaps with something other than a coffee-shop blend. I do honestly think I've killed off quite a few taste buds with too much chilli though... I'll keep you posted!
Comment by Alexa Baehr on May 15, 2008 at 11:26am
The coffee should also change flavor when it cools. You might be able to pick out more flavors. One thing that I like to tell people when we're cupping or tasting, is there is no wrong answer to what you are actually tasting. How you grew up and your personal likes and dislikes will also come to play when tasting. If it tastes like a cool spring day, or like an old tire swing, then... Well, it probably really does!
Comment by Jaima on May 15, 2008 at 10:58am
I agree, congrats on starting to cup coffees! I do hope you take the time to try it again. Trying single origins is going to amaze you on the differences each coffee displays. Like with any fine wine or food, understanding the small characteristics of your coffee helps you enjoy it, and be able to pair it with other foods, or coffees for something really wonderful. If you want to try single origin coffees, you're totally in the right place.... i'm sure there are alot of good roasters on the Bx who would be able to provide you with some new things to try.
Comment by Timmateo Dominck on May 15, 2008 at 10:24am
Cupping is done for many reasons, the methods you mentioned at the start of your post are geared towards green coffee evaluation. You can cup production roasts in order to insure product quality, also as you develop profiles you can cup the various incremental changes.

BTW- spitting is more than allowed when cupping coffee, indeed if you have 20 samples it will be a bad day if you drink every spoonful

I find it works well if you source about 5 different coffees and cup them side by side. The can be any roast level, try to get african, indonesian, central and south american origins. If not, blends are great too.. The contrast is key when you are developing your cupping skills. Things like acidity, sweetness and mouthfeel quickly become apparent when present in one cup and absent in another.
Comment by Jason Dominy on May 15, 2008 at 6:38am
I say congrats for making the first step. You will no doubt have learned alot, and will build on this experience. And the cool thing about cupping is, the more you do it, the more you train your pallate, the more you will get out of the coffees. I think it takes a good three of four for it to click for most people, but once you do, it opens up a whole new world. It's like scuba diving. You had no idea all that stuff was down there, or how beautiful it really is until you go down under the surface.!

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