Usually a cup of coffee is gulped down before heading to work or slurped while you’re sitting at your computer screen. However, if you are sourcing coffee for your shop or you are a coffee roaster, when you sample roughly ground and very, very freshly brewed, unfiltered coffee in a process called cupping, you savor every second: Pondering not just the nuances to the flavor of a particular bean, but also any flaws it may have.
Cupping is “the most technical way to taste a variety of coffee and determine their quality,” explains Mia Schachter, a barista at Think Coffee, a cafe that serves fair trade, organic, and shade-grown beans. It’s “a way to figure out the imperfections of coffee,” agrees Noah Welch, a member of Think’s Farmer Relations Team who travels overseas to every farm and cooperative whose beans are sold at Think to ensure that their beans benefits their farmers and economies of coffee growing regions. Cuppings are a process for us to decide which coffees to buy says Welch, “you’ll cup and find the flavors that you don’t like and realize that you don’t want that coffee. ”
Every Friday, Think usually conducts free taste tests where they invite customers to learn more about the intricacies of coffee at it’s 248 Mercer Street storefront. The session starts at 2 p.m. and runs an hour to 90 minutes long. But every once in while, they hold a formal cupping, like the one I ventured into two Fridays ago.
Held downstairs in a room with long tables and chairs, Schachter and Welch had lined up four cups on the table. A glass of water, a spit cup and a spoon were placed before each of us tasters. The same coffee is made four separate times and poured into a cup. Our job (there were five of us) was to taste each cup, and determine the “uniformity, consistency, and flavor, among and other things that you’ll be looking for in a coffee, ” instructed Schachter, explaining the rating process of cupping according to the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
“The idea is to make individual cups of the same coffee, the same exact way, ” says Schachter. Then when each cup is sampled, the end result is “a very conscious way to determine if all the coffee is good, or faulty.” This decreases the chances of her buying beans based on one cup that happened to have “great beans,” while the other beans from the batch differed in standard.
As she explained, beans were ground, water was heated, measured out and poured into each coffee cup to sit and allow “what’s called blooming” says Schachter. That’s where a crust of coffee grinds harden and collect at the top of the cup because of all the gases that are released from the beans. The next step, Welch demonstrated, was to crack that crust and scoop off the grinds off with a metal spoon. “Cupping is the grittiest way to drink coffee,” says Schachter, because the grinds are left in the cup to soak instead of getting truly filtered out.
We cupped with the rigor of a science experiment. First, we sniffed each cup, and jotted down our initial observations of aroma, which are responsible for the major flavor attributes of each particular coffee, and can range from the fruity cereal aromas of the first cup to the sweet yet savory cookies-like scent of the second cup. (Those all described by Schachter, who possesses a keen nose.)
Next we took a spoonful of coffee, and as instructed by the baristas, “let it go all around our mouths” so that we could taste it on all parts of our tongues and upper palates. “Make a really loud obnoxious slurping noise,” Welch added, doing so with élan.
“You are trying to find defects,” explains Matt Fury, Think’s Farmer Relations manager. When his team procures beans for Think, their aim is to choose beans with the fewest, whether they be “visual, smell, taste, or body.”
After we had cupped three coffees, the origins of the beans were revealed to be Ethiopian Guji-Ardi coffee, roasted by PT’s Coffee Roasting Co., Nicaraguan coffee from Finca Regalo de Díos in Ocotal, roasted by Plowshares Coffee, and then a Colombian coffee roasted by Red House Roaster. We tasted them a second time, brewed in a Clever Coffee Dripper, a combination of a French press and filter drip brewing system. This time, Welch says, the aim is to “try to get as much of the delicious flavor as possible.”
Cupping brings out undesirable flavors, too, says Welch. The consensus was that a Colombian coffee, when cupped, tasted like cough syrup, but “usually tastes like a creamy salty orb of butter” when brewed. The Ethiopian Guji smelt like blueberry skin, but tasted pleasantly to the class “like blueberry waffles with cherry maple syrup” when brewed. He adds that “with people who cup more frequently, you can taste these maladies, and the really awesome flavors shine through.”
Find out upcoming taste tests conducted every Friday here.