Coffee Cupping: Not Just a Cup of Joe!
Part of the first class lifestyle is being able to recognize quality. I had the opportunity to hone my qualitarian skills this past weekend by attending a coffee “cupping” facilitated by an Atlanta area coffee roaster, Java Genesis. A cupping is similar to a wine tasting in that participants compare and contrast the aroma and flavor of different coffees. Professional coffee cuppers use similar methods to identify defective coffees or create blends.
The first step in our education was to learn a little about the coffee bean growing, harvesting and drying process. I learned fun facts like there are typically two beans growing in a pod, but when there is only one it is referred to as a “peaberry.” Also the fruit surrounding the coffee bean is now being used in an energy drink. We got to look at and smell the beans in their pre-roasted green state. They smell a bit like hay!
We were briefly familiarized with the 100 point coffee rating scale (similar to the Robert Parker scale for wines.) You also may have heard the terms “Arabica” and “Robusta” when referring to coffee. These are each species of coffee beans. Arabica beans, which are generally the superior bean, that are rated 82 or greater are “specialty grade” and those rated below 82 are “fine grade” or “commodity grade.” Specialty grade coffee accounts for only 5-10% of the worlds coffee production. The coffees roasted by Java Genesis are generally Arabica in the 85-90 range. Coffees over 90 are very expensive, and depending on your palate may or may not be worth the extra cost.
For our cupping, the table was set up with displays for four different coffees from different growing regions: Mexico, Bolivia, Tanzania, and Ethiopia. There was a plate displaying the roasted beans and glasses with ground beans in them. We each received a cupping form with the headings Fragrance, Aroma, Break, Brightness, Flavor, Body and Aftertaste. I could tell already that I had a lot to learn about judging coffee because I didn’t know what half of those things were supposed to refer to.
The first step is Fragrance. This is the scent that you get from smelling the grounds. Just like in wine tasting where you “volatize the esters” by swirling the wine, shifting around the ground beans helps release the fragrance. I took a long inhale of the grounds from Mexico and quickly picked out notes of chocolate and tobacco. My years of wine tasting pay off! The Ethiopian grounds actually smelled quite fruity. I learned that this is due to their manual, dry processing method versus the wet processing used by most other countries.
The second step is Aroma. Wait, isn’t fragrance the same as aroma? Not in coffee cupping! Our glasses of grounds were covered with near boiling water and allowed to steep for four minutes (just like using a French press). Then we smelled again – this time for aroma. It was surprising how the scent changed from the dry grounds. The fruity Ethiopian was still fruity, but this time I smelled caramel as well. The Mexican coffee was now earthier.
Step three is Break. Break is when you use a spoon to push the thick bloom back from the side of the glass and once again smell. (Tip: if your coffee is fresh you will have a thick head of bloom. If it’s stale, you will have a smaller or no bloom.) This time instead of a deep inhale, short, quick sniffs like a dog are in order. Once again the profile changed. The Mexican coffee gave me a cocoa smell and the Tanzania was more like leather. The Bolivian was nice and chocolatey.
After the bloom with most of the grounds is removed, it is finally time to taste! Steps 4-7 happen pretty much at the same time. We took a tasting spoon and got a small amount of coffee on it, then slurped. The noisier your slurp the better! Brightness is the crisp first impression, often described in terms of lemon or orange. Flavor is (obviously) the flavors you get much like in wine tasting (earthy, bitter, tobacco, cocoa). Body refers to the “weight” of the brew. It was described to us like skim milk (thin), 2% milk (medium) and whole milk (thick). Aftertaste refers to the lingering flavors once the coffee has been swallowed.
This was really a primer for coffee cupping novices, and I got a great education. I learned a lot about java, including how to store it. Here’s a tip: if your coffee comes vacuum sealed, you can put it in the fridge or freezer to put it “on hold.” But when you take it out get it out of the package and into an air tight container ASAP because it will get condensation on the inside and deteriorate the beans quickly once thawed.
I did get a nice refresher on some things I already knew. Namely:
- Most grocery store coffee is already stale.
- Buying locally roasted beans will give you the freshest product!
- Buying whole bean and grinding them yourself will give you both longer shelf life for your beans and a better tasting brew.
- Store your coffee in an air tight container for maximum longevity.
If you can find a local cupping your area I recommend it. It’s a great educational opportunity to expand your outer first class!