Cupping. A primer.

Cupping at Four Barrel
Cupping at Four Barrel

If you like coffee…I mean if you really love coffee, if you can’t wait to taste what a newly purchased bag of beans has in store for you behind those two bendy metal tabs, and if you spend any time at all savoring the taste experience of the brewed contents of said bag, then I highly recommend attending a cupping. It’s a wonderfully sensual affair (take that as you will).

Today, m’lady and I went to Four Barrel Coffee to participate in one of their daily weekday cuppings. It’s free and open to the public. Of course the folks at Four Barrel are not the only ones to offer free cuppings that are open to the public. On Friday, it’s off to Ritual and their 1 o’clock cupping to have more fun. If there are others, I would love to hear about it.

A what?

A cupping. Think of it as a tasting event for coffee lovers. In a cupping you get to taste coffee like the people who get paid good money to taste coffee, taste coffee: in a controlled, regimented process, under ideal brewing conditions, with many different coffees right next to one another and (this might be the most important) with other people. It was nice – and instructive – to taste coffee in a social environment, to experience the discovery of new flavors and aromas while not in the vacuum of my kitchen, alone in my own thoughts. It was great to share if, for nothing else, than to remind myself that I am not the only one that gets – at least some of – my kicks tasting specialty (god I really hate that term but what else to use?) coffees.

There is a bit of regimentation to the process. To the newcomer I think it can be a little off-putting, if not intimidating but sticking to the time-honored processes of the cupping ensures that each of the coffees gets its due. Following the process introduces you to the complete and distinct personality of each of the constituent coffees as you sample them both at every step of the brewing process – from ground to brewed – as well as side by side with other coffees.

Tasting different coffees side by side also prevents that recitation of that old response to tasting a coffee on its own: that “well, it tastes…like…coffee”. I’d wager there isn’t a single palette out there that can’t at least discern that, indeed, there are differences between different coffees when they are placed side by side with one another. Cuppings, for no other reason than that, deserve wider participation.

The point

For the customer, a cupping is an inexpensive opportunity to taste the wide variety of beans a roaster has on offer without going bag by bag all by yourself. It is also an opportunity to learn, to discover, to meet others who share your – dare I say it – passion and to ask questions.

For the roaster, a cupping represents an opportunity to bring the customer a little further into the process of how they go about selecting what ends up on their shelves. If done well, it adds a layer of approachability that many cafés lack and broadens the customers’ knowledge of what the roaster has on offer. It is a classic win-win situation.

The process

So, you’re interested. Excellent. If you have never been to a cupping, allow me to introduce you to the experience with a rather rudimentary outline of what you can expect. Upon arrival at the location, you will most likely be presented with a long or round table, strewn with a myriad of cups. Some of these are going to be for the coffees themselves, some of them will be used to hold the tasting spoons and others will be used for…well, we’ll just call it “the leftovers” for now.

You might also notice that sitting in and amongst the various cups are a collection of – usually blue – trays filled with whole coffee beans. These, most likely are going to be the beans you will be tasting. It is part of the entire comparative, holistic top-to-bottom process to be able to take a look at the whole bean as there are differences in size, shape, texture and roast. Each of these qualities can tell you one or two things about that coffee. Take a look at them. Compare what you see in one tray with what you see in the other trays. Ask questions.

The next step in the process is going to commence after the “master of ceremonies” grinds all of the beans and places them each in their own cup. Once he or she is finished grinding, take a sniff. Go ahead, get your nose in there. Pick the cup of grinds up and give it a shake. Give it another whiff. Notice the differences both before and after the shake. Do this with each example. Enjoy the aromas. Ask questions.

After everyone has gotten their nose dirty, water is added. Each of the cups of ground coffee, in quick succession, will be filled with water and timers will be set to either three or four minutes. At the sound of the beep it’s time to “break the crust”. After water is added to each of the cups, a “bloom” (basically a process of out-gassing of the beans) will form at the top. Think crème brûlée? Do you remember the feeling you had when you first broke through that crispy sugary top? Here, someone will take a spoon, get their nose close to the surface of the liquid in the cup and pull away the bloom just enough to get an intense hit of aroma. “Breaking the crust” can only happen once. The intensity of aroma cannot be duplicated by dipping your spoon in after the first “break” so if you have an opportunity, by all means, seize the moment and break. Having said that, even though there is no possible duplication of the initial break, go ahead and do your best anyway. Aroma. That’s what you are looking for now. One trick I have learned is to use the back of the spoon to catch the aroma. Dip your spoon in, pull it out, flip it over and bring your nose right down near the spoon. As the hot coffee evaporates off of the back of the spoon, the aroma is intensified. One thing not to do, at this point, is to scrape the bottom of the cup with your spoon. Doing that will stir up the grounds at the bottom of the cup. It’s going to change the flavor of the cup as stirring up the grounds will induce a further steeping. It may add some bitterness. Don’t do it. Keep you spoon at the top. Oh yeah, ask questions.

After every bloom is broken, the remaining grinds at the top of each cup will be removed by the master of ceremonies. It’s time to taste. Or, to be precise, it’s time to slurp. Yeah, slurp. This can be the most socially delicate moment of the entire process and is, traditionally, where some people have a moment of pause. “Slurp?! In public?! Not me.” But you’ve come this far. Don’t stop now. To do the coffee in front of you any justice at all, you are going to need to break down those inhibitions and do it: “sluuuuuuuuuurp”. Take a small spoonful of coffee into your spoon, set it juuuuust at your lips and go to town. Make some noise. Trust me: those looks you think you are going to get because your making an uncivilized racket are, in fact, only going to be shot your way if you don’t. Think of it as small, discrete vacation from what your Mother taught you about proper table manners. It’s an essential part of the process. Now, you are going to go down the line, just as you did when you were dipping your nose into the cups of grinds. Slurp all the way. Don’t feel as if you need to finish the entire spoon. That is what one of those cups are for. Pick one up.

In my opinion, this first run through should be done rather quickly. Don’t focus too much on each individual coffee’s flavor. Instead, focus on getting a sense of the differences between each coffee and that the differences exist in the first place. This is where the whole process gets more relaxed and free-form. Feel free, once you have made the first go-around, to go around again or to return to a favorite or one you simply found interesting. Don’t forget to slurp. Once again, ask questions and feel free to talk to the other participants about what you are tasting. Listen, as well. That’s just as important.

That’s it. Your first cupping. A wild success.

Where to go for your cupping fix

As far as I know public cuppings are a relatively rare event among roasters. Besides my initial public cupping at Stumptown’s Annex location in Portland, Four Barrel and Ritual are the only roasters I know of that are doing it (although, to be fair, it is nearly impossible to find any reference to these events anywhere but via small signs in the front windows of each establishment). It’s a shame, really, for all of the reasons I listed above. Know of another? Correct me in the comments.

Go forth and cup.


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