A tale of three cuppings

Two cuppings in one week. Somebody stop me. First, if you’re scratching your head at the word “cupping”, may I recommend a primer on the process? As I mentioned in “Cupping. A primer”, being able to attend one of these has been a long time coming. The first time? Stumptown in Portland a long time ago. Recently? Four Barrel. This time? Ritual’s weekly friday cupping. And as it turns out, three very different experiences.

Stumptown’s “Annex”: high society

The cupping at Four Barrel was a nice re-introduction to the process. The last time m’lady and myself took part in a public cupping was a couple of years ago in Portland at Stumptown’s “annex” location. We had both participated in a cuppings on a more professional level many times before but the one in Portland was the first time we had taken part of a public version of the process. It was nice but neither of us could escape the feeling of it having been a bit of a haughty affair. In my imagination it was going to be a bit more casual, educational and both of us were hoping for a more shared, communal experience. Not to be too hippy-dippy. We didn’t regret participating and were certainly interested in trying it again but as it happened nobody that we were aware of offered such an opportunity where we lived and soooooo…

Four Barrel: casual sophisitication

I was anxious and excited for the cupping at Four Barrel but circumspect, given the nature of the Stumptown experience. I found myself on the lookout for even the slightest bit of pretense right off the bat. I felt as if I found a slight bit of it at the img_0253counter when we inquired about the cupping schedule which put my guard up a little further. We were a little early so we left for a bit. Upon return, though, what I found was a relaxed and calm environment. There were few people: my girlfriend, two Four Barrel staffers (with one to come in later for a short time) and myself as well as an interested bystander that hovered around the edges for much of the time. I was a little surprised that the master of ceremonies (M.C.) did not invite him in. If you have ever been to Four Barrel, you know that the front of house has an amazing amount of space. Four Barrel has had, from the beginning, a dedicated table set up for this very purpose. Set well off from the ordering counter and most of the seating but at the front of the store, where there was plenty of light, the table felt nicely set apart but still concnected of the activity of the café. There was a casual, easy vibe about the entire process and the M.C. was very generous. “Please let me know if you have any questions”, she said. It was like the sort of low pressure sales environment that every car buyer hopes to encounter but never does. A nice mix of private contemplation and social interaction. Help, though, was never very far off.

Ritual Roasters: Q&A with the roaster

We had been aware of the cuppings at Ritual for a short time. Every friday. A goal, for sure but difficult, given our schedules, to effectively say when it might be possible for us to make it. Schedules. Always schedules. But with the end of school and with our schedules freed up, it was finally time.

img_0256The environment at Ritual Roasters is wholly different from that of Four Barrel. Where Four Barrel’s interior is an up-to-the-minute modern exposed wood industrial-chic design, Ritual’s pioneering Valencia Street location has some of the the lived-in feel of an established – but still hip – neighborhood café. Not that Four Barrel is stark and soulless but Ritual just feels a little more comfortably ad-hoc. It’s cozy. You’re not sitting in the midst of a design concept. You’re in a working café and roastery. It makes sense. In chronological terms, when Ritual began serving coffee out of their Valencia street location to the Mission kids and laptop gazing dot-com bubble gentrifiers, Blue Bottle as yet hadn’t developed their current image as the sophisticated arm of the San Francisco Bay Area “third wave” movement – no Mint Plaza, no Ferry Building indoor slot and certainly no art garden outpost at SFMOMA – and Four Barrel wasn’t even a glint in the eyes of its founders. And so while the cupping at Four Barrel had a quiet composed, somewhat contemplative feel about it, Ritual’s was a class in session full of inquisitive and engaged students with a wide variety of experiences but a common interest.

There were probably twelve participants on hand. It was looser and louder. The large banquet style table on which the cuppings are held is normally customer seating and has to be cleared of a fair number of leisurely sipping Ritual coffee drinkers before everything can be set up. The table is off to one side of the front section of the establishment much like Four Barrel’s but the situation is a bit more intimate. It’s very close to the front door. People are coming and going past the table. The music is on. You feel much more that you are still an active part of the goings on of the café, less separated from the action than at Four Barrel.

img_0257M.C. for the cupping was Steve Ford, the head roaster at Ritual. After introducing all of the coffees at the table, Mr. Ford led us through the entire cupping process, explaining the hows and whys of each step as he went along: why you smell the grinds (for the “fragrance”), the proper technique for breaking the crust of grinds that forms on top of each of the brewing cups of coffee (for the intense hit of aroma that you get from the practice) as well as the method and explanation for why you slurp (to spray the liquid over your entire palette).

One of the nice things about having the person who roasted the coffees right there with you during the cupping is that all the coffees lined up in front of you are that person’s babies (if you will). He knows all of them intimately (at least in terms of their flavor qualities as there was one “mystery coffee” that, while it’s origin was known – if only at first by the M.C. himself – not much else was). Investments of time and energy were made in getting to know the exact way to treat each coffee, at the roasting stage, to get them to the point where you would want to share them with the public, the point where you hope someone would want to put down their hard earned cash for a bag. He’s got a relationship with these coffees. If there is someone to which you would want to pose a question about anything at the table that day, this was that person. And there were a lot of questions. A lot of very good questions – questions about processing and handling, the origin’s influence on flavor, why some coffees are rated higher than others and how the ratings are formulated. And there were many more. Mr. Ford answered each one with an enthusiasm and humility that made everyone comfortable no matter what their experience level.

Coffee v3.0: exclusivity and openness

If you are curious about one of the elements that makes this “third wave” of coffee roasters so special – one of the things that separates it from specialty coffee’s seminal days at places like Peet’s – look no further than the public cupping. It’s interesting to note, that while I have had an interest in coffee for a long time now, it is only in recent years that I have had the opportunity to participate in anything resembling the involving process of a cupping outside of the professional realm. Also, it’s ironic that while the modern coffee scene can be marked, somewhat, by exclusive attitudes and a detached hipster vibe, it is also marked by an openness and an interest in sharing knowledge about the process behind the product. The public cupping is one of the best examples of that openness and if you are at all interested in coffee and its many and diverse flavors, there is no better place to start – or continue for that matter – your own personal odyssey into that world than a public cupping.

Info

  • The Stumptown Annex – 3356 SE Belmont Street, Portland, OR – holds public cuppings weekdays at 11:00 AM and 3:00 PM. (503) 232-8889 (map).
  • Four Barrel holds cuppings every weekday at 1:00 PM at 375 Valencia St in San Francisco, CA(map) (415) 252-0800.
  • Ritual Roasters holds cuppings every friday at 1:00 PM at their Valencia St. location: 1026 Valencia St in San Francisco, CA (map) (415) 641-1024.

Always contact the store for latest hours and times.

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