Category Archives: An article on coffee

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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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.

Award Winners

You can’t always judge a “book” by it’s “cover” but you should always trust your roaster

Sometimes, you have to wonder about awards. I used to look forward to the Oscars. They were an event in my home and we would plan our evening around the show. It was like a sporting event. We would wait with anticipation to find out who won the major awards of the night; cheering on the films, actors and directors we loved; booing those we didn’t. The Oscars defined the world of film for us and we relied on the bestowing of the gold statuette to guide us to the best films on offer for any given year.

Later in my life I was lucky enough to move to a town that had a small but thriving independent movie house. I was lucky, as well, to befriend people with an abiding interest in the remote corners of film. They opened up my eyes to a world beyond the multiplex and convinced me to give the myriad small films on offer — those that lacked the budget to mount multi-city ad campaigns to build the traditional blockbuster’s impenetrable wall of hype — their rialto_marqueedue. As time went on, my notion of the world of film expanded beyond the narrow constraints of the Oscar contenders and led, eventually, to the realization that an ultimately restricted show like the Oscars — or, for that matter, any awards show — could not possibly contain or represent the incredible variety of quality films on offer every year. The Oscars’ limited definition of what constitutes an award-winning film began to reveal itself for what it was; a specific expression of subjective taste. The films — all immaculately produced and directed, to be sure — were of a certain quality. They were “oscar worthy” films but certainly not, necessarily, objectively, the best films.

I’ve come to view the bestowing of almost any award through the same lens of circumspection with which I grew to view the Oscars. There is no award system that can hope to represent the sheer variety of quality present in any one sphere. The two coffees in question here — Ritual’s CoE Matalapa, La Libertad, El Salvador and their Finca Moreno, Santa Barbara, Honduras — perfectly illustrate this point. One is a recipient of a prestigious award: the renowned Cup of Excellence. The other is a recommendation from a friend with a passion for, and an intimate knowledge of, both, coffee in general and a specific knowledge and expertise on the coffee on offer at Ritual Roasters. One has the endorsement of an internationally recognized award system. The other is a recommendation by a friend.

Lest one read into my analogy things I don’t intend: the Cup of Excellence (CoE) program is a rigorous annual competition designed to ferret out the best coffee any individual participating country has to offer. It’s a prestigious competition and the winners are rewarded with higher asking prices for their agricultural toil and increased awareness of their product in the marketplace. The genius of the program is that any one producer in any one country can enter his or her beans in the competition: from the largest, wealthiest land owner to the smallest, most destitute producer. Through the CoE program, many producers have been able to make a name for themselves and significantly increase the asking price for their green beans. This has been a boon to producers who wish to transition away from the losing financial game of producing a commodity product towards the far more lucrative area of premium coffee bean production. There. See, I like the CoE program. Ok. So, now, let’s get down to business.

What I’m drinking now: Ritual’s CoE Matalapa, La Libertad, El Salvador and Finca Moreno, Santa Barbara, Honduras

Ritual’s CoE Matalapa, La Libertad, El Salvador is a Cup of Excellence winner. In the pour-over cone it produced a clean, sweet, pleasantly lively, light to medium-bodied cup with a mild herbaceousness that emerged as it cooled. In the press-pot, much of the acidity was muted revealing a smoother cup that, somewhat magically, went from medium Cup of Excellence winner, El Salvador Finca Matalapa - 01to full-bodied as the cup cooled. The press-pot seemed to pull out more of the herbaceous character (mint?) and revealed just a hint of something like vanilla. This is not a coffee that hits you over the head, as it were, with it’s various characteristics. It’s a subdued, subtle brew. Elegant, subdued, this is a high quality, solid, if uninspiring coffee.

One of Ritual’s roasters recommended the Finca Moreno, Santa Barbara, Honduras on a recent trip into Ritual. It was one of his favorite coffees in the house, he said. It — and by extension, he — did not disappoint. In my tasting notes I used words like “creamy”, “caramel”, “lime”, “citrusy” and even “earthy”. This, my friends, is a complex coffee. In both preparations I use (the pour-over cone and french press) the body and mouthfeel were amazing. Thick and viscous the Moreno coated the mouth with a heavy liquid that belied the fact that this was still, basically, water soaked in seeds for a few minutes. It was rather surprising. This was one of those coffees that I could drink day after day, week after week and be completely satisfied. And I did. And I was.

That’s another thing. I don’t normally judge a coffee based on it’s longevity. I am a firm believer in freshness. For the most part, seven to ten days is the limit for me. After that, I have found that the flavor of most beans suffers a great Finca Moreno, Santa Barbara, Honduras From Mr. Ford at Ritual - 2deal. Just ask my roommates or take a gander at my coffee drawer and you’ll find I have no compunction with abandoning a half-full bag of beans if I feel that it is suffering from a bad case of old age (don’t worry, I treat people much, much better) but these beans … well … they were like the Energizer Bunny of coffee beans.

I became sick a few days after picking these up. Consequently, I had little drive or opportunity to go after a fresh bag. With my nose plugged up like the Netherland’s coastline, even the freshest, most flavorful coffee would have tasted as flat as a two day old, open-topped can of soda. But the Finca Moreno wasn’t done surprising me yet. I had my doubts when I opened up the bag after my sickness was merciful enough to, at least, allow me to taste my food again but the flavor, the aroma, the body and mouthfeel; there was not a single component of flavor that suffered in any unpleasant way even after two weeks past the roast date.

If I were to hold a contest in my kitchen between these two coffees, the Finca Moreno would have won, hands down. It’s bag had no sticker on the outside proclaiming victory in any sort of competition. What it did have was the enthusiastic endorsement of the person the fewest steps away from my morning cup of coffee. CoE judges are remote endorsers of quality coffee. The everyday person off the street is not likely to have direct contact with a CoE judge. Even if they did, there are several steps between the moment of judgement and the moment you dip that two tablespoon scoop into your bag of beans in the morning. All of them have a direct effect on quality. How was the batch that ends up in your drawer at home handled at origin? What were the conditions of it’s trip to our shores? How was it stored before and after shipment? How was it delivered to the roaster? How did the roaster store it? Finally, how was it roasted? A CoE winner has as much potential to end up being a bad cup of coffee as any other bean and there are any number of steps — from bush to cup — that can influence that end result. Neither of these was a bad cup of coffee but one was more complex, had more character and a better personality than the other.

In this day and age the price of information has hit rock-bottom. And it’s all about the information. Want to know where the best restaurant is? Yelp or Google is there to serve you. Want the lowest price on this, that or the other widget? There are any number of sites dedicated to providing you a complete list of competing prices for any given product. Want to know which movie you should see tonight? There are a myriad different ways to get a recommendation. From movie rating sites to the ever increasing number of possible awards there are to give to films today (even the poor Oscars have had just a little of the shine taken off the statuette with the plethora of awards shows and film festivals that cater to every conceivable taste), it’s obvious that there is no lack of information in this modern world. It’s the quality of information and, more specifically, the personal utility of that information that matters. I want my information as fresh as I want my coffee. I want relevancy. I allowed my movie aficionado friends to trump the Oscars, I allow the music fanatics in my life to trump the radio and I will allow the roaster I know to trump a CoE label any time at all.