Dateline: March 1, 2001, San Jose, Costa Rica
Following my interview with Norman Saurage the CEO of the Community Coffee Company, I couldn't wait to broaden my knowledge about coffee. The next stage of my development involved a coffee "cupping."
Similar to a wine tasting, a "cupping" was arranged for me by Norman at one of his companies new Coffee Houses in Austin, Texas.
I arrived at CC's Coffee House at North Lamar and 6th Street in Austin at 1:00 PM and was greeted by David Walsh, CC's District Manager and Melissa Piker-Purvis, the store manager. I was impressed not only by the comfortable and tastefully decorated interior but also by the youthful (anyone younger than 45 is "youthful" to me) enthusiasm these two people had about coffee and the Community Coffee Company in particular. Norman couldn't have found two better Ambassadors.
We wasted no time in getting down to the serious business of coffee tasting. While Melissa ran off to grind and brew our first coffees, David seated me at a large table covered with cups and explained to me the basics of coffee cupping.
We began by discussing the equipment necessary for a successful cupping. You will need the following:
Equipment necessary for coffee cupping
1. Coffee Grinder 2. One 6 oz. cup per taster, per coffee tasted 3. One spoon per taster 4. One rinsing container 5. One glass per taster and ice water 6. An extra cup or container to spit coffee 7. Fresh roasted coffee 8. French Press plunger (if desired) 9. Pencil and paper to record your impressions
The next critical step in coffee cupping is to correctly brew your coffee. I have been brewing coffee for over 40 years and this was the first time anyone had ever mentioned that there was a "correct" way. I have since learned that this is the ONLY way to properly brew coffee for a cupping.
Proper Brewing Techniques
1. Use only fresh beans, properly roasted (check the packing date on the bag!)
2. Use only fresh cold filtered water (NO CHLORINE PLEASE!). If you use tap water be sure to filter it first. An alternative is to buy Artesian water - do not use distilled water.
3. Grind the beans just prior to use. Coffee deteriorates quickly after grinding and you should grind only the amount you are going to use at one time. It is also important to use the correct grind for your brewing technique. For a French Press, or to use the ground coffee directly in the cup, you should grind it for approximately 10 seconds in a blade type grinder.
4. Use the correct amount of ground coffee. Professional tasters use exactly two tablespoons of ground coffee for each six ounces of water! If you use less coffee you will "over extract" the coffee resulting in a bitter brew.
5. Heat the water to "just off the boil" (204 to 206 degrees) before using.
At this cupping, CC's used a separate French Press plunger type coffee brewer for each coffee tasted.
I later learned, at a coffee plantation in Costa Rica, that the official taster will add the freshly roasted ground coffee directly to the cup. He then pours the water (just off the boil) into the cup and allows the "crust" to form on top.
After two minutes he will lift the cup to his nose and gently break the crust with a spoon while enjoying the first full first impression of the aroma. The taster then repeats the process with the next two coffees (rinsing the spoon between coffees) before returning to the first coffee and taking the initial slurp.
At CC's we stirred the coffee with a spoon and then lifted the back of the spoon to our nose and smelled the aroma. We repeated this process with the remaining two coffees before tasting the first.
If you use the grounds directly in your cup, remember to let the coffee rest for 3 to 5 minutes allowing the grounds to settle before tasting the coffee.
The next stage in coffee cupping is also considered critical. Simply stated, you SLURP the coffee. Yes, SLURP the coffee (loudly.) I know this goes contrary to everything our mother's taught us at the dining table, however, it is the correct procedure and is a very important technique in cupping.
The reason you slurp the coffee is to aerate the coffee in your mouth so that the aroma can reach your olfactory glands (through the back top of your mouth.)
Next, write down your impressions, rinse your mouth and your spoon and repeat the process with the next coffee.
Finally, you will want to return to your first cup and repeat the entire process again after the coffee has been allowed to cool. You will notice that the flavor will have changed with your second taste. As the coffee cools more subtle flavors will begin to emerge. Record these impressions.
What exactly are you looking? Experienced coffee tasters express their experiences using three primary criteria: Acidity, Body and Flavor. Aroma also plays a part but is included in the Flavor experience.
ACIDITY - This term, when applied to coffee, is considered one of the more important standards. In coffee, Acidity refers to the crispness or "bite" of the coffee. Acidity, when applied to coffee, should not be confused with the traditional cooking concept of pH level as in lemon juice or vinegar, but rather a vibrant burst of flavor you experience with your first taste.
Do not confuse Acidity in coffee with bitterness. Bitterness in coffee is a result of over extraction (too much water over to little coffee) or dark roasting.
BODY - Body is the experience of weight, the way the coffee feels on the tongue. This can vary from light through medium bodied, to full bodied or syrupy. Body varies with the region of origin. For example, Latin American coffees tend to be light and medium bodied while Indonesian and African coffees tend to be full bodied.
Brewing variations also influence the body. French Press plungers and espresso machines produce a heavier body than drip brewers where oils are removed by paper filters.
FLAVOR - Flavor is the total combined impression of aroma, acidity and body. The term is generally used to express intensity and to identify specific tastes of characteristics. For example, a coffee could be "very flavorful with a nutty taste and spicy aroma."
For my first cupping we began by tasting three "straight" coffees. A "straight" coffee is one from a specific region or estate as opposed to a "blended" coffee, which is a combination of different straight coffees.
As in wine tasting, you should begin by cupping the lighter bodied coffees first, moving up to the more full bodied coffee. This way you won't over expose your taste buds with the stronger brew before tasting the lighter.
There are two types of coffee beans, Robusta and Arabica. Robusta, produced at lower elevations, is a low grade coffee bean high in caffeine. It is used mostly in over-the-counter canned coffee. It is also used as a base coffee when blended with the better quality Arabica bean.
We began with three straight coffees, Brazil, Kenya and finally Sumatra.
BRAZIL - Brazil is the world's largest producer of Arabica coffee. This coffee is grown at lower elevations and is "dry processed" (more about "dry" vs. "wet" processing in Part Three.) Brazilian coffee is the predominate flavor in almost every pre-ground package "restaurant" coffee in America.
It is a good "beginner" coffee to taste because it has low acidity, a nutty flavor and light body.
KENYA - Kenya produces a "wet process" high grade Arabica coffee that consistently sets the quality standards for the rest of the world. It is almost always consistently good and is frequently used in blends with the more neutral Latin American coffees. It has medium acidity and body with a fruity, wine like taste.
SUMATRA - Most coffee from Sumatra is "dry processed" and many people consider it to be one of "the really great coffees". Low in acidity and heavy bodied with strong earthy flavors.
After tasting the straight coffee we then moved on to taste three blended coffees.
BLENDED COFFEE - This is the coffee master's art and every coffee roaster guards these recipes as "top secrets." At Community Coffee these secret recipes have been handed down through three generations of roasters.
Blending is laborious, requiring extensive experience and knowledge learned by tasting different beans at different levels of roast. As in cooking, "depth of flavor" - the balance or harmony of flavors - is critical so that each compliments the other, combining to create the perfect blend.
We tasted Community Coffee's Breakfast Blend (a beginners coffee, high caffeine, medium roast, mellow, light bodied;) Evangeline - my hands down favorite (a South American blend, high in flavor, full bodied, nutty;) and Lafayette Blend (a heavy bodied, big flavor, winey - great after dinner blend.)
The final stage of my first cupping experience was to enjoy the "specialty coffee" drinks. These included espresso based drinks like mochas and cappuchinos. There are countless varieties and combinations of specialty coffee drinks involving added flavors but I will leave that subject for someone else to research.
My favorite specialty coffee drink was Community Coffee's signature drink called "Mochasippi", an iced coffee drink that was the perfect finish to a great coffee experience.
I am grateful to Norman Saurage and his staff at CC's Coffee House for taking the time to help educate me on some of the finer points of a real quality coffee experience.
CC's Coffee Houses frequently offer "cupping" lessons for the general public and I am sure that most specialty coffee shops would be happy to provide you with a cupping experience.
My search for the Perfect Cup of Coffee continues in Part Three of this series when I report on my travels to the mountains of Costa Rica to see first hand how quality coffee is grown, harvested, processed, green packaged and ultimately roasted.
Ciao for now.