company - education - coffee

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Cupping without the brand

One of the most powerful exercises in coffee is doing a blind tasting.  We often do this with our coffees and others as well as triangulations (one coffee in each set of three is different and must be identified) in shop.  If you have interviewed for a job, you may have been asked to complete a triangulation during the interview and know all too well what an experience it is.  It is a great equalizer which can rattle or disarm even the most cocky barista.  It can quietly convey that there are always challenges or more to learn in this industry.

I recently talked to a few students doing an article for the Harvard Crimson by walking them through a blind cupping of 'house coffees' around Harvard Sq. Too often, when evaluating a coffee we are heavily influenced by the perception we have of the roaster/shop that produced it and this exercise was about tasting coffees not judging brands or methodology.  It's fair because there is a lot of money and energy put into branding but gems can be missed due to this same bias and brand perception.  What I gained from the exercise with these students is that once you take the brands away, the coffees don't always have that much to say but with the brands attached, the expectation can easily lead the discussion.  I was personally given a bit of validation when the only two single estate coffees on the table were identified immediately (our Bosque at Hi Rise and an El Salvador from Clover Harvard Sq.) by both myself and these self proclaimed coffee illiterates.  Alternatively, it was a bit of a let down in that those were the only two clearly labeled as to what the origin farms were.  It was a tremendous exercise and we'll be doing it again soon.

To organize a good cupping for a small group, we recommend having at least two roasters on a table and enough coffees to have a minimum of 3 (but up to 7 makes for a better challenge).  (we recommend our sampler for aspiring cuppers)  Start with 8 grams of coffee (medium-coarse grind) per 5 ounces of water in each cup.  Use water off boil and pour directly over the grounds.  Let dwell for 4 minutes and then break the crust with a gentle dipping of the spoon at the surface of the cup.  Do not stir or dredge the bottom of the cup.  Afterwards, skim the remaining floating grounds off the cup.

Record the dry ground aromas and make note of any variation between the three cups of each set.  After the water is poured, make note of the hot aroma.  It is best to evaluate the hot aroma a minute in and come back to evaluate it at 3 minutes when it has developed more.  Look for sweetness, cup variations, and distinct (pleasant and unpleasant) aromas.  A critical point is aroma at the break (when the crust is gently disturbed 4 minutes in) as it is the best chance to catch interesting aromas.  Once the surface floaters have been skimmed and the cup has cooled enough to taste, this is the hot cup evaluation.  Roast notes are most prominent here and therefore it's hiding some underlying characters.  Once the cup has cooled considerably, the cold cup evaluation can reveal fruit, acidity, and also defects or roast problems (such as grassy notes, moldy, etc).  A quality roasted coffee will remain similar from dry aroma to cool cup but the flavor characters will become more prominent during each phase.

To set up a good blind cupping, we recommend adhering to a few rules though:
1. Shut up.  There is nothing worse than watching the first person to speak lead the rest towards a set of descriptors or favorites.
2. Let it cool.  Many defects show up in the cool cup and a great hot coffee can really fall apart as it cools.
3.  Keep your notes... yours.  Write it down and stick to what your impressions are.  This is keyed up by following step 1 and documenting everything through in step 2.
4.  Let everyone in.  Don't hog the space, you can always return later.  There is nothing more telling (and distracting) than someone lingering at a particular cup.
5.  Keep the suspense.  Save the reveal until the end and have a good discussion about what was tasted first.