Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Cupping Recreation

Last night I had an amazing coffee nerd experience, I went to a cupping. I'll use today's post to try and convey the experience to you the best I can; tomorrow I'll pick back up with the basic training in coffee. These cuppings are wondrous events that display awesome coffees along with the geeks who adore it- in all their nerdery. We all (about ten of us) sat down at the tables together, each with his/her own set of three small bowls with three different ground coffees in them. We awkwardly looked around the tables, eying one another hesitantly, trying to determine which one of us was the superior coffee Jedi. I, of course, was this uber-Jedi; this fact was quickly discovered as we began to discuss the coffees we were cupping.

There was a Costa Rican, an Ethiopian, and a Sumatran coffee provided. I had some inside knowledge of what each would taste like before hand because I have significant coffee tasting experience to start with; it was obvious that some there did not. This lack of knowledge cannot be considered somehow bad or embarrassing (maybe a bit embarrassing) it simply shows a lack of experience with the process and with specialty coffee in general. As we all know, there is only one really effective way to boost experience and knowledge- to do it.

So, back to the account. First off, smelled each of the ground coffees: quick short sniffs, like a dog. Then we poured water at about 200 degrees over the three selections, totally immersing and soaking the grounds in water. Over the next 3 minutes, we allowed the grounds to steep in the hot water. During this time, the grounds release carbon dioxide in large quantities, as well as other oils. These gases and oils intermix and coalesce into a crust that covers the surface of the coffee. At the end of this steeping time, we all took flat spoons and "broke the crusts" of each of the coffees (rinsing the spoon between each cup so as to not pollute the single origins). As we did so, we again, smelled the gases released by breaking this crust. These first gases are the most intense aromatics possibly derived from a coffee- very essential to the overall taste since 70% of taste is made of smell. During this whole process, we coffee geeks had to keep our opinions to ourselves so as not to influence the highly impressionable new people.

Next, we began tasting the coffee. We obnoxiously slurp the coffees in order to spray the liquid across the entire tongue, effectively coating all taste regions: sweet, sour, bitter, etc. These tastes are done quickly, then spit out and tried again a few more times, all the while we build our opinions of the coffees. Again, we rinse the spoon we are slurping with so as to avoid cross-contamination. Also, cold water is provided to rinse the palate before the next origin is tried. The obnoxiousness continues as we spit out the coffee slurped so that we don't go into a state of caffeine shock. This goes on for about 5-7 minutes. We continue tasting while the coffees cool because over different temperatures, the coffees can begin to taste differently. In fact, the optimum tasting temperature is right at body heat, 98 degrees, since our taste buds can receive the most stimulation at their own degree.

After the 5 or so minutes pass we begin to share our experiences with one another. Usually the new people use very standard and boxed in descriptions for coffee, the most green usually just say it tastes like coffee- and that's fine for that stage. I'll share with you my thoughts now: The Sumatra was roasted very darkly, which I actually appreciated because it had been roasted far too lightly in the past. I must say though, my taste preferences are changing. It has taken two years, but it is definitely occurring. What I think is happening, and what happens to a large degree with all coffee fanatics, is that over time a preference for lighter roasts is developed. I believe this occurs because darker roasts "cook out" most of the more interesting and complex floral flavors that give coffee its 800 or so taste characteristics we nerds find so fascinating to describe.

At any rate, the Sumarta was good, but clearly not the best. Its rogue wildly woody and charred taste got boring very quickly. I moved into liking the Ethiopia next. It had an extremely sweet blueberry sensation at about 180 degrees that caught my attention. As it cooled the sweetness increased to the point of displeasure. This won't be the case for most people, but for me it is a dessert coffee at best. Finally though, there was the Costa Rican. It proved much more challenging than the other two. Grown at over 3,000 feet, the cherries produce high density, large beans which generally equals higher quality (the elevation has a huge impact on this, I'll explain another time). At first it was mean, containing a strong acidity, like that of a car battery or highly carbonated water- standoffish. But, as it cooled a bit that acidity turned into a lighter, more flowery, lemon-like, front of the tongue, pleasurable taste. Light body and easily swallowed (I did swallow a bit of this one to get the aftertaste). I almost felt like I was eating a very interestingly flavored flower petal- crazy. Anyway, the taste that lingered left me wanting to try some more- the exact sensation desired.

Anyway, we all shared our experiences of each. Most of the new people had simple descriptions and enjoyed the dark roast for its lack of acidity. I was the only one besides the officiator who preferred the Costa Rican. What can I say? It was a great, well balanced cup. I almost bought some.

Lord, thank you for the great coffee and for the geeks who make it okay to slurp and spit. Keep my head deflated and on straight. Here we go.

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