Coffee is an intriguing and whimsical thing. Many of us start on our caffeinated journey in an effort to achieve something that doesn’t taste like last night’s used dishwater, and, as we strive forward, we begin to insist that there must be some absolute, some ultimate combination of factors that will achieve the perfect cup every time. And then we taste the cup that, made in completely the wrong way, against all odds, indeed against all reason, tastes like true nectar of the gods. This is where our journey truly begins!
One of the most exciting aspects of coffee is the ever-increasing variety of flavours out there. In terms of agronomy and horticulture, coffee is only a fledgling industry, certainly in comparison to wine and viticulture. The majority of coffee is grown and produced in third world or developing countries, which leads to myriad challenges and restraints within the coffee industry. Aside from industry infrastructure, the flow of communication and education is also a huge issue — imagine the now commonplace image of the cellar door at the winemakers, comfortably positioned a scant few hundred metres from the vines and those who tend them. Juxtapose that image with the thousands of dollars needed to hop on a plane, cross oceans, and trek across mountainous terrain to arrive in a coffee-producing country where everyone speaks another language!
Despite these hurdles, the information is starting to flow between roaster and coffee grower, and the range of carefully grown, well processed, distinguished coffees is beginning to increase. In order to continue this development and communication, there must be an established format and structure to assess these coffees. Everyone knows whether their coffee is good or bad, but to decide whether the cup character of one coffee is better than another, we must break down the components in the cup.
Coffee tasting is much like wine tasting: a lot of what we discern as flavour is, in fact, heavily derived from aroma. Remember how food — and coffee — seem bland and tasteless when you’re suffering from a blocked nose or flu? We traditionally experience four flavour components — bitter, sweet, sour and salty, with a fifth, umami, increasingly being recognised as the savoury character of food and drink. For a great cup of coffee, we’re looking for a particular range and make up of these characters — an overly salty coffee isn’t my first choice!
The practice of professionally tasting coffee is called cupping. By using an internationally recognised, structured process for the preparation of this coffee, along with a format for assessment and record keeping, professional coffee cuppers are able to rate the quality of a cup along fairly objective lines. This means, for example, that if I cup a coffee in Australia, my scores will hold some relevance for those cupping the same coffee in the United States. The establishment of a common language of coffee quality is a key instrument in moving both the producing and consuming coffee industries towards an improved product.
So what exactly is cupping? Cupping is nothing if not simple, and it’s a great way to start educating your own palate, the collective palates of your café staff and even those of your friends and family. Here are some key points to setting up your own cupping session:
- Fresh, appropriately roasted, coffee — you want this coffee to be roasted somewhat lighter than your standard espresso roast: generally not far after ‘first crack’ in the roasting process. (A proper filter or plunger roast will also work relatively effectively.) The lighter roast profile allows the true origin and potential defect characters of the bean to shine through.
- Dosage — one standard used around the world is 8.25g per 150ml of water (55g/1Ltr). Grind your coffee on a medium-fine setting using a burr grinder, and place directly into your cup or bowl. (Remember to multiply your dosage depending on the volume of your vessel.)
- Smell — use that powerhouse of your senses, the nose, to take in the character of the coffee as dry grounds, the fragrance of the coffee. Here you should pick up an indication of what your coffee may taste like.
- Water — boil your filtered water and allow it to sit for 30 seconds off the heat. Pour the water directly over the grinds in your bowl and allow it to steep for 3 – 4 minutes.
- Breaking the crust — if you have the right amount of grinds in your cup, you will find that they have formed a crust over the coffee liquid below: breaking the crust is one of the most intense sensory aspects of cupping. Get your nose as close as possible to the cup and break the crust by pushing the grinds back and down into the cup. As you break this encapsulating cover, a rush of trapped coffee aromatics will wash over your ready senses, providing you with the aroma of the coffee. (Make sure that you rinse your spoon between each cup to avoid any cross contamination.)
- Clear the surface — once you have broken the crust on all the coffees, use your spoons to clear the surface of any remaining grinds, again remembering not to cross contaminate.
- Taste! Using a deep-bowled dessert spoon, dip it into your coffee and use a big slurp to take the liquid into your mouth: the idea is to combine the coffee with air to allow it to vaporise and hit more of your taste buds, such as those on the roof of your mouth. Spitting out after tasting is preferred by many professional cuppers due to the volume of samples they have to get to, but you don’t have to be so strict with your own experimentations — just enjoy the process.
My cupping experience began a couple of years ago, when I began to work more closely with the pros here in the roasting department at Five Senses. I wanted to see what was truly available in the bean’s character and, by brewing espresso, which uses both a pretty intense extraction process and a darker roast, I was finding that these characters were becoming muted. Locking down the huge amount of variables around espresso extraction to provide an exactly consistent cup to assess is also a huge challenge, and so I moved towards more and more traditional cupping, which has opened a whole new world of coffee appreciation to me.
There’s a level of ceremony and theatre involved in preparing a cupping. You’re there with the coffee the whole way through the process, weighing, smelling, steeping and slurping. One of my favourite experiences is taking a cupping session with people who are new to the process — there’s something really enjoyable about the basic motions of breaking a crust and clearing the surface of the cup that everyone seems to take pleasure in. And then there’s the coffee! Putting a wide range of coffee characters on the cupping table can really show the variety of flavours, textures and profiles that are out there. People often make lots of appreciative and surprised noises as they work their way through the selection. Who ever thought you’d taste a sparkling, pineapple fruit juice or rich paw paw and burnt sugar in your coffee?
Another turning point in my cupping journey was cupping at origin. Last year I travelled to the coffee growing regions in Aceh, northern Sumatra, and day after day we would cup samples from farms only kilometres apart: the difference in flavour was astounding! This experience was focused around cupping for consistency and defects, where each coffee sample would be presented six times in the same traditional cupping format. By tasting all six cups, it was possible to gain a good average taste of what the coffee would be like, and to discern whether there were any unpleasant, mouldy or fermented defects hiding in some of the coffee beans. Influenced by the micro-climate, the harvesting quality and the processing quality, each sample presented different characters and flavours. This intensive exposure to coffees from one distinct region once again emphasized the utmost importance of traceability. We would think it preposterous if a wine list in a restaurant only listed wines by their country of origin. With wine we expect country, region, vineyard and varietal, so why not with coffee?
While we have an espresso-based coffee culture in Australia, cupping allows us to see the potential within the bean. The job of the roaster and barista is then to maximise those tantalising and unique flavours. Cappuccinos and lattes are obviously the fuel keeping many of us running day-to-day, but it’s exciting to note that alternative brewing methods are beginning to be offered at a number of the country’s leading cafés and espresso bars. Plungers, siphons, drip filters, cold presses, and Clover brewing systems are sprouting up around the country, offering alternative, exceptional coffee experiences. Get out there and try some! Alternatively, delve into one of the little known joys of coffee culture and organise your own cupping — it’s cheap, easy and great fun to do with a group of friends, no matter what their coffee knowledge.