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The Gentle Art of Cupping

A cadre of highly trained tasters are constantly exploring the complex world of coffee in search of the best beans from the most common and exotic sources
Mark Pendergrast
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Haysbert, Nov/Dec 2006

El hecho de ser un cafetalero sin un laboratorio de catación, es como ser un jugador de béisbol con mala vista sin gafas, enfrentándose con un lanzador que tira 90 millas por hora. / To be a coffee grower without a cupping laboratory is to be like a baseball player with poor eyesight and no glasses, facing a 90-mile-per-hour fastball pitcher. —Paul Katzeff, The Coffee Cuppers' Manifesto

"Nobody is an expert cupper. You die before you get there." Ken Davids, coffee author, consultant and owner of the Web site Coffee Review (www.coffeereview.com), is answering an obtuse question. I had asked how long it took to become a real expert in the art of slurping, swirling and spitting coffee. He pauses, tries again. "The problem is, an expert in what range? I think almost anybody has the sensory skills to be an excellent cupper. The problem is confidence and practice. I discover nuances every time I cup with other people. It's a combination of sensory, cultural, linguistic and associative functions, looking for subtle organoleptic properties." Whew. And I thought it was just a matter of learning to smell and taste the brew. But Davids is typical of coffee cuppers—articulate, opinionated, passionate, experienced. They tend to be simultaneously arrogant and humble. They agree that cupping is all-important, but they often can't agree on the best form to use, the proper vocabulary, the exact degree of roast or just about anything else. Yet they can agree that a certain lot of beans from Antigua rate a score of 84. Go figure.

Such figures and scores are life-and-death issues for those who grow coffee, however. Cupping determines whether their coffee will be bought, and for how much. Until recently, this was a top-down affair, where the cuppers up the line—exporters, importers, roasters—passed judgment on beans that the farmers themselves often had never tasted. Fortunately, that is now changing, empowering the growers to cup at origin and to understand much more about their own coffee.

What exactly is cupping, and how did it originate? Around 1886, R. W. Hills began cupping Hills Brothers beans in San Francisco, where the practice had been pioneered by now-forgotten coffee man Clarence Bickford. By the early twentieth century, circular cupping tables were appearing in the offices of major importers and roasters. But as canned coffee evolved toward poorer quality, cupping at big companies tended toward the mediocre, with simple binary decisions looking more for defects than high quality.

In 1984, Ted Lingle, now executive director of the SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America), published The Coffee Cupper's Handbook, which signaled the modern incarnation of specialty cupping. "I was tired of having everyone in the industry describe what they didn't like as bitter," Lingle recalls. He wrote an article on taste, then another on aroma, and eventually wrote the book (now in its third edition), creating a vocabulary of sensations found at the cupping table. "Basically, I took the chemistry of coffee and translated it into physical attributes. If something becomes a gas, you can smell it. If something dissolves, you can taste it. And we can feel the other stuff. So there you have aroma, taste and body." And then there's a fourth quality, acidity.

Not everyone can judge such nuances as "a caramelly odor" or "a citrus note." But anyone can learn the rudiments. The best beans are arabica rather than robusta (which features more caffeine and bitterness), but there are different varieties of arabica—typica, bourbon, caturra, catuai—and they taste different depending on the soil in which they grow, the air they breathe, the climate, the elevation, moisture, harvesting method, processing, transportation, roasting and storage.

Coffee is a product that can be ruined at every stage of its journey from tree to cup. It is a delicate product, a sponge for off-odors and tastes, and the oxygen we inhale is a fresh-roasted coffee bean's worst enemy. Thus, the first rule is to make sure that your all-arabica blend comes from a local specialty roaster, or that it has been sped to your door within a week of roasting, wherever that may have been. At least make sure that the beans were packaged with a one-way valve (that belly button on the coffee bag that allows beans to de-gas without letting oxygen in). Better yet, buy green beans through the Internet or a local roaster and roast your own.

You will be seeking to judge four basic components that blend to create the perfect cup: aroma, body, acidity and flavor. The aroma is that heady scent that often promises more than the taste delivers. "Body" refers to the feel or "weight" of the coffee in the mouth, how it rolls around the tongue and fills the throat on the way down. Acidity does not refer literally to a pH level, but to a sparkle, a brightness, a tang that adds zest to the cup. Finally, flavor is the evanescent, subtle taste that explodes in the mouth, then lingers as a gustatory memory.

The cupping process is fairly well established now: Take green beans (no parchment) from the same lot. Roast about 90 grams to a cinnamon color (about seven minutes at around 450 degrees Fahrenheit). It is important to roast the beans lighter than normal in order to detect defects, which can be masked by a dark patina. Grind 89.5 grams, mix with five liquid ounces of not-quite-boiling water (195—205 degrees) per cup, making four to six cups per sample. Pour the water carefully, gently. Allow to stand three minutes. Break the crust with a spoon. Lower your nose as close as a bird sweeping a pond for insects, and sniff the aroma.

Clear off the crust (an art form itself as practiced by longtime cuppers, who wield their spoons like a surgeon's scalpel). Take a spoonful and slurp loudly while inhaling explosively, so as to spray the palate with oxygen and brew. Swirl thoughtfully. Spit unobtrusively while bringing the next sample's spoonful mouthward, as the table lazy-Susans its way around. Take notes on the cupping form. When the same cup comes around, taste it again, since some coffees can evolve dramatically as they cool. Eventually, tally the final score.


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