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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.

Ah, but what form to use, and what characteristics to annotate? George Howell, former owner of the Coffee Connection in Boston and coffee aesthete extraordinaire, invented the most thorough, elaborate cupping form for a competition known as the Cup of Excellence (www.cupofexcellence.org), which he and Susie Spindler started in Brazil in 1999. The idea was to select the créme de la créme of a country's coffee, send out samples worldwide, then hold an Internet auction for the top 10 picks. It has worked for Brazil, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia and Bolivia.

"The idea," Howell says, "is for Cup of Excellence coffees to act as ambassadors, to lead the way to defining what each country's best regions produce." He knew he was on the right track the second year in Brazil, when he heard a Dutch coffee expert call out from among the 20 international cuppers, "What country are we in?" Everyone laughed. The Dutchman meant, of course, that he was tasting something extraordinary that he never would have identified with Brazil. Among other things, the Cup of Excellence has promoted a kind of cupping brotherhood whose common language—whether they are Japanese, Swedish, Greek, Dutch, Spanish or French—is sensory.

Howell has now left the Cup of Excellence in Spindler's hands, though he buys from its auction for the George Howell Coffee Co., which sells his Terroir brand (www.terroircoffee.com), named for the French wine term that refers to the combination of topography, climate, soil, geology and growing method that produces a particular grape—the sort of je ne sais quoi that makes a great coffee, in other words. In Acton, Massachusetts, he is roasting strictly single-origin coffees, many of them winners of the Cup of Excellence.

"The cupping form I developed for Cup of Excellence has had a huge influence and has dramatically raised the level of cupping across the board," Howell says. The form requires cuppers to evaluate 13 categories: uniformity of roast color, aroma (dry, crust and upon breaking the crust), defects, cleanliness of cup, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, flavor, aftertaste, balance and overall rating. The aroma isn't scored but adds to the overall impression. "It is impossible to accurately assess aromas from a single cup which is what each cupper is limited to when breaking the cup in unpredictable rooms that may and often do have drafts," says Howell. The Cup of Excellence Board is considering modifying the form, however.

Others in the industry, such as Dan Cox of Burlington, Vermont—based Coffee Enterprises, complain that the Cup of Excellence form is too complicated. "George is the only guy who can figure it out," Cox jokes. "It is a challenge to use, even for me," Howell admits, "but we must put the bar higher." He doesn't always use the entire form in his own business, however. For Howell, the most important elements are cleanness and sweetness. A cup is "clean" if it has not been contaminated somewhere along the processing line, and "sweetness" is an indication that the beans were picked at their ripe prime.

Despite complaints about the complicated form, the SCAA's Technical Committee has adopted a similar form for its Q, or quality, designation. The SCAA form has virtually identical categories, except that it includes aroma in the scoring, and it allows no gradations for sweetness, just a pass-fail vote, making it a bit less complex to score. Q contract beans occupy a middle range of sorts, fetching a higher price than the standard C-market of the New York exchange, but less than the elite Cup of Excellence beans. Funded by the United States Agency for International Development, the Q Internet auctions have been held in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Mané Alves, president of Coffee Lab International in Waterbury, Vermont, and one of the those who helped refine the form, believes that coffee cupping is approaching the sophisticated level of wine, although George Howell thinks it still has a long way to go, since wine has had thousands of years to develop techniques and taste. Alves, a Portuguese native who began as a wine taster and viticultural specialist, says that coffee is in some ways more complex than wine. "Wine is more consistent, since all the grapes are put through a process together in barrels or filtered before you bottle the wine. A cup of coffee uses 30 individual coffee beans, so there can be substantial differences between cups from the same lot."

There are even more cupping forms in the works from the Specialty Coffee Association of America—a simplified one for consumers, one for competitions and one for grading cup defects. Plus, Alves has developed a computerized form for Palm Pilots called the Port-o-Lab, which automatically translates from English to Spanish. "We have finally entered the twenty-first century," Alves says. "The translation takes care of the pressing issue of how to transmit to the farmers how the buyers feel about their coffee beans."

Nowadays, the farmers themselves are far more likely to know what they think of the beans. Until a decade ago, virtually no farmers cupped their own beans. Paul Katzeff, the socially responsible wild man of the coffee industry and owner of Fort Bragg, California—based Thanksgiving Coffee, helped to change that situation. "In 1996, I was in Nicaragua at an organic coffee conference, addressing 200 coffee cooperative managers. They were all excited about getting more money for shade-grown coffee, but I told them that they had to focus on quality. I asked them, 'How many of you have tasted your own coffee?' Nobody in the room raised a hand. I said, 'How are you going to attack the market if you don't know what you've got?'"

As a result, a USAID rep in attendance asked Katzeff to write a proposal, which he whipped out before the meeting ended. Then he forgot about it until 1998, when USAID called to say that it had funded the program. For it, Katzeff wrote The Coffee Cuppers' Manifesto (El Manifiesto de los Catadores de Café), published bilingually in English and Spanish, from which the quote at the beginning of this article came. "I started to write it, but it was too technical, it had no meaning. So I put it in context, with my political stuff and social conscience." Thus the book emphasizes that cupping is the first step to assure that "the farmers share equitably in the wealth created by coffee," as Katzeff wrote in the introduction.

The book became the bible for nine new cupping labs, still going strong, at as many Nicaraguan cooperatives. The Nicaraguan crop is now worth about $20 million more annually, with the average price well above the C figure, whereas it was below the C before the cupping labs arrived in 1998. "It is a real thrill to cup with the farmers," Katzeff says, "and to see them smile from ear to ear when they taste their coffee roasted and brewed properly." The number of buyers coming to the co-ops has increased tenfold. Paraphrasing the movie Field of Dreams, Katzeff says, "We built them, they came. The cupping lab was the missing link between hope and love for coffee."

Sometimes learning to cup can change a person's life and attitude dramatically. Take Marbele Garcia, who arrived for training at age 19. "She was barefoot and wouldn't look me in the eye," Katzeff recalls. "But she had a great palate. I told her, 'If you stay with this, this will be your ticket to see the world.'" When George Howell cupped with her, he recruited her as a preliminary cupping judge for the Nicaraguan Cup of Excellence. She looked people straight in the eye. "She sparkled in her element," Howell recalls. "It gave her such a sense of who she was." Later, she came to the international jury for the Cup of Excellence in Brazil. "What Paul did with these cupping labs was revolutionary," Howell says.

Many of the cuppers trained in these Nicaraguan labs became star cuppers in the Q program, and they helped to train six Rwandan coffee growers, who traveled in March 2004 to the Nicaraguan cupping labs, eager to learn how to use labs to make more money by improving quality. Katzeff flew down to meet them there.

A convergence appears to be occurring, a recognition of the importance of cupping at origin and at the roasting level, as well as points in between. Lindsey Bolger, the head coffee buyer for Green Mountain Coffee Roasters—which, like Coffee Lab, is located in Waterbury, Vermont—has helped with that convergence in cupping competitions and trainings around the world. This past February, she was in Tanzania as the head judge at the East African Fine Coffees Association's annual competition. For the past few years, along with several other cuppers, she has been involved in a coffee quality project in Rwanda, where genocide widows grow many of the beans.

"Like most coffee-producing countries—Ethiopia being a remarkable exception—Rwanda does not have a traditional culture of coffee drinking," Bolger observes. "In training to discern coffee's qualities, the first step is benchmarking, or identifying and creating a sensorial memory for the aromas and flavors we commonly find in coffee. Over 1,200 different aromas and flavors exist in coffee, but we focus on only 50 of these."

Bolger uses a kit of vials with aromatics, such as tea rose, pipe tobacco, clove, chocolate, almonds and vanilla. "But the Rwandan cuppers-in-training showed no signs of recognition for them. Only the smell of potato, earth, rubber and coffee blossom resonated with them." She bridged the cultural chasm by taking a trip to an ex-pat grocery store in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, and buying a variety of imported fruit preserves, chocolates, citrus fruits, nuts and spices. "We also gathered some foods from Rwandan kitchens, like potatoes, porridge, raw sugar and okra."

After slicing and dicing and smelling to get benchmark palate memories, they cupped characteristic coffees: "loamy and spicy Sumatra, boldly fruity and chocolaty Colombian Popayan, citrusy, floral and tea-like Ethiopian." After several weeks of training and working with instructors, they had the fundamentals of cupping mastered.

The training was remarkably successful. "The instructors and students performed a qualitative and quantitative evaluation of each coffee, then tallied their results, employing the same methodology as in international competitions," Bolger says. "Claire and Leticia, two graduates of the previous year's program, performed superbly. Despite tremendous cultural and experiential differences, their blind assessments of the 10 coffees we sampled were identical in rank, and within 1.5 points on a 100-point scale, to my own." They accurately identified all 10 origins.

With proper training, then, and with a sensitive palate, most people can become astonishingly acute at cupping. Will a robot computer ever be able to replace the human cupper? "No," says Lindsey Bolger. "A computer can't cup karma," adds Paul Katzeff. While artificial noses and tongues do exist, Coffee Enterprises' Dan Cox says that they are "nothing more than somewhat narrowed gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers. They are useful for industries with safety issues, so that they can detect if fish or meat has gone bad. But coffee is an incredibly complex product." Cox can conceive of a machine detecting bad fermentation, but nothing terribly subtle.

Jim Reynolds, longtime cupper and coffee buyer for Peet's Coffee, and now Roastmaster Emeritus, agrees. "I'm always looking for nuances, for higher ends. I personally doubt a machine will ever replace a cup tester's tongue. Besides, you'd be removing a lot of fun from the business."

Some people watching cuppers might think they are a bit weird, slurping and spitting and sticking their noses at coffee cups all day long. But their expertise takes them on adventures all over the world in search of great beans. Half of the cuppers I called for this article happened to be at origin, or about to go there, either in Latin America or Africa.

And what other occupation would make you remember a particular set of beans from Indonesia more than two decades ago? I asked Jim Reynolds if he remembered a particularly special brew. "Yes, in 1982 there was a Java called Redjo. It had a rubbery flavor quality, which doesn't sound good, but it was such an intriguing flavor. Jerry Baldwin, then the CEO of Peet's, called it an old-tennis-shoe flavor, but he understood what I was talking about, and we bought it. It was incredible, but after a couple of years, it disappeared, and it never resurfaced. For years, I looked for those beans."

Mark Pendergrast is the author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World.

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