How To Be Mindful of Your Coffee – Attend a Cupping.

In case this is one of your first visits to this site, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I really like coffee. I’ve learned a lot about it, such as roasting fundamentals, the basics of pulling a decent espresso shot, how to properly brew a pourover with a Hario V60, and a few other things in between. But one thing I’ve never gotten to do was go to a coffee tasting – referred to in coffee circles as a “cupping.”
When you cup, you are preparing coffee in a certain way, and tasting it in a certain way. Note I didn’t say “drink” it – often you just spit it out, otherwise you’ll end up really jacked up on caffeine…
I had read how to cup, and I’ve seen it being done a few times, but I’d never gotten to participate in one. Until last Saturday.
On the first Saturday of every month, Topeca Coffee Roasters here in Tulsa holds a public cupping, which you can attend for $10 per person. Topeca has several retail locations in town, and they also provide coffee to other cafes and to a few grocery store chains. They do all of their roasting out of a new facility off of Admiral Boulevard, which also houses their new Topeca Instruments Division (Topeca is now an SCAA-accredited location, which means they can get you certified in Specialty Coffee Association of America topics).

Topeca's SCAA-accredited classroom
Topeca’s SCAA-accredited classroom

We arrived and took a seat in their classroom. There were about 13 people there for the cupping, and it was a pretty diverse group. We got a short introduction from our instructor Ian, who is in charge of Quality Control for Topeca and also teaches some of their classes. He started out by giving us a tour of the roasting facility, where we saw mountains and mountains of burlap sacks filled with green beans, ready for roasting. We also got a look at their Diedrich roaster, which they have hooked up to a computer so they can record roast batches and profiles. It was pretty cool to get such an up-close look!

 

The Diedrich roaster
The Diedrich roaster
Green coffee beans, ready for roasting
Green coffee beans, ready for roasting

The tour was followed by a short Power Point presentation, in which Ian discussed everything from the types of coffee cultivars (Arabica and Robusta), to how the coffee is grown (higher elevation = better quality coffee), as well as how coffee is processed (dry vs. wet) and how it can be prepared. Ian was very eloquent and thorough and it was a great presentation.

The cuppping room
The cuppping room

Then we went into the cupping room and got started with the tasting.
First you grind the coffee beans, then you pour the water on the grounds, let it all sit for a few minutes, break the crust of grounds on top, make them sink to the bottom of the cup. You smell the different aromas at each stage. And THEN you quickly slurp small spoonfuls of coffee (I’m going to have to practice that technique), let the coffee float around your mouth a bit, determining which flavors you taste on which part of your tongue… then you spit it out, and look knowingly at your friend while saying things like “yes, I do taste the caramel and almonds,” or “wow, this really does taste like buttered asparagus,” or “I don’t like the one that tastes like rice crackers, that’s just too weird.” Then you move on to the next one.
The SCAA has produced a “Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel,” which lists different tastes, or characteristics of coffee, so that tasters have guidelines to follow and also words with which to try to describe what they’re tasting. If someone asks you to describe your cup of coffee, it really can be difficult to find the words. A chart can help. We learned a little about how it works and Ian took us through 14 different coffees, describing each one as we went along.
After the cupping was over, we asked Ian for tips on pouring a good espresso shot, and which grinder would be best to use. He was very kind, and we hung out for at least an extra 30 minutes. He even pulled a few shots on their fancy La Marzocco Strada machine for us. He went above and beyond – and you could tell he really enjoys working with coffee and talking to people about it.

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Ian (right) talking to The Boyfriend about burr grinders

 

 

 

 

 

Shots being pulled on a La Marzocco Strada... sexy!
Shots being pulled on a La Marzocco Strada… sexy!

Lots of people like coffee. Some drink it with cream, some drink it black – some drink it with 12 pumps of chocolate syrup and some prefer it with Splenda. Some people like it piping hot, others room temperature… some people might sip it and others might finish the whole cup off in 3 gulps.

And the coffee that tastes best to you, may not be the favorite of your spouse or neighbor. And that’s OK. But there are some factors that make coffee high quality or low quality, desirable or undesirable. And roasters like Topeca, and people like Ian, consider it part of their duty to educate people so that we are wiser and more discerning consumers.
If you ever get the chance to go to a cupping by a good roaster or good café, I would highly recommend it. It will offer you the opportunity to slow down, and be more mindful of the beverage in front of you. You can learn about the beverage you’re enjoying, and appreciate all the passion, dedication, and hard work that went into every step of the process.

Some Related Links:
The SCAA’s Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel
Topeca Coffee Roasters
A not so serious approach to cupping…

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Andrea & Julia

Have you seen the movie Julie & Julia? I saw it for the first time a year or two after it came out (2009), during one of my bachelorette periods. I really liked it. There’s a lot to like:
• it’s directed by Nora Ephron
• the story involves someone becoming a successful blogger/writer
• there’s a guy who sticks with you in the end
• it entails the successful completion of a project
And best of all:
• Meryl Streep as Julia Child – you really can’t get much cuter than that.

A few months ago, I saw the film again and this time, I liked it even more. The heroine Julie feels lost, or unsatisfied, and takes on a project that seems daunting, and she’s not even really sure why she does it. The film weaves two storylines together: Julie’s personal journey of cooking every dish in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the story of how Julia got her epic cookbook published. Both stories are compelling and work well together, and you’re left feeling happy that two very different types of women both accomplished something big. I like that kind of thing.

In Real Life, I’m not sure how I got from the film Julie & Julia to the book As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. I don’t know if it was something to do with the film, or just a book review I saw somewhere – but in any case, I’d had that book on my Amazon Wish List for years, even though I’m not sure why… Then one day, a month or two ago, I was walking through the library, and THERE it was! I checked it out and took it home, and after 3 pages I ordered my own copy.

As Always is a book of correspondence between Julia Child and her friend Avis, starting in 1952, when Julia was living in Paris and Avis was answering fan mail for her husband who was a writer. Julia sent Mr. DeVoto some French knives in response to an article he wrote, Avis replied with thanks… and the rest is history. A friendship and correspondence that spanned decades.

I am only about 80 pages in so far, so I can’t give you much more of a run-down than that. The book is like a fine wine, or more appropriately, a rich meal – I am taking my time, savoring the pages, and going slowly because there is a lot to digest. Every time I would pick up the book, I would find myself saying, this book is really good, and I really like it, but why? I’m not into cooking. I know virtually nothing about Julia Child save for what was in that movie. I do remember seeing her on TV when I was small, I can remember her voice and her tall stature… but other than that? Nothing. I can’t eat French cooking, I’m pretty sure it would wreak a most unfortunate type of havoc on my body. I know I’ve gained at least 5 pounds just reading about how much butter, olive oil, cream, etc she uses…

So every time I’d pick it up, I couldn’t figure out why. Until last week.

Julia Child wrote about French food the same way I think about coffee.
She loved it. She was passionate about it and she wanted to always be learning more about it. To read her thoughts about cooking, and her descriptions of the recipes and the ingredients is inspiring because her passion really comes through. I’m not saying I’m the coffee version of Julia Child by any means – but I do hope that when I talk to someone about coffee, they can tell I’m passionate about it and that it’s important to me (they might also think I’m crazy, which is why I generally try to bring it down a few notches).
While I don’t cook, and am by no means a foodie, I love Julia because she loved food. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

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Crema.

Yesterday, I went to get a latte. I know, I know – you’re shocked to hear this. It was actually a reward latte, for having a good dental check-up. Now that I don’t have dental insurance anymore, a clean bill of dental health is cause for celebration – thank goodness it only cost me $110 for the cleaning and exam and nothing else was wrong! (Note: had something else been wrong, I still would have gone to get a latte, as a consolation prize).

So I ended up at Foolish Things, on 11th Street. I’d never been before. The barista was nice, the La Marzocco was nice, the coffee beans were from a roaster in Redlands, CA (can’t remember the name – oops).
I took a seat by the window, which had a nice view of downtown Tulsa. I’d brought my book with me, but as it turned out, as it has so many times before, I didn’t feel like reading. I did the obligatory photo snapping and then I sat and looked at my coffee.
It was an 8-ounce latte, in a black cup. It was filled to the brim – and then some. I’d had trouble carrying it across the room but I didn’t mind because a latte filled to the point just south of Overflowing always makes me feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. And if it’s a delicious latte, well then that’s one more sip I can take.
This latte was pretty good. However – I’d just had 3 pairs of latex gloves rooting around in my mouth for an hour, not to mention just having endured a fairly substantial barrage of minty tooth polishing junk, some of which even ended up in my hair.
So now I tasted latex gloves, minty junk, and coffee. Fortunately, the coffee was winning the battle.

I looked out the window at downtown. Well Tulsa, I thought to myself, what’s next? Why am I still in Tulsa? What could I do to make Tulsa better? Every once in a while I think I should do things to make the city I live in a better place. To be fair, I try to be involved in the arts community and attend events, etc. But I know there are lots of people out there that do way more than me – and thank goodness for them! I guess sometimes I get so caught up in my own life that the betterment of and interaction with my community takes a back seat. But there are people out there that are maybe a little further up Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, who devote more time to things that are bigger than themselves. If you are one of those people – thank you, I appreciate you. I’m trying, but I may seem like a self-absorbed dork a good part of the time.

So I looked at the city, and I drank my latte.
You can judge a lot by the crema of an espresso – this is a widely-known fact. The appearance and quantity of espresso crema is an indication of the quality of the coffee and the quality of the shot that the barista has just pulled for you.
Crema, in case you weren’t aware, is the frothy, light brown foamy stuff that makes up the top layer of a shot of espresso. It’s like the frothy head on your freshly-poured beer. Crema is, according to the Seattle Coffee Gear web site, “a little bit of a Holy Grail,” because of what it indicates about the coffee beans and the espresso itself. Everyone tries to produce good crema.
Crema actually tastes quite bitter. To be honest, a plain shot of espresso just tastes downright weird to me – I’m not used to drinking them straight, an 8-ounce latte being my drink of choice. When steamed milk is added to the shot of espresso, the pattern in which milk is poured over the crema accounts for the “latte art” you see in all the photos (coffeeporn).

OK so now you know a little about crema. I was sitting, looking at Tulsa, contemplating my lack of community involvement, wondering what I really want to be FOCUSING on in my life – and trying to tune out the really annoying man at the next table.
With each sip I took, I could taste the crema on the top of the drink. When it’s gathered on the surface like that, a little bit of it always stays on my lips. I ran my tongue across my lips and tasted the bitterness. I liked it.
I’ve noticed this before – some of the best lattes I’ve had, left a bitterness on my lips. Bitterness on its own, is not really a pleasant thing. But I’ve come to realize that somehow, it’s an integral part of an enjoyable coffee experience. By itself it’s not good. But combined with the espresso, and the milk, and possibly even the environment – it’s quite lovely.

Funny how something on its own can be unpleasant but combined with other factors ends up being desirable.
I savored the bitter crema with each sip, until the latte was gone.
I was left with the faint hint of bitterness on my lips. I was left with the feeling that comes after experiencing something pleasant. And while my desire for coffee was sated, I was still somehow left with the desire for something more.

crema. good.
crema. good.
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Bad Mood.

I am in a bad mood today. And I was in one yesterday. And there’s a pretty good chance I may still be in it tomorrow too.
So, sorry in advance or for past behavior and sorry in the present tense too.
Most of the time when I’m in a bad mood, I just get quiet. Some people might consider this a plus, actually…
Maybe I shouldn’t even write about it? So that everything is just always positive and happy and upbeat?
Or maybe it’s OK to feel meh sometimes. Because I miss my Mom. And there is a hole in my closet that’s filled with dirt and my clothes are spread out over 3 rooms in the house. And it’s been cloudy for like, ever. I haven’t had a decent latte since Tuesday and I miss traveling. And I haven’t won the lottery yet.
Sometimes things just move very slowly. Meh, I guess it happens. It’ll work itself out.

One thing’s for sure, though: life is too short for shitty coffee.

coffee fail
today’s epic coffee FAIL – so bad i can’t even show it.
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Ready For the Next Adventure…

Well, I’ve been home from my Spring Coffee Tour for a little over a week now. And I have to say, I’m already wishing I could get back out on the road again.

A few days ago, I thought I would try to recreate the adventure of looking for New Coffee Places and went to Nordaggio’s in South Tulsa. I hadn’t been there in years, and I thought I should start trying out coffee in my own town if I can’t get out on the road.
It was a rainy Saturday morning, and I went by myself and ordered a latte. Based on the look I got when I asked how many ounces their lattes were, I guess they thought I was either ignorant or a noob. Or probably both. But if there’s one thing I learned, it’s find out the size of the drinks before you order, because there’s more variation out there than you’d think (or than there should be).
I sat with my latte and watched the rain outside and the 3 other people in the shop. I realized early on I had chosen a seat too close to the stereo speakers but I was too lazy to move.
As I nursed my drink (and I will say, it was the most unusual latte I’ve had in recent memory… They roast their own beans and I don’t know what they DO to them exactly – there was no “nuttiness” in the flavor but there was instead a whole lot of caramel flavor. It was a little disconcerting… but not bad…), I thought about my trip some more. I realized that most of the coffee I drank on the trip, I had by myself. I think only twice did I have a friend with me. And I also realized – that I enjoyed being alone.
I could always go talk to the barista or the owner or the roaster and ask questions and say hi, and learn from them. I love watching the look on someone’s face when they talk about something they’re passionate about – and I saw that a lot. So I could always find people to talk to, but when it came down to the act of experiencing the atmosphere and the sights and sounds and using all the senses involved in the experience of drinking a coffee – I experienced all that by myself.
There are two things I love about coffee besides the taste – the aspect of ritual and the aspect of social interaction. I enjoy the ritual of making coffee at home. And I enjoy the civility that comes with sitting down with someone and having a conversation over a great espresso drink. But on the trip, having a latte by myself became a new sort of ritual, and a new way of relating to the whole experience. I was fully in the Present Moment. And it was great. With no conversation as distraction, I could pay more attention to everything around me and I was able to notice more how the environment contributes to the level of enjoyment of the beverage. Because it’s true – the circumstances under which you drink coffee will contribute to your impression of the drink itself.
I hope all this makes sense. Because I’m not sure I’m managing to explain what I’m thinking very well.
The short version is: the trip was great because it was the perfect combination of spending time with other people and spending time alone. And being in complete control of how I spent my time was priceless.

So now that I’m home, with dishes to wash and bills to pay, and some gardening to do and unfortunately a termite inspection on the agenda, I find myself wishing for another Coffee Adventure. I’d love to pick a city and go there and order a bunch of lattes and meet new people and learn more about coffee. I guess I’ll start saving for the next Coffee Tour.

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