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).
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 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.
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.
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.