Intro to Cupping

It’s fun to learn! Last week we took an introduction to cupping workshop at the young business Pacific Coffee Research (PCR). According to Ted Lingle, “Coffee cupping is a method used to systematically evaluate the aroma and taste quality characteristics of a sample of coffee beans.” We learned what’s involved with the Specialty Coffee Association’s (SCA) cupping protocol.

I asked beforehand if it were possible to include our coffee in the workshop, and co-owner/instructor Brittany was very accommodating. I was to provide 200 grams of green coffee. When you cup coffees, you want to control as much as you can in order to be able to compare the beans, not the roasting. So they do the roasting. I had also forgotten that cupped coffee is roasted to a lighter degree than most people drink coffee.

Alas, PCR’s sample roaster was having technical difficulties. So instead I was asked to bring 100 g of our freshest, lightest roast. Because of our roaster and the amounts required, I provided our medium roast that we sell, and it was roasted the day before the workshop. Medium roast was considered dark compared to the other four coffees’ cupping roast.

We got a few sheets of paper on a clipboard, including the SCA scoring sheet, the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, and some notes about the cupping process. Brittany explained various details, letting us appreciate to what degree they try to make a subjective process as objective, untainted, and unbiased as possible. It’s not my goal to repeat the content of the workshop or protocol here.

For each coffee, identified just by a number, there were five cups. And we had five coffees to taste. The slideshow describes some of the process. PCR boils the cupping process down to: dry fragrance → wet aroma → break → skim → slurp.

The total workshop was just two hours, and Brittany emphasized that what we were doing was NOT real cupping, because we’d have things explained to us and we’d be talking at various points. As soon as we started with the first sensory experience — smelling the five samples of the five coffees, I was already overwhelmed. I had thoughts of, “This is too hard! I can’t do it!” How do you take notes and capture what you’re smelling?! We had to smell the coffee, ground and dry, and then also once the water was added. And we had to taste (slurp off a spoon & spit) and evaluate the coffees for a number of different parameters, including flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, etc. There is much more! I was giving it 100% of my attention and I felt defeated, like the task was so hard I just couldn’t do it. I gave up writing down notes.

I could definitely tell differences between the coffees, but how do you capture and describe those differences? And remember a particular coffee later when you aren’t tasting it? That’s what this protocol can allow you to do, if you’re trained. I am humbled, and the task seems so hard, I’m not sure I want to try.

This anecdote came to mind. If you have musical perfect pitch you can identify or re-create a musical note without having a reference tone. Somewhere, sometime I heard how a person with perfect pitch tried to explain to others who don’t have perfect pitch by using an analogy. Say you saw two colors (e.g., blue and green) but you couldn’t name or describe them until you saw red and were told it’s red. Then you’d say, “Aha! Then that’s blue and that’s green.”

For taste, how do we name aromas and flavors? Is there such a thing as “absolute taste?” At our workshop we learned there’s a free, downloadable document, World Coffee Research’s Sensory Lexicon, that defines 110 different flavors. Take a look at a few flavors. It’s a fascinating document! More so, I’m intimidated. I did my usual quick internet poking around and stumbled upon and skimmed an interesting scholarly paper, “Not All Flavor Expertise Is Equal.”

The workshop was a fun experience. I had just read an article a day or two prior, “The World’s Best Hotel Coffee is at Four Seasons Resort Hualālai” that was in Forbes magazine. In it they mention how fortunate they were to have a licensed Q grader on staff. I didn’t realize that that same Q grader, a local coffee rockstar, was helping out in our workshop, Madeleine Longoria Garcia. I only now put it altogether. Turns out she is no longer at Four Seasons but is now a Q grader, barista trainer, and machine technician for PCR.

What’s a Q grader? I knew of the concept, but it was dramatized more for me when I read Dave Egger’s book, The Monk of Mokha, about Mokhtar Alkhanshali and his family’s and Yemen’s connection to coffee. There are analogies like “coffee sommelier” or “certification is like the coffee bar exam” (referencing the difficulty of law students passing the bar exam in the US).

I’ll close with a quote I liked in that Forbes article. Coffee isn’t meant merely to be consumed, it also …

“acts as a medium, connecting us to the people we love, and inviting us to love others. Coffee connects us to the land (the ‘aina). We serve our guests coffee from Hawai’i Island. It is grown on our mountains by our people. It doesn’t get lost in a never-ending supply chain.”

Nate Musson

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