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

Maika’i; A’ole Maika’i

Maika’i means good. A’ole means no. A’ole maika’i = not good.

Our land is in the process of being restored. We’ve come far in under a year and a half. But there’s still room for improvement. Below are two short slideshows.


A’ole Maika’i

Kill the K-Cup

I wanted to share two articles about the Keurig K-Cup®, and finally actually watched the short video, “Kill the K-Cup,” that came out … oh, four years ago. (I’m often years behind things that once went viral.) I think it’s hilarious.

Before reading anything about the K-cup, I knew it wasn’t a machine or system for me, mostly, because of all the waste. Also, you’re limited to what’s offered, though you can get a reusable cup & fill it yourself, your way. But then you seem to be going against the convenience of the system and the ready-packaged pods, vacuum-sealed in nitrogen to reduce oxidation. And you’ll have to get and grind the coffee, clean the K-cup … bah!

According to The Atlantic article, one out of every three American homes has a pod-based coffee machine. The inventor intended it as a convenience at the office. When using this coffee delivery mechanism, standard coffee is sold at about $40/pound . People pay that and don’t think it’s expensive, but people think Kona coffee is expensive?

These two articles make good points. The long one by The Atlantic was shared by my friend who owns a K-Cup machine (more for his guests than for himself) and seems to hate that he does (even before he read the article).

“The Environmental Impact of K-Cups” (by Home Grounds)

“A Brewing Problem: What’s the Healthiest Way to Keep Everyone Caffeinated” (by The Atlantic)

From Seed to Cup

This page from the National Coffee Association offers a concise 10-step overview of the journey a typical coffee seed makes, from coffee seed to seedling to what we drink. I’ve made a few notes below, details regarding Bea’s Knees Farm coffee for each of NCA’s steps.

(1) Planting

Grandpa used to find his own young volunteer trees that sprouted from seedlings, and plant them as needed, e.g., when a mature tree died or was under-performing. The volunteers tended to be near rock walls, where beans/seeds would fall and not get picked up.

Several small coffee seedlings that sprouted from fallen coffee seeds/beans.

These are some volunteer coffee seedlings in my mom’s pot. Please follow the delicate stems from the right side of the photo. (1) This is a coffee seed starting to sprout. (2) This seedling can already be transplanted since it has its second set of leaves. The second set are its “real” leaves and looks like the commonly seen coffee leaves. (3) This seedling only has its first set of leaves.

Nowadays, for replacements we would not use these pulapulas (coffee seedlings pulled from the ground). We use young grafted Kona Typica trees from a nursery.  The root stock is semi-nematode resistant, and the tree will likely live longer than a non-grafted tree.  Coffee root-knot nematodes are another problem Grandpa didn’t have to deal with. 

(2) Harvesting the Cherries

We have several harvests and we selectively pick.  Last year we had 7 flowerings, 3 selective pickings from early September through mid-November, and one final strip pick by hand.  The strip pick is done to control coffee borer beetle, and wasn’t good quality and didn’t go into our estate coffee.

(3) Processing the Cherries

We use the wet method (also described as washed).  The parchment ferments overnight before drying.

(4) Drying the Beans

Our beans are sun-dried, then finish-dried in a dryer.  At this point, the beans have been dried from the outside of the bean, in.  By letting the coffee rest at the parchment stage, the moisture gets a chance to equalize throughout the bean.  The parchment rests in a light-, temperature- and humidity-controlled area. How long it rests is another one of those tweak-able variables.  Most of the moisture probably equalizes in a matter of days, but some people like it to rest a minimum of 60 days.

(5) Milling the Beans

(6) Exporting the Beans

According to the University of Hawaii CTAHR July 2014 article, The Economics of Coffee Production in Hawai’i, “Hawai‘i’s production of coffee makes up only 0.04% of total world production.” [emphasis mine]

(7)  Tasting the Coffee

We don’t do this.  This would be done as part of the certification process by the Hawaii Dept. of Agriculture.  Certification is required for green coffee shipped out of the area of production. 

(8) Roasting the Coffee

(9)  Grinding Coffee

My thoughts:

(10) Brewing Coffee

The following cold brew post is a bit wordy and detailed. Sorry.