There are unending flavor notes to coffee. You can work on observing these through a coffee tasting strategy called "Cupping". Klatch Coffee's assistant manager, Matthew Bryce outlines how to begin with coffee cupping.
One of my earliest, and favorite memories of cupping coffee was on a trip to the Peralta farms in the Jalapa mountain range in Nicaragua. It wasn’t my first time cupping, but it certainly stood out. I had arrived at the end of harvest season, the air was cool, and the mountains looked out over a paradise of green, blue and grey mounds, each mountain top more cloud-like as it faded into the distance. When I returned home to Washington, D.C., I remembered with distinct clarity the crisp air in Nicaragua, the slopes of the coffee farms, the sway of the coffee plants beneath their jungle canopies, the vibrant colors of the coffee cherries and most importantly, the talented producers who had spent their lives coaxing these glorious plants up from the soil. I was on an educational trip, and each opportunity I had to cup was an opportunity for me to learn about each farm, and the coffees it produced.
If you have never cupped coffee, you should. It is a time-honored method used to evaluate coffee’s flavors and aromas which enable coffee tasters of every level, from beginner to expert to determine a coffee’s attributes. Much like wine tasting, it enables the taster to get to know the complexity of flavors offered by the marriage of coffee varieties to their origins, and finally, to make determinations depending on the context of the cupping.
Cupping is for everyone, from the coffee producer who wants to taste the result of the hard work put into the beans they are growing, to the coffee buyer who needs to score, and determine which beans they would like to purchase for import. The roaster needs to cup in order to determine the proper roast, and the coffee trainer needs to cup in order to better know the coffee they are brewing so that for each step in the chain, the barista has faithfully passed on all of the hard work which was put into the growth and presentation of those beans.
For us as consumers, we can attend local cuppings in order to better understand what is available to us from our local coffee shops and roasters. Not only in cafes, but at home when deciding to brew our coffee on our favorite brewer, it is always helpful to cup our coffee so we know what to look for. Always remember, different brewers will highlight different aspects of our coffee so matching our coffee brewers to the coffees we prefer only maximizes our enjoyment.
So how does one cup you ask? It begins with our own sensory experiences which we train and develop by practice. Each of us is a tasting champion at some level, and has the ability to learn to taste, and discern the various flavors found in our foods and beverages with remarkable precision. In the case of coffee, we are in luck because the roasting process which is vital to the flavor of our coffee produces literally thousands of aroma and flavor compounds for us to explore. Of course, a talented roaster is ideal, faithfully passing on to us the experience of balance and peak complexity when we taste, but even a sub-par roast will open up to us many of the compounds which that coffee can produce for us. That said, the difference will be made clear on the table.
When cupping, we begin by observing the coffee itself. Is it all the same color? Do some beans stand out for any particular reason? If the coffee is not a blend, each bean will look relatively similar. If it is a blend, they will each carry the attributes of their individual varieties.
Next, we begin the first of two broad stages in which we use our sense of smell to evaluate the fragrance. Fragrance is unique to the cupping experience because it can only be observed at the beginning of the process. This is because the term “fragrance” is given to the observation of the coffee’s smell before adding hot water. When we add hot water, the heat releases gasses which are still trapped in the bean’s grinds. When the gasses escape, some combine with the water, but some are released as “Aroma.” The water rushes in to take the place of the gas, and begins to dissolve the soluble elements by means of osmosis. A complex process begins in which the various compounds which are being extracted bond to the water molecules and the soluble elements found in the water. This process will continue, allowing the coffee to develop until the end of the cupping. Once, the coffee has brewed, a crust will have formed on the surface of your brew, this signals one of my favorite moments in the cupping process, the final stage of the aroma evaluation in which you “break” the crust with your cupping spoon allowing a strong, fragrant plume of coffee aroma to be released. For me, this moment qualifies my previous observations, and gives me an exciting preview of the coffee’s flavor potential. 80% of taste is smell. Keep that in mind as you forge on ahead into your taste experience! If you are attending a cupping, chances are your host has been quite attentive, and is already skimming the latent grounds and oils which remain on the surface of the cup so that you can enter into the second stage of cupping, taste evaluation.
For reasons only somewhat unrelated, I always look forward to the taste evaluation of coffee. For some, this portion is all business, but for me it’s fun because we get to slurp! A lot! Isn’t this rude? Not at the cupping table it isn’t. It’s encouraged! Why do we slurp you ask? Good question; when we slurp we aerate the coffee. What this means is that the coffee converts from a body of liquid into spray. The spray goes everywhere! It sprays all over the top of our tongue as well as under our tongue, the roof of our mouths, the soft palate, the sides of our cheeks, and if done right, some is carried into our nasal passages to be perceived by our olfactory senses. This is related to what was said earlier about smell being 80% of our taste experience. Our brains are able to detect the compounds of coffee when they come into direct contact with it. This combined with the spray which interacts with all of our taste receptors allows us to get a very thorough idea of what that coffee tastes and smells like.
It is this stage which is probably the most familiar to tasters, and allows us to taste and make note of the various aspects ranging from flavor to taste balance, texture to aftertaste and so forth. Not only this, but we begin to get a good idea of the quality of coffee we are evaluating as well.
If you are attending a cupping, chances are your host has instructed you to remain quiet during the process. This is because we are frail creatures, and are highly influenced by suggestion. A stray remark about the flavor of a coffee isn’t soon forgotten by your brain, and when it comes time for you to taste that coffee, you guessed it, your brain is already accessing memories of that flavor, and influencing your taste experience. Be kind when you taste in groups, and refrain from influencing the outcome of others’ experience. Let the cup do the talking.
This brings me to why I began this entry with an anecdote. Sure, it makes for more interesting reading, but more to our purposes, flavor and memory are very closely related. For me, the thought of putting this information into words immediately conjured images of my time tasting coffee in Nicaragua despite my having literally hundreds of coffee cupping experiences. You may have had this same experience yourself. It happens all the time that someone tells you before a trip to try a café or restaurant which they visited when they spent time in that same location, perhaps on a honeymoon, or some other meaningful occasion. You go, but don’t have the same experience and wonder why they’d have suggested the location, but for them, it may have been the best they’d ever had. Memories, emotions and flavors all interact in relation to one another due to the way our brains function, and store all of this information. This is helpful when learning how to taste. We can become more mindful of how mood and emotions “seasons” our taste experience, and work to understand how this presents itself in us.
The more often we taste, and experience flavors of different kinds, the more we develop our taste memory and are able to reference it. This is true for all of our foods so please, have fun tasting all of your favorite foods! Have more so you can learn more! Enjoy the experience, and remember it fondly. You will always remember that fond occasion whenever you experience those flavors again.
At Klatch Coffee, we are always learning from our experiences. As a result, we continue to cup, and to practice our craft. We invite you to come evaluate our coffees with us at one of our free cuppings/tasting events. Be attentive to your local Klatch Coffee tasting schedules so we can host you, and expand our palates together. Happy cupping!
Great coffees to try for your first cupping experience:
Redondo Beach hosts a Cupping Class every 2nd Thursday of the month from 4pm-6pm. (FREE)
There is also a Friday Tasting in Rancho Cucamonga: Sign-up through https://www.eventbrite.com/ to attend Friday Tasting at Klatch Coffee Roastery & Training Lab. (Seats must be reserved through Eventbrite.) From 10am -11am. - Limited seating available