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A Cupping Extravaganza

What I’m not attempting to do

It’s not entirely clear where the right place is to begin when discussing the coffee cupping event I attended last Saturday. I’d like not to spend time discussing the pros and cons of coffee cupping as either a brew method, tasting technique or public relations tool. I’d also not like to spend time recounting just what coffee cupping is or the hows and whys of doing it (1,2,3,4). I definitely do not want to engage over how the media loves to portray cupping (rightfully or not) as an activity full of funny adjectives (1,2). And I certainly don’t want to spend time describing the multitude of opportunities that you likely have to cup coffee at roasters and cafes near you (please do add them in the comments below), or how easy it is to pick up some cupping supplies for yourself to use at home. What I do want to do is recount the activities of this Home Barista meetup I attended, include a few notes on the coffees, and see if I can’t pass along a few morsels of wisdom along the way.

Giving Thanks

First off, I want to extend a round of thank yous to the people responsible for this amazing event. Chris Tacy (1,2) did a marvelous job of rounding up coffees, leading and organizing the whole thing. Doug Jamieson gave up the space (and provided some great tips on espresso brewing). There were several people helping out who’s names I didn’t all get. There were, of course, all the Home Barista members who actually attended. Then there were the roasters and other coffee folks who donated an insane number of really incredible coffees and other items given away as door prizes.

The Cupping Table of the Gods

The star of the event, and the place we began, was that cupping table, which contained 22 coffees from 11 roasters located in 5 different countries. This kinds of spread is impressive purely for its breadth, but even more so when you consider the quality of the coffees that we cupped, which included an Esmeralda Geisha, several cup of excellence winners and numerous select microlots. (Many of these coffees go for well above the $20/pound mark). The coffees we cupped included the following:

(Now those of you keeping close watch over Chris Tacy’s tasting notes, will notice that the much lauded Stumptown Guatemala or the Tim Wendelboe Brazil he tasted, mysteriously, never made it to the H-B cupping table. Coincidence? I think not. The hubris of some hosts, keeping all the good stuff for themselves!)

Lessons from a large cupping

The cupping began with a few introductory words and some general cupping guidance by Chris and then the group was off, sniffing, slurping, tasting and note-taking. We did know from prior posts most of the roasters on the table, but we didn’t know the actual coffees or which cups were from which roasters. Cupping blind is definitely a rewarding experience since you feel no obligation to like or to think you should like one coffee over the next.

I had two immediate impressions. First, whether it’s what you should do on a first round of cupping or not, when you have a dozen or so people trying to cup 22 coffees, you really can’t get more than a quick impression without causing a traffic jam.  Second, people who cup professionally are like marathon runners. The palate fatigue I experienced, even with mineral water cleansing sessions, made detailed note-taking tougher, and the notes I did take circumspect. In the end, I relied little on my actual notes and stuck by a tried and true method of first impressions: a full smiley face for the top picks and simple smile (no eyes) for the next tier down.

My top picks

The bottom line was that there were no bad coffees and those that I liked less than others could have been due to palate fatigue, the fact that there were some real superstar coffees on the table or comparative differences between coffees from different origins that I didn’t have time to examine as fully as I would have liked. Qualifications aside, here were my top picks:

  • Tier One (amazing):
    • Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose
    • Square Mile Coffee Roasters, Ethiopia Yirgacheffe
  • Tier Two (others that seriously grabbed my attention):
    • Mecca Espresso, Bolivia Mondo Novo (CoE #7)
    • Ritual Coffee Roasters, Kenya Karimikui
    • Square Mile Coffee Roasters, Kenya Tegu Kirimukuyu
    • Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Colombia La Esperanza
    • Tim Wendelboe Honduras Cielito Lindo (CoE #5)

What’s obvious to me from this list? I need to be drinking more coffees from out of the country. Of course the first two stood out because of both the high quality of the coffees and their origins – both of which tend to be two of my favorite origins for quality coffees. But for the others, I’m less clear whether my like was due to the quality of the green bean, something about the roasting style or simply the way they outshone their neighbors on the table. Either way, it looks like my out-of-pocket expenses for coffee may just have gone up. That international shipping is a killer, if you can even get it. Apparently Wendelboe won’t sell to U.S. addresses due to the delays created by U.S. customs.

But wait, there’s more…

What’s startlingly silly about this event is that there was more to it than just this stellar cupping table. After we were done sharing a bit more about the coffees we headed back to talk espresso and to spend some quality time with a Mazer Robur, Mazzer Super Jolly, La Marzocco GS/3 and an Elektra Sixties A3. Chris and Doug gave brief lessons on shot techniques and gave us an opportunity to work on ours.

There were door prizes as well. It’s hard to argue with free bags of Black Cat, Square Mile t-shirts, Intelligentsia mugs, and cupping spoons. But better still were the techniques that several of us were able to take with us. A few pointers have already lead to some consistently better shots at home.

Lessons Learned

I’d like not to get too reflective on what has turned out to be an already too long post, but here’s my attempt to encapsulate either what I learned or what I heard that I think is worth passing along. And keep in mind, this advice is really for folks who want to get to know coffee better and have a passion for coffee. If you just want to know where to get a good cup and don’t care about the nuances of taste, check elsewhere on this blog or simply look at the list above.

  • If you have the chance, try any one of the above mentioned coffees.
  • Cup coffee often. If you want to improve your ability to identify flavors and your appreciation of coffee, you’ve got to taste and compare coffees often and cupping remains one of the better ways to do so.
  • Don’t cup with too many people or too many coffees. OK. This was a great event, but it would have been better with fewer coffees and fewer people. I’m not complaining, mind you, just pointing out my preference.
  • But do cup with other people, especially those more experienced and skilled than you. Don’t be intimidated. Ask questions. Discuss what you taste. The goal is to build your vocabulary and hear terms that fit what you’re tasting. You’ll never do that by yourself or if you are always the most knowledgeable in the room.

There, have I drunk the cupping Kool-aid or what?

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5 comments to A Cupping Extravaganza

  • Great write-up!!

    To be clear…. both Wendelboe and Stumptown send more than 2 coffees – so we had to chose what to include and exclude on the table for Saturday (each roaster got 2 coffees). Then, in the Sunday re-cup, I swapped some coffees around and relaxed the “2 coffees rule” in the case of Wendelboe. What went on the table was a tough decision when all the coffees were so good!

    Definitely wasn’t a “save the good stuff” decision on my part.

  • chipman

    Really terrific write up. I wish I could have attended. From all I’ve read, this event was really educational and fun. Can’t ask for more than that.

    I too, would like to thank both of the hosts. Even though I wasn’t able to attend, I learned more from reading about it then I ever expected.

    Side note to Chris, I think he was just ribbing you about the good stuff.

  • I can attest to the added expense of acquiring coffees from beyond our country’s borders … heck even beyond the border of our state. Shipping: ouch!

    Having said that, what a treat it is to receive a package in the mail and to anticipate what is inside. I ordered some beans from Square Mile a few months ago. Every time I opened up my cupboard to brew up some of it I marveled at the wonders of our modern world where I could be making a cup of coffee in the U.S. from beans roasted in London that were sourced from Central America.

    I am keeping my ear to the ground for the next event. Here’s hoping [crossing fingers] that my schedule will be able to accommodate it.

  • You should go to the café in Wivenhoe, Essex (UK) and see what an awful service they have. Asking costumers to leave after 45 mins; not allowing anyone to use the power outlets and, in general, having a terrible attitude towards the clients. The owner should seek for some psychoteraphy and don’t take it out on the clients.

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