I have done wine tasting. I have done spirits tasting. I have never done a coffee tasting. Until yesterday. It is, I discovered, called coffee cupping.
The cupping (which sounds odd I realize) was hosted by the good folks at Caravan Coffee and held at Vista Hills Vineyard, in their barrel room. We were led in our endeavors by Caravan’s roast master, the fun and entertaining Paul Allen. Two things struck me as funny; the first was, yes, not that Paul Allen; and the second was the title “roast master’ which sounds like something off a bad TV special. Then again I’m just strange that way.
In any case, our guide – Paul Allen – explained the steps we were going to undertake on three different coffees. First was to sniff the coffee. Small sniffs, not the generous whiffs that I’m so used to from the swirling and sniffing of wine. You can see were those would be, well, problematic when it comes to finely ground coffee.
It is amazing what you discover when you take in the aroma of coffee while you are actually thinking about the aroma of coffee. I love the smell of coffee, it has always been heady perfume to me; and yet I have never really thought about the scent other than – yum, coffee. Thinking about it, thinking about what I was smelling opened up a new world.
The first of the three coffees had a woody, earthy scent; it was very fragrant, very bold. The second was milder and harder to pin down. Others used the terms berry and spice and sniffing it again with those words in my head, I could see what they meant. The third had a deep nutty aroma; one person made the comment that it smelled like walnut while another said chocolate.
This accomplished, hot water was poured over the grounds and left to steep for four minutes. Then we ‘broke the crust.’ With a spoon the surface of the coffee is lightly stirred three times; not enough to disturb the grounds, but just enough to break the surface tension and release the aromas. More sniffing follows. It fascinates me how the addition of hot water both changes and enhances the aroma. For instance, that earthy, woody aroma of the first coffee? It now had a distinct tobacco scent to it. The third coffee? That nutty scent now had citrus in the mix.
Now came the actual tasting. With two spoons, the surface ‘crust’ is removed and dumped in a separate bowl. Then, being careful again not to stir up the grounds, coffee is dipped out with the spoon. Three tastes, accomplished with great slurping (really, with all this sniffing and slurping I have to believe my grandmother would have found this a most unsuitable past time for me!) to help aerate and enhance the flavors.
The first taste is for acidity, how the coffee strikes the tongue. Is it bright? Is it a jolt? Is it flat? This is really a physical sensation, as I discovered. Acidity in coffee is very different than acidity in wine, though we use some of the same terms to describe it, such as brightness, or crispness. Yet with coffee it is more about how it hits the tongue, the side of the mouth, the way it feels rather than how it tastes.
The second taste is for flavor. So much of flavor is aroma. Ask my friend Beth, she of no sense of smell. I have learned so much from how she tastes things, how we can taste the exact same thing and have such very different responses. She really has taught me what part is truly my taste buds, and what part is aroma. For this second taste it really was putting together the smell and the taste.
The third taste is for body. This is where you evaluate the viscosity. The way Paul explained it was to use our tongues as scales and see how the liquid felt in our mouths. Is it thin like water? Is it thick like honey? Does it feel like it coats the mouth? I loved these descriptions, they were great visuals for me. And, indeed, the three different coffees did indeed have different bodies to them. There wasn’t a viscous honey among them, but there was a difference in the mouth feel.
Again, we talk about mouth feel in wine as well. We talk about silkiness, we talk about creaminess, sometimes the word chewy is used. These apply with coffee as well. The different coffee had different mouth feels. The first one was fluid and silky. The second was very similar. The third was closer to creamy.
Paul had asked us at the beginning, after the first sniff test, which of the three coffee we would choose if we could only drink one of them for the rest of our lives. I had chosen the first one. Maybe it was because it was the first one I smelled. Maybe it was the somewhat heady woody aroma. Maybe it was that it was the first one; but I did favor it of the three.
At the end he asked us the question again. This time it was the third one that I chose. I had fallen for the feel of it, for the brightness, for the subtle citrus tones and the deep nuttiness of it. Oddly enough the first one was a bit too strong, a bit too tobacco tasting. The second one? It never was my favorite of the three. I think it was over shadowed a bit. A nice coffee, perfectly drinkable; but ultimately not my cup of…coffee.
Paul then revealed what the coffees were. The first was a Brazilian peaberry; the second was Kona, the third was Ethiopian Yergacheffe. I made note of this. Because I really think that I could drink that third coffee every day for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy.
All in all, I came away from the coffee cupping feeling like I had learned a lot. It was interesting to have the contrast of wine tasting to relate to. It was interesting to see how the pros do it. It was fun to try it myself. I really hope that they continue to do these, I know I would go to another one if I had the chance.