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Last week, I attended a coffee cupping and tasting at a local roaster here in San Diego, California.
What is a coffee cupping? It is the practice of analyzing a coffee’s flavor. The idea is to take a specific coffee to understand all of its tastes and aromas, to be able to determine information about the coffee. The two main reasons to do this, are for a professional coffee roaster to sample and evaluate the coffee before committing to buying a large amount of it. Coffee competitions such as the Cup of Excellence also rely on this method of evaluation to determine the quality of a coffee.
The second reason to cup coffee is for the professional coffee roaster to be able to explain what makes it unique to coffee drinkers, before they buy it. You’re looking for something unique in your coffee, and the descriptions of flavor that you see on better packages of coffee, are meant to help you find a coffee you’ll enjoy. As an aside, when you use our Coffee Quiz, your particular tastes and likes are being linked with the tastes and aromas that have been determined while cupping coffee.
Why attend a coffee cupping? Not all coffee tastings are cupping. A coffee tasting is simply an open house, where coffee drinkers are invited to try the different coffees that the roaster currently offers. The actual act of coffee cupping entails the same process used by evaluators to analyze coffee. In a nutshell, you let the ground coffee brew in hot water for four minutes. In that time, the ground coffee farms a solid crust at the top of the cup. After four minutes, you break the crust with a spoon and in the seconds that follow, you are exposed to the aromas and tastes that this coffee has to offer. Coffee cuppers will generally keep notes when trying a coffee as not to lose their first impressions.
The coffee cupping that I attended was hosted by a local coffee roaster that had procured two new coffees: an Ethiopian coffee and a Yemeni coffee. My host started with an explanation of the history of coffee from the two areas. We then cupped the coffee together, after which he asked for my first thoughts.
This is where I get insecure in my coffee knowledge :). I know what I like and don’t like in a coffee, and have been taking steps to improve my understanding of coffee flavor so that I can better describe it. To that end, I’ve been using Le Nez du Cafe kit to improve my coffee tasting skills.
To my own surprise, I was able to intelligently comment on what I was smelling and tasting in the two coffees. Aromas that I had recognized from the Nez du Cafe were present in the two coffees, and my host congratulated me on identifying them.
In the end, I selected a half-pound of the Yemeni coffee to take home. It wasn’t that I necessarily preferred it to the Ethiopian coffee – in fact, in some respects, it is overpriced because of the complexities of importing anything out of Yemen. The reason I selected the Yemeni is because I have had many Ethiopian coffees before, and the Yemeni coffee was new to me. Also, the two coffees share many similar characteristics, and I felt the Yemeni coffee was almost a “different take” on the familiar Ethiopian coffee.
I’ll describe the Yemeni coffee as I did to my coffee cupping host, because it made sense to me, and he liked the explanation. It was as though the Yemeni coffee’s flavor was the same as the Ethiopian (the two growing areas are adjacent to one another), except that it was held in a “fist” of other tastes that made it unique, most prominently an earthy taste that differed from the Ethiopian.
Look up your local coffee roasters, and find out when they host tastings. They should be free of charge, since the roaster is inviting you in to sample their latest and greatest. Take advantage of it. It is excellent coffee education. I’ll be attending future tastings at the same roaster.
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