Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Art of Coffee Cupping

Remember way back when I signed up for this class? Yeah, I almost forgot too. However, I did manage to remember in time to actually go. It was a lovely little session with 7 students including me and the "teacher", one half of The Beanery- a small coffee roasting shop downtown. They also have the most beautiful hardwood ceilings.

We tried three different coffees: a Brazilian, the Columbian Popayan, and a Papua New Guinea. You can look these up on their website.

The exercise in cupping started with a hard look and a good whiff of the ground beans. What did they smell like? Look like? Then a bit of hot water on top, and three minutes later it's brewed. You crack the "skin" on top with a spoon and take a deep inhale of the puff of steam that escapes. How has the scent changed? What else can you detect? After, you skim as much of the grounds off the top as you can. The best part was the slurping. In order to fully experience the taste of coffee, you must slurp with the intent to hit your entire palate with a fine spray of coffee. Trust me, more skill than I realized and a hell of a lot more fun. Take at least three sips to really get used to it. The professional coffee cuppers spit, but please. Saturday morning? Not a wet spit cup in the house.

Did you know there are only two kinds of coffee beans? Or really, two kinds of plants. Many coffee companies want to distinguish themselves so they put the Arabica label on the bags. If it's not labeled- thinks Folgers- it's called Robusta. These are the lower grade, clumsily roasted beans that are the cheapest. However, the Arabica can have a million different flavor combinations influenced by where it's grown, the conditions it's kept in, and how it's roasted. Even more, coffee plants grow in the wild. Since it's such a big commodity, many people have coffee plantations, so those that allow the plants to live in their natural environments can add the "shade-grown" label as well. These shade-grown plants generally have more flavor and cost more. Oh! Oh! Did you know that the coffee beans itself is the pit? The fruit they're grown in is called a coffee cherry. These are the unroasted beans. Hard as rocks.

Many companies harvest with machinery, but this leads to lower quality coffee. The cherries ripen at different times on the same tree. To hand harvest is to choose only the beans that are at their peak. In addition to all this, to get the best cup you must also know how deep to roast the beans. This takes time, effort, and experience. That's also why so many people have complained about Starbuck's coffee. Starbuck's deep roasts by default because it's easier and more cost effective, but it sacrifices the flavors of the beans to where many can't tell the different types apart. Generally, the lighter the roast, the more balanced the flavor. AND you're only supposed to leave it on the burner while it's brewing. Much longer than that and you've burnt out much of the flavor (Starbuck's, I'm looking at you again). We also went into all kinds of other stuff like how the crema on espresso makes the first few sips sweeter, how the bean drying methods influence taste (like Sumatra's earthy flavor comes from drying on dirt), and which countries make the best beans (or how Columbia coffee is generic unless otherwise stated). Way too much to go into right here, but if you're interested I might do a bit more digging later on. It's really a facinating history these little beans have.


Laura said...

I'd love to see another, more in-depth post on coffee.

Also, have you seen the episode of Dirty Jobs where Mike Rowe harvets coffee cherries? If you're as interested as this post seems to indicate, might be worth checking out.

Zylo said...

I haven't seen that. Of course, I don't have cable either. I'm sure they have it on the internet though. This is something I might delve into a bit more later, but I'm definitely interested.