Coffee Cupping 101

Every morning, like millions of others, I partake in the daily ritual of fresh coffee. Earlier this year we bought a coffee machine for home and, after a brief Barista course, I thought I had some sense of the world of the humble bean, and all the varied elements that go together to create each perfect brew. Beans, grind, extraction, milk frothing and temperature, humidity, water quality – I think you’re getting the idea!

Well, that was until yesterday!

Cupping Bowls

Cupping Bowls. Photo Courtesy of Le

Enter our local Barista “B” who, as part of a “Come and Try’ day in Warburton, with locals offering their skills to raise money for the Red Cross, invited us along to a COFFEE CUPPING session. Never heard of it? Neither had I.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that (horrendously) you could order a coffee and it was pot luck whether it was ‘good’ or not. A takeaway latte got handed to you in a polystyrene cup, and in many cafes a latte came with a napkin folded neatly around it, the coffee so blisteringly hot you could barely pick it up,

Melbourne knows coffee. Our Italian heart embraced real, good coffee with the post war immigrants who bought with them the knowledge and the passion for a great brew. Now those in the industry talk about a third wave of coffee houses – boutique roasters are popping up across our caffeine loving town such as St Ali’s, 5 SensesSeven SeedsPadre or Brother Baba Budan.

Coffee cupping was once the domain of the growers, merchants, brokers and  roasters of the bean industry, which is second only to oil as the worlds most traded commodity. With the increasing sophistication of all things bean, it is now possible for latte lovers like you and I to learn about aspirating, slurping, and bean appreciation, in much the same way as wine tasters revere their grapes.

So back to the coffee cupping experience – 10 different coffees over an hour, and before your eyes start whirring in their sockets at the thought of such a caffeine hit, relax!

Coffee ready for tasting

Coffee ready for tasting – Photo Courtesy of Le

Lined up on the table are ten ceramic bowls. We are each given a soup spoon and a cup of hot water to dip it in. First fresh grinds (we tasted all single origin coffees) are placed in each bowl and fresh water bought to a precise temperature range of 87-92 degrees is poured over each one. (Good cuppers can even tell if the water has been boiled or heated twice – both big no nos!)

They are left to sit and brew for a time and then we are invited to the first test.It is the olfactory (smell) function that most comes into play with coffee tasting. We are invited to breathe deeply into the bowl and inhale the wonderful aromas of each coffee. It’s a surprise to smell how much variation there can be from one coffee to the next. One rich with citrus, the other roast beef, Bonox overtones in that one, plump vanilla or smoky chocolate aromas in that. A coffee wheel, much like a colour wheel, is given to us that shows progressively the intensity and classification of the aromas we can smell. And not a drop of coffee has even passed our lips!

The official Coffee flavor tasting wheel

The official Coffee flavor tasting wheel

With a hint of ceremony, B gently eases away the crust of coffee that has formed on each bowl and we are invited to approach each sample once again with our spoons in hand, this time to taste each coffee. But again the process is not so much about gulping a mouthful, as it is about slurping off the spoon. The rather fun technique of ‘the slurp’ ensures the coffee is aerated across the palate and throughout the mouth, once again engaging the olfactory sense in the tasting process along with the taste buds.

We try $200 kilo coffee called the Jamaica Blue Mountain Wallenford Estate (the Holy Grail of coffee for those who know), an impressive range from Jaspers, some home roasted beans from a local and, the unique Indian Monsoon, redolent with sweetness and cloves. There’s a great story to the Indian Monsoon bean. Legend has it that the beans are actually left out in monsoon season so that the inclement weather develops the flavours, a technique discovered accidentally when the beans were sent on long ship voyages during monsoon season.

Our session is full of wonderful information about the journey of the coffee bean. Two beans grow

My first taste

My first taste

snuggled in one coffee cherry (hence the flat side where they nestled together side by side) on a coffee bush (when does a bush become a tree I wonder?). Grown mostly in the warmth of our equatorial neighbour’s homelands, coffee growing is now also an emerging industry in Australia with plantings as low down as Byron Bay (Eureka Coffee), extending up into the North Queensland Tablelands. Quality has much to do with screening, a process that ensures uniformity in bean size, without which, roast results would be hampered by burnt smaller beans and green (unroasted) larger beans tainting the mix. There is also much to learn about the qualities of each single origin coffee and how they can be mixed to create well-rounded blends – but that’s fodder enough for a whole other cupping session!

I am left with not only an appreciation for the variety in taste from one region to another, one season to another, but also a renewed respect for all that goes on before our daily grind actually hits our waiting cups each morning.

So much wisdom and energy goes into growing and perfecting the roasted bean, and it can all be destroyed in 20 seconds in the hands of an amateur coffee maker such as I!

Now, I am left wondering; which bean is going to make the perfect espresso for a Tiramisu? Perhaps something with sweet, dark chocolate overtones and a hint of vanilla…mmmm.

Want to read more? Then try the following links: International Coffee Organisation (ICO), coffee snobs , or google Coffee Cupping

Photo Credit : Le Boatwood


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