Cup­ping ses­sions help cof­fee con­nois­seurs choose beans for your morn­ing cup of joe

Waterloo Region Record - - FRONT PAGE - An­drew Cop­polino

Sev­eral sniffs and short sharp slurps

It’s a ca­coph­ony of pul­monary as­pi­ra­tion around the long wooden ta­ble at a lo­cal café. Star­tling in its ra­pid­ity and some­times sharp vi­o­lence, the range of its tim­bre is at once sur­pris­ing and com­i­cal: tinny, brash and stac­cato; deep and mel­low, or slow and drawn out.

The sud­den breathy slurp­ing comes from a dozen or so cof­fee roast­ers test­ing a thin and rel­a­tively light-bod­ied liq­uid at Smile Tiger Cof­fee Roast­ers in Kitch­ener.

The process is an ar­cane one. Armed with a spoon and a clip­board hold­ing a sheet of pa­per not un­like a schematic for elec­tri­cal cir­cuitry, the roast­ers from Water­loo, Kitch­ener and Guelph are go­ing through what is known as a cup­ping — test­ing var­i­ous cof­fees from dif­fer­ent pro­duc­tion re­gions.

You know what you like in your cap­puc­cino, flat white or pourover: but how do your favourite cof­fee shops se­lect the beans they roast, grind and serve you? In part, by cup­ping. The slurp­ing draws air into the mouth and in­ten­si­fies the cof­fee’s flavours, much like tastetest­ing wine.

Adrian Grif­fin is lead­ing the ses­sion with cof­fees he se­lects and dis­trib­utes with his com­pany, Moun­tain Cof­fee, based in Van­cou­ver and Toronto.

Grif­fin is known as a “Q Grader,” a certificat­ion con­ferred by the Spe­cialty Cof­fee As­so­ci­a­tion. Q Graders have achieved a cer­tain pro­fes­sional stan­dard in eval­u­at­ing a cof­fee’s acid­ity, af­ter­taste, sweet­ness and a half dozen other at­tributes scor­ing each be­tween 6 (good) to 9.75 (out­stand­ing).

The struc­tured cup­ping process, in­clud­ing a uni­form grind for the cof­fee sam­ples, a wa­ter tem­per­a­ture of 93 to 96 de­grees Cel­sius, and the time of wa­terto-cof­fee con­tact is part of the be­hind-the-scenes pro­to­col.

“The mi­cro-roast­ing scene is be­com­ing like the mi­cro-brew­ing in­dus­try,” Grif­fin says, not­ing that since the 1980s there have been at­tempts to stan­dard­ize cof­fee tast­ing. “That’s got­ten us to new waves of cof­fee ap­pre­ci­a­tion and how it’s grown and sourced, im­ported, roasted and brewed.”

The em­pha­sis is on de­ter­min­ing qual­ity: it’s more like wine and less like a com­mod­ity. “It’s a stan­dard­ized, worldwide process for eval­u­at­ing cof­fee,” Grif­fin says.

For their part, the lo­cal cof­fee roast­ers use cup­ping ses­sions to de­ter­mine if they like a cof­fee and if they think they can sell it to cus­tomers: price plays a key role with a prod­uct that can cost $350 per pound at the higher end.

“Price is al­ways some­thing you have to con­sider,” says Phong Tran of Mat­ter of Taste. “What will cus­tomers pay?” I watch Tran use his own spoon — a sleek black ti­ta­nium one — for the process of gen­tly mov­ing the top layer of cof­fee aside and giv­ing a good sniff of a sun-dried San Jose Es­tate “Geisha,” grown at 1,700 me­tres in Gu­atemala. He then per­forms a sharp slurp.

“The back of the spoon is a semi-sphere to help max­i­mize evap­o­ra­tion, and the ti­ta­nium coat­ing helps dis­si­pate heat quickly so you don’t burn your tongue. Plus it’s cool to be a lit­tle dif­fer­ent,” he says.

With 10 or so cof­fees to cup, the process can over­load the ol­fac­tory and taste senses. My at­tempts don’t pro­duce the pro­fes­sion­als’ ro­bust as­pi­ra­tion, but it’s en­light­en­ing: I pick up the lemon and cherry flavours noted of a Gu­atemalan and Sal­vado­ran cof­fee, but I also taste pump­kin in one cof­fee — and no one else does.

Tran does cup­pings once or twice a month not only to find new cof­fees but to check for qual­ity from batch to batch and sea­son to sea­son. “Even if there is noth­ing new com­ing in, I ask for the cur­rent cof­fee we are buy­ing so I can com­pare,” he says.

“As a buyer, I want to know the flavour notes a cof­fee has so I can make a de­ci­sion of whether I like it or not. And then de­ter­mine if it’s some­thing my cus­tomers would like as well.”

It’s a be­hind-the-scenes glimpse of how your morn­ing cup of joe is cho­sen, but Dan Orr at ECO Café holds cup­pings for the gen­eral pub­lic each Wed­nes­day.

“It in­tro­duces peo­ple to the cup­ping sys­tem and to dif­fer­ent sin­gle-ori­gin cof­fees and ed­u­cates them about sim­i­lar­i­ties and con­trasts,” says Orr.

Ge­orge Tri­he­nea of Cul­tura Café, a specialist in Nicaraguan cof­fee, is at the Smile Tiger cup­ping, as are Ru­fus Ca­van and An­drew Love­land of Ca­van Cof­fee and Planet Bean, re­spec­tively. I’m struck by how many lo­cal busi­nesses are fo­cused on finer cof­fee.

“The ar­ti­sanal move­ment, whether it’s beer or cof­fee, is a shift away from mass pro­duc­tion to higher qual­ity prod­ucts that are well-crafted,” Grif­fin says.

Th­ese lo­cal roast­ers are look­ing for the eth­i­cally sourced cof­fee their cus­tomers are in­creas­ingly de­mand­ing, but at the same time the chance to share a com­mu­nal slurp builds the net­work of lo­cal cof­fee shops, Orr says.

“There are sev­eral cof­fees here I’ve never tasted be­fore, but it’s also nice to meet some new mem­bers of the cof­fee com­mu­nity that I haven’t met.”

An­drew Cop­polino is a for­mer Din­ing Out re­viewer for The Record who writes about the food scene in Water­loo Re­gion. Look for his “Foodways and En­trees” col­umns on Wed­nes­days in The Record and on­line at there­cord.com


Adrian Grif­fin in­hales the aroma of a cup of hot cof­fee dur­ing a cof­fee cup­ping at Smile Tiger Cof­fee Roast­ers in Kitch­ener. Dawn Tran smells cof­fee beans dur­ing a cup­ping ses­sion at Smile Tiger Cof­fee Roast­ers in Kitch­ener.

Shelby Mer­rithew in­hales the aroma of a cup of hot cof­fee dur­ing a cof­fee cup­ping at Smile Tiger Cof­fee Roast­ers in Kitch­ener.

Dan Orr, left, Phong Tran and Laura Sones slurp cof­fee dur­ing a cup­ping ses­sion at Smile Tiger Cof­fee Roast­ers in Kitch­ener.

Hot wa­ter is poured on freshly ground cof­fee beans dur­ing a cup­ping ses­sion.

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