PICKING YOUR CUP OF JOE
Cupping sessions help coffee connoisseurs choose beans for your morning cup of joe
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.