The Art of Coffee — and Coffee Cupping!

coffee-cupping-585By no means am I a coffee aficionado. As long as it is hot and caffeinated it will suffice. So when an invitation to tour and attend a coffee cupping at a local coffee plant popped up in my email, I wasn’t overly enthused.
Now if this had been a brewery or a winery I would have been all over it, but coffee isn’t that sexy or exciting. It’s just roasted beans and water? Right?
Wow, was I ever wrong!
First off, coffee is a fruit (didn’t know that) and the “bean” is not really a bean at all. A coffee plant bears small reddish berries or cherries that produce two seeds that resemble a common bean, thus the name.

Credit: Colleen Taugher, Flickr.

Oh, hi there coffee plant! Credit: Colleen Taugher, Flickr.

Coffee is grown in more than 50 countries and is the world’s second-largest export, surpassed only by oil. Virtually every country consumes this “day starter,” however, a typical tree produces only a single pound or two, making it one hot commodity.
There are at least a dozen varieties, but the two primary types cultivated for drinking are Arabica and robusta. A tropical climate and high altitude produce the most prized beans and make the best gourmet brews; think of a Hawaiian Kona or a fine-aged Sumatra.
Before you can get your morning cup of Joe a lot has to happen, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll give you the CliffsNotes version. Once a year, the fruit of the tree is picked and laid out to dry in the sun. The beans are then harvested from the berries, packaged in 100-pound bags and shipped to their destinations.
Old fashioned jute or burlap bags are still used today.

Traditional jute or burlap bags are still used today.

Coffee beans - before roasting and after.

Coffee beans: before roasting and after.

An expert roaster, like a great chef, can extract the best characteristics from a crop of beans. Temperature plays a key role in discerning what flavors the roaster chooses to enhance, and the length of the roasting process dictates the body — meaning light, medium or dark roast.
Beans are roasted by one of two methods, drum or air. To keep it simple, think of the former as tumbling around a gigantic clothes dryer, and the latter as an enormous hot-air popper.
Air-roasting gives a more uniform roast.

Air-roasters gives a more uniform roast.

I found the production process all very fascinating and informative, but really got my socks knocked off was the coffee cupping (tasting) that followed.
Unlike a wine tasting, there are strict guidelines to follow for cupping. The amount of water, the temperature of the water, the coarseness of the grind and the temperature when slurped off of a spoon are all critical.
A coffee cupping is foremost about aroma and if you’ve got the nose, you can identify the distinct fragrance of fruit, flowers, herbs chocolate, smoke and a plethora of others, showcasing the region from which the beans were grown.
When it comes to taste it is all very subjective. The coffee being cupped could be considered crisp and vibrant, smooth and velvety, bold and acidic, or maybe soft and sweet. Like wine, a score above 80 is considered good with a 95 being almost unheard of.
I tasted six different brews and was surprised to discover that I liked darker roasts and could detect several subtle flavors. Once I identified those to best suit my palate, I was free to blend beans to achieve my java Nirvana.
After way too many sips, I started to feel jittery and was ready to call it quits. I purchased my personalized Columbian/Costa Rican blend: a full, rich body French roast with hints of hazelnut and a smooth lingering aftertaste of dark chocolate. Not half bad for a rookie!
The experience didn’t turn me into a coffee-swilling junkie, but it most certainly gave me a new found respect for my morning beverage of choice. Although I still only consume a couple of cups a day, those cups are heavenly!
Ever attend a cupping? What’s your favorite bean? —Karen

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