With so many different ways to brew coffee, it’s a skosh tough to pick out a favorite. Often, it’s the convenience that rules our choices whether it is a “set it and forget it” automatic coffee maker, or a full-blown chemistry set. When I’m brewing, I try to pick the method that will bring out the best characteristics of the coffee, depending on the growing region and processing methods. Have you ever wondered how we pinpoint the flavors of the coffees that we offer?
Last week, we snagged a beautiful Colombian coffee that we couldn’t wait to get in the cup. By cupping a coffee, rather than using a pour over or a coffee maker, we are able to analyze the product at every stage of brewing. It’s a little bit more science than everybody has the time and patience for first thing in the morning, but it’s a great tool for us to use when we need to evaluate and pinpoint all the flavors of a bean. Cupping is a direct immersion brewing method, where the coffee and water are constantly exposed to each other for the entire brewing cycle (versus being filtered). Every cupping sample uses the same grind size (GRIND SIZE MATTERS!), water temperature, and ratio of coffee to water.
To start, we smell the dry coffee grounds. When a coffee analyst is cupping a new sample from a farm, the aroma of freshly ground coffee is one of the first indicators of quality, beyond a visual inspection, and whether or not the coffee has any defects. Second, we add the same amount of water to each sample at the same temperature, so as to provide a consistent experience from each cup. After a steep time of 4 minutes, we’re ready to get back to smelling. This next step is breaking the foamy crust that appears on top of the sample, and inhaling as the steam escapes. It’s amazing how different the “wet” aroma is from the dry. Often, there will be smells that don’t present themselves until water is introduced to the coffee grounds. Again, this stage typically exposes defects in the coffee. After we’ve gotten our noses wet, we remove any floaty bits from the surface of the sample, and prepare to SLURP! Everybody gets a spoonful of coffee and slurps it down like you’re at a ramen shop. Slurping your coffee may be frowned upon if you’re enjoying your beverage at a Bach concert, but it is super effective in coating one’s palate with all the flavor the coffee has to offer. We’re not dipping our toes in, we’re going for the whole thing. By using one’s whole mouth to taste, you can pinpoint how the coffee feels on your tongue, how the different flavors are pronounced, and again, back to the defects. Lastly, we taste and smell each sample again for further analysis. Often, coffee will present different characteristics upon cooling down. We like to know exactly what we’re in for at all temperatures!
Here at the Cave, we evaluate each coffee we bring in against strict standards of quality, and we maintain these standards by constantly analyzing to confirm consistent results. Defects usually present themselves as “off” flavors. Underroasted beans could cause this; over-ripened or under-ripened beans can manifest as off flavors as well. Additionally, there could be insect damage that would cause defects in flavor. It doesn’t take a lot to ruin a cup of coffee, and ruined coffee ruins everyone’s day.
When we’re sampling a coffee, we’re looking for a balanced cup. No one flavor should bully itself to the front of the line, but rather, every note should work in tandem to present a symphony of flavor teamwork. There are exceptions to the rule, as some coffees tend to present characteristics that are a little more bold than the others. I like to switch up my brewing methods to highlight the characteristics that I might expect from a particular coffee. For example, a shorter brewing method, such as the V60, tends to highlight the sweetness of a bean, and lends itself well to our Ethiopian.
Coffee is an endless journey, and it’s easy to get lost in each cup, tasting flavors you never knew were there before. Every cup is different, taste is subjective, and the path always varies, but there’s always something more in the cup than just caffeine; you just have to know where to look!