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Independent coffee houses offering tastings – aka ‘cuppings’

Sun., June 23, 2013, midnight

Helps guide customers through complex tastes and aromas of specialty brews

There’s no sipping at a coffee cupping.

When it comes to detecting in detail the aromas and tastes of a specialty brew – distinguishing the piquant from the nippy, the cucumber from the garden peas – it’s all about the slurp.

A coffee cupping, like a wine tasting, lets tasters contemplate the complexity in each glass before them. The coffee, drunk black, is curated with care and prepared filter-free, according to specifications including grounds-to-water ratios and temperature that aim to deliver a full range of flavors – flaws included – to the taster’s palate.

“It’s a revelation,” said Simon Thompson, who owns Cravens Coffee, a Spokane roasting company. “It’s a revelation as to how coffee can taste, when people experience cupping.”

The slurping is more than a sound effect.

“Basically, your goal with the slurping is trying to get the liquid to spray to the back of your throat, to the olfactory area,” explained Bobby Enslow, demonstrating recently at Indaba, the coffee shop he owns on West Broadway Avenue in the West Central neighborhood.

Roasters and baristas have long used cuppings to judge their product. That cuppings are popping up around Spokane for public participation at coffee shops and roasters’ headquarters reflects what fanciers call coffee’s third and fourth “waves.” Seeking to treat coffee as an artisanal product rather than a commodity, the purveyors of specialty coffee work to improve growing, harvesting, processing, roasting and brewing methods as well as the relationships among growers and sellers.

Their success also requires the cultivation of an appreciative audience.

“Independent coffee shops are trying to show the quality of the coffee itself, because it does differentiate us from a Starbucks,” Enslow said.

Coeur Coffeehouse, on North Monroe Street downtown, is working toward a schedule of weekly Friday cuppings for customers, said barista Jeremy Williamson, who’s also an owner of the recently launched Manners Roasting Co. The shop’s employees set up regular in-house cuppings to evaluate roasts, he said, but they’re valuable for customers, too.

“The customer becomes involved in the process of understanding coffee and flavors,” Williamson said. “They can really grow with you.”

Kaiti Blom, a barista at Revel 77 Coffee on East 57th Avenue, said she’s seen cuppings – where baristas can create “the most perfect clean, crisp cup” – transform lifelong batch-brewed coffee drinkers into “true coffee geeks.”

Blom said she’s planning cuppings for customers this summer, along with other coffee-education classes.

“Whatever we can do to bring good coffee to the masses, we want to be part of it,” Blom said.

Sometimes, Enslow said, that means down-selling customers from “big froufrou drinks.”

“They look at me weird sometimes,” he said. “But I want them to taste the quality of the coffee, the unique characteristics.”

That’s partly out of respect for the farmers who labored over the coffee’s cultivation, harvest and processing. Coffee beans are the pits inside the fruit of coffee plants, called cherries. After it’s harvested at ripeness, the cherry undergoes careful processing, with quality depending on quick delivery from the tree to, in most cases, a “wet mill.” After the cherries’ skin and pulp are removed, the coffee must be dried. Mistakes there – drying too quickly, too slowly, too unevenly – also affect quality.

But Enslow’s interest in educating customers also comes from a business standpoint. A customer who enjoys a quality cup of coffee – harder to get just anywhere than a skinny vanilla latte – is more likely to return, Enslow said.

“You can go and pour a bunch of syrups anywhere else, but you can’t say, ‘Hey, can I have an espresso?’ and get this amazingly complex chocolaty, fruity, caramelly experience,” he said. “Even though the ticket might be smaller and we’re only making a dollar on it, versus a $5 latte, it’s creating customer loyalty and appreciation.”

Some people are hard to convince that coffee, stripped of sweet syrups, rich milk and whipped topping, tastes good. It might require letting them sample of variety of beans and roasts prepared with a variety of brew methods, until they taste what they like.

It’s like cultivating a taste for wine or beer, Enslow said. A self-proclaimed beer hater might be basing their opinion on an American lager. But have they tried an imperial stout, a chocolate porter or an IPA?

You don’t have to know about the changes in the industry to like specialty coffees or appreciate the distinctions among them.

You might, however, benefit from a “flavor wheel” as you try to describe the qualities your nose and tongue are picking up. A version created by the Specialty Coffee Association of America breaks down tastes and aromas into 95 descriptors, with most on the more complex aroma side. Sure, you might smell enzymatic properties in your cup. But are they more flowery, fruity or herby? If they’re herby, are they more alliaceous herby, which would describe onion or garlic smells, or leguminous herby? If they’re leguminous, is the smell more like a cucumber or garden peas?

The cupping process forces the taste buds to analyze coffee, searching for defects and appealing attributes, said Thompson, who serves as one of six jurors from the Americas for the international Alliance for Coffee Excellence’s Cup of Excellence competition.

“I’m always looking for this one,” Thompson said, pointing to “acidity” on a list of descriptors used by Cup of Excellence jurors. While Cravens doesn’t hold cuppings for the public, he and his employees do them regularly at their headquarters on Magnolia Street in East Central Spokane. “Does it have spine?”

Spine tastes “citrusy, tangy, sharp,” he said – although other tasters might consider “sharpness” a negative attribute. “I’m looking for the coffee to come at me in a very direct manner. I don’t want it to be wobbly.”

He also looks for acidity with “elegance” – a lemony-lime brightness without any “dirtiness” or “roughness” or “raspiness.”

Laughing, Thompson acknowledged: “We’ve created this crazy language for coffee.”

But, while the language is based on the language of wine tasters, he perceives looser parameters and less formality in coffee tasting – more room for the taster’s interpretation.

Or the smeller’s interpretation.

Picking up the first in a row of stout glasses set up on a bar at Indaba, Enslow said: “You just kind of shove your nose in there and smell it.” This was before the slurping.

Shaking the grounds to release aroma, he said there’s no right answer. What you smell is what you smell.

Next, he poured steaming water from a kettle directly onto the grounds in each glass – a filter would trap oils and other substances in the grounds, affecting the flavor – and let the coffee steep for four minutes. The coffee-to-water ratio is important. Cupping guidelines from the Specialty Coffee Association of America call for 8.25 grams of coffee per 150 milliliters of water.

Next, Enslow used a wide-bottomed spoon to break the crust of grounds that had risen to the surface, presenting another smelling opportunity.

Ground beans from the Chiriquí province of Panama, roasted by Slate Coffee Roasters in Seattle, smelled “earthy, grassy, blueberry,” Enslow said. “It definitely has that berryness.”

After using a spoon to skim out the floaters at the tops of the glasses, it was time for tasting – slurping. A coffee’s qualities change during the cupping process. After steeping, beans from Nyeri, Kenya, offered up chocolate notes that he didn’t detect in the fragrance, Enslow said. Then he picked up apricots: “It’s like apricot candy,” he said.

Enslow said he tries to create a “culture of openness” at his coffee shop, where it’s good to ask questions. Specialty-coffee appreciation could be seen as just another way to be a snob, and it can be difficult to communicate its complexities without coming across as arrogant. Enslow said he thinks his customers appreciate his style – he was voted among Spokane’s best baristas of 2012 in an Inlander poll – because he’s been learning about coffee alongside his customers as he’s built his 4-year-old business.

“Right now we’re in the exploration stage in Spokane, I think,” Enslow said. “People are exploring and learning.”

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