According to Barista Institute, coffee cupping is “how coffee is tasted by producers and buyers … to check the quality of a batch of coffee. In cupping, coffees are scored for aspects such as cleanness, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel and aftertaste.”
Now, the Average Joe (get it?) might assume that to get a sense of what a particular coffee is all about, he’d simply sip a freshly brewed cup.
Au contraire—there are several important steps to sensing every aspect of a particular type of coffee, including a dry phase, a wet phase, and some very audible—very necessary—slurping.
Denver’s beloved Queen City Collective Coffee, a rapidly growing force of great coffee and sensible practices, is well-known for its community engagement and fun, informative events. When it recently announced a free cupping session at its Five Points location, coffee enthusiasts flocked to the shop on the corner of Welton and 30th Street to get the inside scoop on “Tasting Coffee Like a Pro.”
Leading the tasting was none other than Scott Byington, co-founder of Queen City and gracious host of its many events, as well as Wholesale Manager Michann Stoner. They began by explaining the two purposes for cupping: Cupping for purchasing, where buyers determine what to purchase from farmers, and cupping for production, where buyers and roasters work to develop a profile that has the desired quality control and presentation to then sell to consumers. Presented to the group of eager tasters were six single-origin coffees, varying in region (Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Kenya, and two from Ethiopia), with each carrying a distinct aroma and flavor profile.
The Dry Phase
The first stage of any cupping is the dry fragrance stage—paper filter-ground coffee in a small bowl, meant to be smelled to get a sense of the aroma profile. The particular steps to cupping are all intentional; it’s about getting a full sensory analysis of the coffee and is more than just tasting it. How does it smell? How does it feel on the palate?
A good shuffle of the grounds is important for releasing the fragrance, and typically, those performing the cupping work from left to right, from “most approachable,” coffees to more complex in flavor and aroma. The less approachable varieties tend to be those of fruitier aroma and flavor (like berry and tropical fruit profiles), whereas varieties incorporating chocolate, nuts, toffee—”anything sweet and rich,” says Byington—are considered more approachable. The idea is to not overwhelm the palate with complex varieties from the get-go. Also, Byington encouraged those sniffing and smelling to pay attention to any memories that arise, as “memory is a huge way of understanding sensory inputs.”
The Wet Phase
The next phase of the cupping is appropriately called the “wet state.” This is when (hot) water is added to the dry coffee grounds—though the resulting mixture is still only intended for smelling, not tasting. As the water and grounds settle, a crust forms at the surface, providing the primary source of fragrance, and everything extracted from the grounds settles at the bottom (where you certainly want it to stay). If the crust is broken and too many tannins are released, the resulting aroma and taste may be overly bitter and will not provide an accurate profile evaluation. You want the sweet spot of just the right amount of extraction for the truest flavor.
And while the wet aroma is the most difficult to get used to and differentiate, there is a clear difference between this and the dry fragrance phase—the initial light and prominent fragrance of the dried grounds is replaced with a heavier, earthier smell, with sweeter notes now more difficult to pick up.
The Coffee Bean
While many refer to the crux of where our delicious coffee comes from as the coffee “bean,” technically, it is the seed of the coffee fruit—very similar to a cherry. And getting to that seed efficiently requires the precision of one of two techniques: Wash process or natural process.
As one might imagine, a wash process requires picked cherries to be taken to a washing station or “micromill” and then put through a de-pulping machine to remove as much mucilage (the unsavory pulp remaining on the seed) as possible without damaging the seed—a chipped seed affects the integrity and ability for flavor when roasting. After de-pulping, the seeds go through a fermentation process somewhere between 8-24 hours, sometimes as long as 48 hours. The seeds are put into tanks (sometimes with, sometimes without water) with the goal being to culture natural biomes and create enzymes that then eat the remaining mucilage.
Once fermentation is complete, the seeds are put on a drying bed until they reach about 16% water activity, and then the parchment (the outer layer of the seed) is removed. Only then are the seeds packaged and shipped to buyers. Unlike the wash process, the natural process requires less mechanical effort: After the cherries are picked, they are put straight onto a drying bed for somewhere between 20-24 days, where they dehydrate similar to how a prune would. Like the wash process, once the drying period is complete, the parchment is removed, and packaging and shipping can begin.
Upon completing the aroma profile sampling, Stoner carefully removed the crust of each bowl and doled out tasting spoons. Quite simply, in order to properly taste the coffee, it must be slurped. The concept comes from the idea that to get the full taste of the coffee, the palate must be aerated. So, loud slurps are required, and an exhale after swallowing is also encouraged.
When roasting coffee beans, there are three crucial developmental stages: First is acidity, then sweetness, and finally, body. When tasting, one is looking for variations in those three areas and, afterward, finish. When sampling the Ethiopian varieties, one might taste more of a tea-like profile, including notes of strawberry, or contrarily, the Mexican variety (a more “approachable” coffee) has notes of brown sugar and caramel. It’s also important to note that the lighter the roast, the less body, and vice versa. According to Byington, a true test of a well-roasted coffee is the taste once the coffee has sat and gone cold. “If you are still enjoying it at that point, it was likely well roasted.”
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Queen City Collective Coffee, aside from it’s great-tasting brews, is its community give-back. For those who may not know, Queen City operates a revenue-sharing platform with an all-women’s coffee-growing group in Rwanda called Hingakawa, which is comprised primarily of women who have been widowed or grew up orphaned by the Rwandan genocide. The name Hingakawa means “We grow coffee!” as a celebration, not as a statement, and the group is a community of women who came together—wanting to entirely dissociate themselves from radical groups like the Tutsi and Hutu—to grow coffee and overcome many of the adversities and social injustices resulting from the genocide. As Byington paraphrases, the group decided, “We’re just going to grow coffee as a community and move forward.”
When Byington first started working with the Hingakawa, it was in a sociological capacity, not in a profit capacity, and he recalls the women constantly voicing how all they truly wanted was for someone to buy their coffee at a good price. This repeated sentiment was actually the inspiration for Queen City Collective Coffee. Byington says he thought, “If we start a coffee company, we could buy from you guys directly.” But with that, the women also raised the concern that, oftentimes, the farmers and growers don’t see the proper recognition and compensation for their work. “The true value of coffee, or where the most value is added,” says Byington, “is at the end when you roast it and sell it to consumers. That excess of value doesn’t always trickle back down the supply chain.”
So, when deciding to work with the Hingakawa, the Queen City founders wanted to have a more direct revenue-sharing platform. Plus, Byington admits he prefers to work with women farmers over men: “They are a larger catalyst for community change than men are in rural communities.” Last year, Queen City contributed about $10,000 to help build a community center located directly next to the processing plant, or “wet mill.” The center includes childcare services for women who are bringing in cherries to be processed at the mill, so their children can have a safe space to stay while the mothers work; a vocational off-season training facility where skills like sewing are taught so women can create items to sell for extra income in the coffee off-season; a community garden complete with chickens and goats (the manure of which is shared among workers to fertilize the very soil of the coffee fields); and a large hall that serves as a safe, designated area for the women to meet, collaborate, and discuss topics like upcoming harvest protocol and the like. As for future endeavors, currently in the works is a guest house that will bring coffee tourism to the area, where visitors can stay and tour the entire coffee harvesting and processing operation, which will also bring much-needed funds to the community.
All in all, the cupping was a success, and Queen City plans to host more educational coffee events in the future. Until the announcement comes for the next one, we’ll just have to sit, sip, and slurp on its wide assortment of offerings, knowing that our dollars are going to a good cause.