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coffee cupping

One of the interesting things I did during my staycation last month involved tasting different coffees from around the world. For those who know me, I am not a coffee-coffee-coffee must-have-my-morning-cup-before-talking-to-anyone Lorelai Gilmore-coffee-guzzling type of person. In fact, I did not care for coffee until nearly a decade ago. Even then–and now–I’m not a daily drinker. For at least as long as I’ve been running my writing business I have had a personal Sunday morning coffee ritual. Then I expanded my coffee treat to Wednesdays and Sundays. That’s my thing. I still do it.

But I make exceptions: Vacations, houseguests…and coffee cuppings.

Have you ever been to a coffee cupping or heard of one? If not and no, these are special tastings. Professionals in the coffee buying and roasting world conduct these tastings to identify the characteristics of a specific harvest of coffee beans. Cuppings can also help a roaster decide for how long the batch of beans should roast for. Unlike a wine tasting where you smell, swill, and cleanse your palate for the next vintage, each coffee in the cupping has a multi-step analysis in both dry and wet forms.

I convinced my love to come with me just across the county line to Carrboro (the appendix of Chapel Hill as local poets like to reference it) where Carrboro Coffee Roasters hosted a cupping. Of course, all of North Carolina is under construction and we got stuck in construction traffic and then went to the wrong location. (I didn’t realize Open Eye Cafe and CCR were one in the same and had gone to Cafe Carrboro by accident.) So we were super late.

Fortunately, the coffee was still dry when we arrived! They provided four coffees from different countries from light to dark. Each person got a chart to describe the aroma of the dry ground coffee beans. Then you write down a description of each after hot water is added. After a few minutes, you ‘break’ the coffee–basically open/stir the surface with a spoon–and describe the aroma that is released as soon as the surface is broken. The last two descriptions are of the flavor–when it is still pretty hot, and then again after it has cooled for a few minutes.

Two surprises: One, the coffees that I felt smelled more pleasing when they were dry were not necessarily the ones that I liked after they brewed. Two, the entire activity fueled creativity and made me want to write.

Regarding the latter, if anyone in the cupping did not feel confident about choosing the right descriptor for each stage of the process, they could consult a Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. I love this wheel! Who would think to describe coffee as:

  • Tarry
  • Ashy
  • Like hay
  • Leathery
  • Woodsmoke

The wheel reminded me of using paint color wheels to help find unique adjectives.

My relationship with coffee is no more frequent than it was before the cupping, but now I’m more conscious of coffee’s origins and the words elicited when you try to describe it. The next time you grab a cup–hopefully it will fuel you in more ways than simply with caffeine.