Narrows pt 2

Narrows pt 2

Here's a little story I like to tell about the second ever Roasters Guild Retreat in 2002. During one of the first sessions at the retreat there was a cupping. When the group that was participating was asked who had ever cupped before, more than 80% of the crowd indicated that they had not. Nowadays, just 10 extremely short seeming years later there is cupping from top to bottom across the whole specialty coffee industry, or at least people regularly look at coffees though the lens of a cupping-like activity.

I think that it's great that more and more people can use this tool. I've put a considerable amount of energy into teaching people how to do it, and many of my most memorable coffee experiences have been at the cupping table. But I think that the tool itself is frequently used improperly. Plus I feel that we are perhaps over-reliant on the practice as an evaluation tool. All of this leads to a rather narrow perspective on what the potential for any coffee can be. I think that in order to get any kind of wider perspective on any particular coffee then you have to look at it in more than one way. Not just with different brewing parameters, but also looking at different roast profiles of it.

For the purposes of evaluating a coffee for purchase, or just looking at a coffee that you've already purchased and deciding what you're going to do with it, I strongly feel that you have to look at more than one roast of it. Now, do you need to get crazy and look at every single possibility to get a total potential perspective? No, but in looking at at least 2 different roasts of any particular coffee can give you a much clearer idea of what the coffee can do, and 3 even more so.

I was very fortunate last year to work with Paul Songer of Songer and Associates in developing a class on sensory test design for the Roasters Guild Certification Program. If you don't know who Paul Songer is, he started in coffee 25 years ago at Allegro Coffee Company and is the Lead Quality Control and Technical Advisor at CoE, Alliance for Coffee Excellence, Inc., as well as having worked on a number of other projects in coffee producing areas helping to build specialty coffee production there, including extensive work in Rwanda. Songer has thoroughly studied and practiced sensory evaluation.

One thing that stood out to me while working on this class was the complexities involved in analyzing the data collected through cupping, especially when looking at a panel. A lot of that has to do with putting a panel together; what their experience levels are, how calibrated they are as a group, adjusting for high and low scores, etc. etc. The next layer of difficulty is in the design of the test itself; what are you looking for? Is this simply a preferential test, or is it to determine a noticeable difference, what kind of controls have you set in place so that you can be sure that you're looking at/for what you intend? Listening to Paul talk about how they look at the results from Cup of Excellence judging panels and looking at some of the charts that broke the data down was dizzying.

All of this can be quite the rabbit hole to jump into. I do think that you can casually look at some coffees without setting up a totally sterile environment or without being a statistics wizard, but I also think that; 1. you need to be honest with yourself about your abilities and those of your panel on any given day, 2. you need to have a clear idea of what you're looking for and at on the table, and 3. it would be considerably helpful for you to look at the coffees a couple different times and in different iterations before making a final judgment. Something that struck me when we actually gave the class at the Roasters Guild Retreat in Stonewall last August was what one of the participants said during one of the group sessions in the class talking about how they set up their regular cuppings to set production roast levels. What he said was that they used to cup all of their coffees at different roast levels but that the lighter roasts always won, so they stopped cupping them and just started roasting everything lighter.

Well, of course the lighter roasts always won. They were only looking at the coffees in a way where the positive attributes of the lighter roasts are better highlighted and the negative attributes of the darker roasts are amplified. A big problem here is that for the most part their customers aren't cupping the coffee. They're basing the entirety of their evaluation on an experience that few others outside of themselves will have with the coffee. But is there also something here about what we're looking for in a cupping in the first place? What have we decided is a positive attribute and a negative one? If there isn't any "fruitiness" present do we actually reject it?

Cupping is mostly designed to look at whether a coffee has any defects, is consistent from cup to cup, and that there is sweetness present. Listing 10 different fruit flavors is not the main focus of a cupping. I also think that there are some problems with taking a qualitative measurement of both acidity and body, two things that can be so greatly influenced by roast development, unless you are looking at a couple different roasts of that coffee. I don't have any problems with forms. Forms are great for capturing data, it's cuppers themselves and their test designs which cause the biggest problems in my book.

So what's the big problem? To paraphrase what I said in the close to part 1 of this rant, the problem is that great coffee can be great for so many reasons. When we only look at coffees in one way, we greatly reduce what we can do with the coffees as well as what experiences we get to share. I can see why that's attractive to some people. There are businesses that want you to be able to go into a store in Cincinnati and have an identical experience to the one that you would get in Anaheim or Singapore or Oslo. It just isn't that special.



#1 Cupping

Do you think the flavours we experience once coffee is brewed should mimic what we taste in cupping?
Because if we like what we cup, then shouldn't extraction be blamed if we aren't experiencing that in our brewed(including espresso) coffee?

I only ask, because so often I think people aren't experiencing what they are told they will experience. And sadly the majority (but not all) of people are being lazy with extraction, and default to blaming the beans or the roast. And lighter roasts particularly get this treatment, "it's too acidic"', "there's no crema" etc.
I sometimes wonder if we should be teaching our customers to cup, but that's another can of beans.

Thanks again for a great read.


#2 cupping/tasting/brewing

Thanks for the comments, Tim. I don't know if I really agree with that statement, but I understand where you're coming from, and I do feel like that's been a major drive in the dismissing and embracing of certain brew methods over the last couple of years. I would like more people to get to experience some of the things that I have on the table, but ultimately that's not what's going to happen, nor is it what cupping is for.

That's what I'm really getting at here, cupping is a tool for analyzing a coffee and seeing what the possibilities or problems of a certain coffee might be. We've turned it into such an aesthetic experience rather than an analytical one. I think a large part of that is this idea that we sit around and pull out all these descriptors which become challenges to our consumers rather than focusing on consistency, quality, and sweetness.

We certainly fill our cupping notes here with a number of descriptors, but we're looking at a number of different roast levels and our audience/customers DO cup and experience the coffee in a similar fashion as we do. I don't think that it's bad to describe coffees in all the ways that you can (it's really fun), but it's translating this all into a deliverable experience for your customers that's what's most important.

One thing that Paul Songer mentioned to me when we were working on that class is that one of the larger commercial roaster (not totally sure who it was, but I believe it was Folgers) has a cupping form where all the possible qualities of a coffee are listed, good and bad. That's because every single cup of coffee has a little bit of all of these positive and negative attributes (outside of clearly defined defects). I really appreciate that honest approach to looking at a coffee.

There's a good discussion over in the Sweet Maria's forum about descriptive language right now, it would be super awesome if some other roaster folks checked it out and maybe joined in on that discussion.

#3 Right

I see this problem a lot in roasteries around here. When we approach coffees at the table though, we definitely make subjective qualitative notes and comments, but moreso we're trying to see if we have something that keeps a level of consistency in it's characteristics with what we're offering (when it comes to blends at least)... I think a lot of folks who don't necessarily focus on creating a a great blend, or blending at all really get to this point when they look at their coffees.. If they do, it is often only for espresso and may look more at body/crema development combined with something they love about the fruit and acidity of the one or 2 other coffees in the blend.

I'd suffice to say that working on blends forces me to consider my cupping table in an analytical way, asking about whether there is enough of a certain character, whether it will develop at different roast levels and maintain what I need it to, etc...

I don't often cup different roast levels for this (although we do sometimes) as much as compare it next to the coffees I have and keep an eye on sort of quantitative elements related to the cupping form and the sort of memory mixology I'm wrangling over in my brain simultaneously.
I also realize that some coffees just don't have much to offer at a really light roast. There are some coffees that just start to radiate deep sweetness when the carmelization gets up there and max's out. There's folks out there who drink burnt cowboy coffee all day and I appreciate the idea that there's a specialty coffee, well roasted out there that's dark enough for their comfort zone and acquired tastes that I can maintain the sweetness in and roast to a level that kicks all other dark roasts in the face. Coffees taste different even at full city ++ and there's something to going there and finding it...It's knowing about that density and the amount of sugars in there and how to not dry it out while playing with that carbonizing happening... I don't even like dark roasts in general, but it's a matter of trying to create something better out there in all those realms..

That's also why I very much agree with the VOlume 1 of this post cuz roasting is hard work and requires you do your homework and love what you do and are always thinking about how to make it better, because if you think you just roasted the best roast period, you're totally missing something... We don't expect growers and pickers and baristas or even manufacturers to have that sort of complacency with trying to impart a greater value on coffee, why the hell would anyone, especially a Roaster themselves claim such an insignificant role as to "just" roast the coffee "not imparting" anything to it??? That's crazy talk! Or the talk of someone who hasn't really begun to unlock the potential of their role in developing the character of their coffees... Our hands are on it. So are our eyes, noses, mouths, brains and maybe a little blood... If you can't take responsibility for it, then you're doing the growers no favors either.

#4 Cupping Vs. Tasting

I've been roasting for about 7 years now, first as a home roaster and more recently as a "nano-roaster" catering to individuals who could and would be considered "foodies", wine snobs, cigar aficionados, etc.

Recently I've been trying to break into the wholesale market with my product (well sourced, roasted to bring out the best qualities, catering to the refined palate coffees) and have been dumbfounded at the lack of knowledge, care, consideration and emotion that local coffee shops have for coffee (since when does a single espresso fill a 3 ounce shot glass, for example?), forcing me to re-evaluate my philosophies on roasting, brew methods, taste and cupping, who I am marketing to and why.

I do cup, but I am not the expert that I feel I should be as a roaster of fine coffees, I'm trying to expand my palate for "cupping" . Currently I spend more of my time tasting coffee brewed in various methods at various roast levels than I do dropping a "cupping roast" and evaluating for nuance. When I "taste" I look for certain characteristics that I can use to market my coffees to my customers and their palate, their brew methods. When I "cup" I look for nuance and flaw, two wholly different methodologies with different outcomes and purposes.

My point? Cupping is not for the consumer, cupping is for the professional, the screener as it were, for these exquisite coffees, to weed out inferior or defective coffee, bad roast profiles/practices. Tasting, on the other hand, helps me to develop the palate that the consumer has, using their brew methods, good and bad, their lack of consistency (did he use14 grams for that shot, or 18?, Was that water only at 192 degrees? Is that french press under-extracted with only a 3 minute soak time? etc..) Forcing consumers to "cup" I think only confuses them, forces them to think they must have a professional palate and they are somehow inferior to the "Pro Cupper" who defines the nuance that they must be able to taste when they, the consumer, drink their coffee at home using their method of choice or circumstance.

So, for me, "cupping" is a high level, controlled evaluation of the nuance of a coffee's potential, while "tasting" puts me in the consumer's realm, the customer's palate as it were, and I truly believe that this is where I need to spend more of my quality tasting time. If I can't relate to my customer's palate, their brew methods, their idiosyncrasies, I can't get them a product they will truly enjoy, and bottom line, they won't be calling me up looking for the best damn coffee they can find.

I guess I am backing Chris' articles content here, but feel that I needed to expound and expand on the other aspect of "tasting" coffee a bit more, and showing why I do what I do and not just saying that cupping is bad, mmm-k, tasting is good, mmm-k, they each have their place dependent upon what your overall goal is, and whom you are performing each method for.

I hope this wasn't too muddled, and that at the least I added some value to the conversation, feel free to beat me about the head and shoulders with a large stick at your leisure.

#5 knowing the audience

I think this concept of separating analytical tasting from aesthetic tasting is dead on. As lovers of the coffee experience, it's easy to allow our tastings to fall into unfocused enjoyment rather than focused evaluation with a tangible take away, but disciplining ourselves to create that separation is part of what makes us professionals. That said, careful consideration of the audience when deciding how to approach tasting with customers is a crucial part of how we influence their coffee experience outside the controlled environment of our cupping labs.

I've often seen companies engage in a general protocol of cupping with new/potential customers, as a way of introducing them to both the offerings themselves and the business as a whole. Aside from the percentage who are experienced tasters, the approach yields mixed results. While the ceremonial aspect of the process can be intriguing initially, it can ultimately lead to some awkwardness, intimidation, and most importantly ineffectiveness on a base level. Even when the cupping does energize the customers, how will it translate to their future experience?

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that if our goal is to inspire the customer initially by the coffees we offer, the presentation of those coffees should reflect a certain relevance to that customer. Is their bottom line simply enjoyment? Or is it rooted more in consistency, complexity, or maybe even the story behind it? Of course it's impossible to know all these things beforehand, but there are some pretty safe assumptions to be made that can help you engineer the most effective method of sharing a truly exquisite coffee. In the same sense that the growing, processing, and roast development of a coffee can tap into a different aspect of its potential, so too can the method in which it is presented. To address Tim's question of expecting certain qualities to translate from cupping table to other brew method, I think there is a range. As roasters, we should understand the relationship between both the analytical and aesthetic results of our cuppings to their incarnations in all brewing environments; from the most controlled and exact extractions to the most imperfect ones. After all, going back to one of Chris's earlier points, how complete are our profiles if they can't stand up in some sense to the worst auto-drip brews? Thats not to say we should expect delicate nuance from those methods, but we should have a separate and equally important standard for how that profile will perform in a less than setting.