Why should professionals have all the fun? 'Cuppers' taste coffee as an adjunct to professional buying, judging contests, writing reviews and so forth. But the joy of sitting before a half-dozen cups of Tanzanian Peaberry, Monsoon Mysore and the rest is a delight anyone can experience.
Cupping, the tasting art.
The cupper tastes (and smells) for aroma, flavor, body, acidity, finish and a wide variety of more subtle attributes. To reproduce the professional setting at home one can start with a simple arrangement.
Have an ample supply of fresh, filtered water. Even the best grounds are spoiled by tainted water. Water can become 'stale', by absorbing odors from the air, by excessive distasteful minerals such as sulfur or even by the growth of mildew in pipes. Avoid distilled or softened water that retains too much of the softening salts.
A tray that holds a dozen small glasses or cupping bowls is handy. An assortment of measuring scoops, spoons, etc completes the tools. Of course, don't forget the coffee!
Boil the water and grind the beans with a burr grinder set to different settings for the number of different trials desired. You'll be surprised what a difference the fineness of the grind makes to the final result.
Prepare the coffee, allowing any samples to steep for a few minutes. Filter the coffee or allow to settle and spoon out a sample, then smell. Take the aroma in, running it through the nose and concentrating. Then taste, by running the liquid over the entire tongue. Hold for a few seconds, then spit into a container.
Think about the coffee's profile. Is it woody or winey? Acidic or smooth? Syrupy or thin? Peppery or floral? It's amazing how varied different coffees are, but given the wide variety of climates, soil and preparation methods it shouldn't be too surprising.
Experiment with coffees of different countries - a Kenyan AA (darker, rougher) is quite different from a Colombian (more floral), which is different yet again from a Yemen Mocha (winey).
Try different roasts from light to very dark, American to Viennese. Change the grind from rough to very fine. Even with the same bean, modifying the roast and grind can make a big difference.
Generally you'll want to have about two tablespoons (10 grams) of coffee for each six fluid ounces (180 ml) of water. Adjust as you experiment. The water should be not very far from 200°F (93°C), but you can adjust this too as you try different 'recipes'.
Keep in mind some of the different attributes of the profile:
Acid - a tartness that tastes somewhat dry, noticeable in a Mexican, softer in a Sumatra brew. Aging can make a big difference here, as does the roast.
Aroma - the sensation produced by vapors, fruity or herb-like. Kona(s) are known for a floral aroma.
Bitter - From caffeine and other compounds, a robusta will generally be more bitter than an arabica. Sense by swishing on the back of the tongue.
Body - Degree of 'thickness', a light American roast will contrast sharply with a dark French, for example.
Nuttiness - Created by aldehydes and ketones, creates a sensation like roasted nuts. A sign, usually, of poor quality beans.
Sharpness - a sensation from the combination of acids and salts. Pronounced in inexpensive robusta.
Experiment with many different blends and brews and you'll soon find yourself a true coffee snob!
Some coffee international reviews
The coffee from Brazil is world-famous for a good reason: it's stellar. None more so than the Brazil Bourbon Santos.
Brazil is the world's largest coffee bean producer, but hasn't always been regarded as the best. That may change if this blend catches on. Named after the birthplace of the cultivar, an island now known as Reunion but once called Bourbon, it hails from the port near where it makes its present home.
Aromatic, with just the right balance of bitter acids and dark body, this brew will delight the secret South American romantic in all of us.
Though not grown in the U.S. there are several blends that have a distinctive American style. Made to be enjoyed with a traditional breakfast, they complete rather than compete with the feast.
These brews are from a blend of medium-roasted, medium ground Columbian and Central American beans. Smooth, light on the acid and delicate-bodied, they'll complement rather than call attention to themselves.
Steep & Brew offers a clean, fruity option, as does the Madrugada blend from Flying Goat. The Supreme Bean offers a sweet, chocolatey blend that will be perfect with pancakes.
Legendary home of the Arabica tree, which produces the berry that contains the coffee bean, Ethiopia is making strides in producing a fine brew.
The Coffee Klatch from the Yirgacheffe region is a dark, dark coffee with fruit overtones for those who enjoy a bold brew. The Counter Culture of the Sidamo region is a dry-processed bean that will invariably make samplers think of its sun-drenched home.
For those seeking a delicate espresso, the Belle Espresso from Coffee Klatch may be just the right thing. A blend from five different regions, the profile is complex and entrancing.
The Madriz from this Central American small-but-mighty powerhouse of coffee producers, will be a welcomed addition to the table. Hailing from Terroir Coffee, its pungent bouquet and full body will have you asking for a second cup.
A small roaster in Portland, Oregon has shown us how to find the best of Panama. Stumptown Coffee Roasters offers a bean from the Don Pachi Estate that will be perfect in a French press. From the Geisha trees of the Boquete region, this flowered and fruity brew is lightly acidic and goes down smooth.
Straight or Mixed? A purist reforms
True coffee aficionados always drink their coffee straight, right? Wrong! There are, if anything, more blends and flavorings of coffee than there are of wine. Cast off your confines and let loose with the 101 different ways to enjoy nature's gift.
The creativity of blenders is inexhaustible. One Indonesian blend is a combination of Sumatran and Papua New Guinea beans that makes for a delicious, full-bodied brew. Who even knew that Papua New Guineans grew coffee?
But Sumatra goes with more than just other Indonesian beans. A 50/50 mixture of Colombian Patron with Sumatran results in a smoky, tasty, dark roast that brews to perfection.
Flavorings, too, can make for a treat. Almond, vanilla, even cherry added to a Brazilian can soften the acid and sweeten the brew. Even a banana hazelnut can bring an ordinary robusta up to the level of a decent cup. But the highlight would have to be a Tahitian vanilla latte, a truly international breakthrough.
When it comes to making a mocha, the variety of chocolates matches the different options of bean. A Yemeni with a touch of dark chocolate, melted and stirred well, will enhance an already wonderful foreign blend. Or, for those days when lighter is better, try an American roast with a bit of Ghiradelli milk chocolate. Yum.
The variations possible with coffee are as boundless as they are delightful. And they're not limited to beans, roasts or flavorings. Several different liqueurs and liquors provide another route for the coffee lover to travel.
Full-bodied Jamaican forms a solid base to which to add dessert pears, brown sugar and a hearty helping of rum. For a twist, try brandy instead of rum or apricots instead of pears. And, Amaretto's sweetness makes a delectable counterpoint to a Costa Rican blend, for those who like getting intoxicated and sober with the same drink.
Cocoa and coffee is a traditional favorite for those who like their coffee cut. Even here the choices are not limited. Cold or hot, Mexican coffee and cocoa bean partners can pair up to make for a taste treat in summer or winter.
And the innovators of coffee confection don't stop there. The more audacious have gone so far as to offer a frozen cappuccino that wakes up the sleepy on a warm day. For added zing, try mixing with a chocolate mint flavoring.
It's unclear why a coffee lover would want decaf, but there are those who don't have to get up in the morning. For them, the choices are numerous. Italian Espresso, Decaf Marrakesh and even a Dutchman (a blend of Indonesian, Central American and African) can cover the map for those who don't enjoy 'the shakes'.
Normally nuttiness indicates a poor quality bean. But be a contrarian and go for the Macadamia with or without chocolate. Even raspberry or coconut additions have been tried, but it might be better to work up to that. After all, it should still taste like coffee!
Just don't come complaining when you can no longer be satisfied with an ordinary cup of Joe. Leaving the world of Purism has its risks.