This is the third post about my visit to a working coffee farm here in Colombia. Part 1 detailed my field visit and Part 2 was about coffee processing and the culture of coffee. Part 3 is about my experience in the "Catacion de Cafe" (Coffee Cupping).
According to coffeeresearch.org, coffee "cupping is one of the coffee-tasting techniques used by cuppers to evaluate coffee aroma and the flavor profile of a coffee". In other words, it's a way to try to assign some "hard" numbers to the "touchy-feely" features of a coffee so that coffees from different regions and of different types can be compared fairly and consistently. I didn't know what the meant either but I was anxious to learn!
The farm has a cupping/training option that's available once the other parts of the tour are complete. This was one of my main reasons for coming to this particular farm as it was my chance to gain experience in something that I've only ever had "a feel" for before. They have a separate laboratory-style room set up just for the training sessions:
We started the training by learning about flavors and how the different taste receptors of the tongue work. Using this knowledge, we tasted water samples each with a different flavor added and documented them on this worksheet:
I felt at home right away. All the requirements were there. Nerdy lab environment. Dressing how I like. Lots of coffee to drink. Tons to learn. All those years in the lab collecting data was finally going to pay off:
Once the group had a better understanding of our senses of smell and taste, as well as the experience of trying the various flavor samples, we got to work learning more about what makes for good and bad coffee. Five different coffee samples were prepared and, through various steps, we compared and contrasted them for fragrance (smell of the coffee grounds before water is added), aroma (smell of the coffee after adding the water but before the grounds are removed), body (the "weight" of the liquid coffee in your mouth), sweetness, acidity (also known as the "liveliness" of the coffee), and aftertaste. We also did a quick pass at trying to describe some of the flavors in terms frequently used for wines (chocolaty, fruity, nutty, etc.).
These are two of the samples we were using to compare the body of the coffee. The coffee on the left had much more body but we learned that body doesn't indicate good or bad. It's just one feature.
It took us about an hour to work through everything and record our findings on the following worksheet. At the end, we found out what each of the five samples was. They were: 1-decaffeinated, 2-second quality, 3-first-quality gourmet, 4-organic, and 5-old reheated.
The differences in some cases were subtle while in others they were dramatic. The two extremes, first-quality gourmet and old reheated, were like the difference between sweet and sour when they were side by side. Both were "drinkable" but not even close in terms of flavor and experience. Don't even get me started on light-roast versus dark-roast coffee. If you only ever drink French Roast or "like" the regular drip coffee from Starbucks, do yourself a favor and just one time buy a bag of good light-roast coffee and taste your old favorite against it. You can thank me by buying me a cup of coffee sometime.
When the main part of the class was done, our rock-star coffee expert Alejandro taught us the correct way to make coffee using a French Press. Whoda' known that how and when you add the water makes such a big impact on the final flavor...
And, here it is...the perfect cup of first-quality Colombian coffee. The Juan Valdez folks would be proud...
It was (warning: geek alert) super fun and super interesting. Before I only had my instinctual response to whether a coffee was good or bad. I never really knew why but now I have a whole new perspective and vocabulary. Now when I'm served a bad cup of coffee, I'll still drink it but I'll also know why it's bad. Don't worry though, if I have coffee at your place I promise to enjoy it and I won't bring a worksheet.