How We Select Our Green Coffees and thoughts on "cupping" coffee...
We request many, many samples from the East Coast and West Coast distributors we use, to the point where I am a bit embarassed. We are not only looking for the best tasting coffees, we want unique coffees and good values. We don't want to stand in the way of home roasting's great potential: it saves money and it's exciting to try unusual varietals. Many sites carry Konas and Wallenford Estate Jamaica Blue Mountain, but they are not good values and they are not very exciting.
We test roast every coffee to a City (Medium) roast or about an Agtron 50, and some we cup at 2 degrees of roast to underscore roast tastes and distinguish them from origin tastes. It's important to observe the differences between acidity and bittersweet created by the roast as they combine to produce or reduce complexity. In some coffees, acidity seems to disappear quickly or become masked too easily behind the bittersweet.
Maria and I have different tastes in coffee, and our list of offerings reflect this. I like coffees that roast well in the City to Full City stages, and dislike the flatness of dark roasts. I also like wild coffees, something less predictable. Maria tends to have strong likes and dislikes, with little patience for dark roasts or earthy coffees.
I am Tom, and I make all the decisions and do all the cupping. You might disagree with me, and you might not like my taste in coffee but, your pallete is the one that truly counts!
The accepted method of tasting coffees is standardized and adheres to a specific set of guidelinnes so that empirical observations can be repeated from Budapest to Baltimore. The process is called "cupping." Cuppers are trying to determine "cup quality," how good a coffee tastes. The process involves rigorous attention to details; coffee grind, quantity, water temperature, etc. There are special spoons, cups, spitoons and other instruments used in the procedure. Roughly, 1/4 ounce (7.25 grams) of each coffee to be compared is roasted to a City roast, ground and put in little cups. First the cupper evaluates dry aroma of the grounds. Then 150 ml of 195 degree water is added and the coffee is allowed to infuse for 4 minutes. The grounds float to the top of the cup and are pushed downward (called "breaking the crust") with the spoon while the cupper sniffs for aroma. In the second step the cupper raises the spoon to their mouth and takes in the coffee and a lot of air, essentially spraying the coffee all over their mouth. The cupper judges all the coffee's character at this time; acidity, body, flavor... then they spit it out and try to sense the aftertaste. When the coffee cools they repeat the second step.
Many books on coffee cover the cupping procedure in more detail. As most people who make good coffee on a daily basis know, you tend to have a consistent procedure without really trying too hard. I produce the same grind of the same amount of coffee, heat water in the same pan, and brew into the same jar with the same type of filters every day. I call this "cupping" on a practical level, and can tell immediately if one of my variables (bad grind, lukewarm water, dirty equipment, etc) is off. Anyone can taste the differences between roasts, varietals, and blends in a simple way, even without the formal cupping process. When customers complain about bad results with a certain coffee, I usually ask them to walk through their process and remove as many variables as possible - to try to isolate if the coffee itself is the problem. The formal cupping process attempts to do this same thing, to keep all variables constant in order to isolate the flavor of the coffee and evaluate it.
Of course, one factor that can not be isolated is the person doing the tasting, though most coffee professionals are able to train themselves to focus on the flavor they taste and hone in on its character. For me, I prefer to cup in the morning, when I am fresher. Cupping later in the day, after a heavy meal, around other strong odors, or when I am sick, all these factors can compromise my ability to taste and evaluate the coffee in front of me.