An inviting aromatic smell of freshly roasted beans was our cue to enter the laboratory. The air of anticipation was almost palpable as we reverently filed into the spotlessly clean room. To one end stood a German manufactured Probat double chambered micro roaster elegantly fashioned out of copper and steel that continued to radiate heat from the morning’s batch. Two beady eyes in the form of analogue temperature gauges perched on top gazed out over the proceedings that were about to take place. Heading up the investigation team, Coffee Quality Section Head and expert Licensed Grader (cupper), Ato Tilahun Mekonen, assumed the air of a seasoned detective looking for the first vital clues of the day as he studied the evidence carefully laid out before him.
On the white counter, ten random samples of Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union’s (OCFCU) export-quality coffee were arranged in a line of blue trays. There were two dishes for each sample; one containing 100g of green coffee, the other freshly – and evenly – roasted. Senior Cupping Expert, Ato Dayne Chomen, who wore the lab coat of a scrupulous scientist about to evaluate his finely honed hypothesis, started to jot down his observations. Also in attendance was the Union’s resident expert on crop diseases, Ato Getachen Zeleke; a Senior Agronomist who advises the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and teaches at the Addis Ababa University in his spare time… Then there was me; an uninitiated novice with only an innate desire to educate my illiterate taste buds and learn from the master tasters in what was to be my first ever experience of cupping.
The art – and science – of coffee cupping essentially boils down (no pun intended) to the practice of evaluating the distinctive characteristics inherent in the bean, according to its origin. Through a series of observations, tasting trials and by a method of like-for-like comparison, the experienced cupper can accurately assess and gain a deeper understanding of a coffee’s unique character.
In front of each numbered sample, five cups of medium coarse ground coffee were arranged. In turn, we cupped – with both hands – each vessel before raising its heavenly contents to our noses in order to allow the aroma to entice our nostrils. This was followed by a close inspection of the samples to look for any potential defects (over-dryed, under-dryed, immature berry, coated, fungus damage, insect damage, cracks etc) and to ascertain an appreciation of its odour, colour, shape and size. To my untrained eye, it was clear that each sample varied in these specific characteristics. Some samples contained a more pointed bean with a deep central fissure (Harrar), whilst others were more rounded and compact (Djimmah). The subtle hues varied too. From bluish to grayish, greenish – sometimes with a silver skin – to a faded white; the clues to the morning’s detective story were just starting to be revealed.
Armed with an enormous kettle of boiling water that had been allowed to settle for a couple of minutes, Getachen stepped forward and proceeded to wet each cup to the brim. All the while gently stirring the grounds with a smooth circular motion as he poured. Allowing time for the coffee to infuse, the room was filled with an even greater complexity of aroma as the coffee’s chemical compounds react with the hot water’s excited hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Eagerly waiting for the opportunity to sample my first infusion, I thought about the various stages that the coffee berry has been through just to reach this crucial cupping stage. If you consider that the process of roasting itself is somewhat of a ‘baptism of fire’ for the bean, we were now collectively witnessing the blossoming of each coffee’s individual character; the product of a whole host of combined genetic, agronomic, processing and environmental factors. Indeed, the coffee had come long way from its early days as immature green cherries clustered together on the kindergarten of the Arabica mother tree branch to be here.
Before the slurping got under way, the ‘crust’ was ceremoniously broken and any remaining grind removed by scooping the viscous surface with spoons. Tilahun inaugurated the tasting session with a powerful inhalation of such force that at first I thought the roasting machine had miraculously sprung back into life. Gingerly filling a cupping spoon with my own first infusion of the morning, I discarded any feelings of self-consciousness and attempted to follow suit in a similar forceful fashion. To some embarrassment, this merely left me reeling as I coughed and spluttered to fight back the coffee that had continued its journey southerly down my windpipe. Hardly the most composed start to my own coffee tasting journey, but a start nonetheless.
The rationale behind the intense slurping is twofold, explained Dayne: Firstly, the powerful inhalation helps to vaporise the coffee so that is drawn to the roof of the mouth before reaching the back of the throat. Although this appears to enhance our sense of taste, it is in an actual fact our sense of smell that is doing the heavy lifting as the aroma of the vapour stimulates the nasal cavities. Secondly, the action aids an even spread of infusion to tickle and tantalize the range of sweet, sour, salty and bitter sensitive taste buds that cover the different zones of the tongue. It is from this information that the cupper can ‘read’ the level of acidity and intensity of flavour. The coffee is then turned around the mouth to detect any lingering after notes before being ejected into a waist height industrial-sized spittoon on wheels.
Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia Coffee describes the exercise as ‘there is no mystery to cupping, only endless intrigue.’ I now fully understand what he means. The sensations that are revealed through the cupping are a precursor to a torrent of descriptors that flash up in the mind like a series of numbers being called from the bingo floor. The exception is, the adjectives are far from random. The whole sensory exercise is subjective to the individual taster concerned however. For example, I have my own notion of what a lemon tastes like compared to, say, a lime – but I can bet my bottom Ethiopian Birr on it not being exactly the same as anyone else’s interpretation of one citrus fruit to another. Throughout the cupping session, Tilahun encouraged me draw on my own reference points to describe the flavour and verbalise what was popping into my mind.
And what a detective journey it was! From the bright, floral flavours of washed Yirgacheffe and the sharp, spicy overtones of Sidamo, to the full-bodied mocha taste of Harar-origin coffee, each region had a distinctly unique characteristic of its own. A good few slurps later and my head was spinning with the sudden peak in levels of caffeine in my system. Taking a backseat (literally), I watched the master detectives go on to combine two coffees of differing grades from the Limu region to bring out the best balance in flavour, body and acidity before quality assuring it for export.
Cupping, like any appreciation of good food or drink is not only a celebration of the senses but a veritable feast for the curious mind and a fertile imagination.