Akin to wine tasting, cupping is the process of pairing up coffee bean against bean. “Cupping doesn’t try to mimic the wine industry,” notes Scott Brant, a roastmaster for Montana Coffee Traders, “but the wine industry has done such a great job of putting words to traits that it’s a place to start.”
A group gathers at Montana Coffee Traders in Whitefish to dabble in the art of cupping coffee. But the two-step process is much harder than it sounds. Pitting beans against each other for aroma and then taste requires more than slugging down an espresso.
To rank and describe the aroma, noses bend over whiskey glasses of dry ground beans—four different coffees. While none of the group has near the finesse of Brant’s 25 years in the business, they detect faint differences between the four coffees—a hint of chocolate here, a smattering of blueberry or earthiness there.
Three tests define the coffee’s aroma. Testers first whiff dry grounds and then add hot water to smell the brew. The third aroma test uses a spoon to break the “crust” before smelling. The crust is that frothy, light soft mound of free-floating grounds that floats on coffee before French pressing.
After completing aroma tests, Brant hands out paper spit cups and spoons for taste-testing. Rather than drinking and swallowing which might overload the taste buds in a long day of testing coffees, tasters fill a small soup spoon half way, then slurp and spit. “Suck the coffee in as loud and slurpy as possible,” advises Brant, as he bends over a spoon of brown liquid. “Slurp a lot of air, and make a lot of noise.” The room resounds with boisterous sips that would curdle Emily Post’s blood.
In slurp after slurp, testers rank coffees for their clarity, sweetness, acidity, mouth-feel, flavor, after-taste, balance, and overall impression. Even the non-coffee drinkers found traits they liked or disliked in the brews—something tarty, fruity, woody, or honey-like.
“All day we make judgments about taste and smell,” explains Brant. “Here, we’re just focusing on different attributes of coffee to find what makes it exemplary.”
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