Back in the olden days, on March 7, I joined Jay and four other coffee enthusiasts for Rubicon’s March Cupping, where we learned that coffee tasting in its highest form is akin to discerning among fine wines. At each ‘station’ were all we needed to grade the Honduran roast that was on special last month.
We started by opening our blue trays and sticking our noses into a pile of whole beans, whose fragrance we attempted to describe using the Specialty Coffee Association’s ‘Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel,’ with a mind-numbing range of flavor and aroma descriptors. The central tier of the wheel describes general flavors, such as Spices, Sweet, Nutty/Cocoa, Green/Vegetative; the second tier is umbrella terms, like under Spices: Brown spice, Pepper, Pungent; the third tier is specific descriptions, for example under Brown spice: Clove, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Anise.
We wrote our impressions on a scoring sheet, then ground the 8.5 grams of the same beans that were in our little white cups, adjusting our ‘fragrance’ descriptions as needed. We noticed that after we smelled the ground beans, the whole beans, which had smelled so good before, had virtually no fragrance. Jay then poured in the exact right amount of 200°F water, which sat for exactly four minutes before we examined our ‘aroma’ impressions.
After scooping a path through the grounds we bent to smell our coffee. Some people were able to distinguish more subtle scents, but my untrained nose just said ‘yum!’ Technically, there should be no aromas in the cupping room, so if you attend a cupping, go fragrance-free ~ no perfumes, scented lotions, or strong deodorants. No Axe body spray, for sure!
We then skimmed the grounds off the top with our spoons, rinsed the spoons, and used one to slurp the hot coffee and begin to evaluate the flavors. We used the small glass to spit the coffee into, as you do in a wine tasting. We continued to slurptaste as the coffee cooled, discussing and laughing about who could discern what flavors, and how they changed over time. I did get hints of nutty and roasted, while others were more discerning, naming almond, citrus, and some other outer tier specific flavors.
Coffee scoring has a range of 7-10, which we noted on our scoring sheets for several criteria. 7 = ‘just ok,’ 8 = ‘good,’ 9 = ‘excellent,’ and 10, which nothing ever gets, is of course ‘perfect.’ In addition to those mentioned above, criteria include Aftertaste, Acidity, Body, and Balance, with a summary category of Overall.
Aftertaste is the length of time a positive flavor remains in the back of the palate after the coffee is spit or swallowed; a short or unpleasant flavor would result in a lower score. Acidity would describe the degree of tartness in the flavor, like a berry or citrus note, or lack thereof. Body is actually why I love coffee: it is the sense of tactile richness, heaviness or thickness, of the coffee in your mouth, the texture. Finally, a well-balanced coffee is one in which no single flavor dominates the other.
After we had slurped, spit, and swallowed to our hearts’ content, described to the minutest detail all that we could, Jay provided us with a Cup Profile for the Honduras Pacavita Reserve that we had just tasted. “In this certified organic coffee, rich milk chocolate and almond are complemented by bright notes of citrus and a juicy body.” Some of us came closer than others to matching that description! I certainly went home with a more educated palate than I went in with, and have enjoyed sampling the various flavors of coffee in my pantry with that flavor wheel in mind.
Coffee is a luxury, like chocolate, that may become less available to us as the climate crisis escalates in coming years. I intend to make the most of my newfound coffee education, and savor every cup going forward with deeper attention and appreciation for all its subtleties.