Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Cupping Table Trap

Not too long ago, while on a trip to origin, the producers who had arranged the trip set up a cupping to show off the variety of the coffee they could provide. Each table had a number of microlots of various process methods and farms and there were a number of tables. The coffee producer that I had a relationship with was there and I immediately recognized the flavor profile I had come to expect from his farm. There were a couple of other farms that had similar profiles but there were also some microlots that had unexpectedly unique flavors that really set them apart from the rest. One in particular stood out. It was noticeably sweeter, honey-like in its sweetness, with an almost crystalized ginger quality. There was only about 50 bags of this coffee available and if I wanted I could lock them up right then and there with the producer. It was a moment every coffee buyer pines for, that special find, an exclusive deal, a Direct Trade dream. I asked to have samples sent back to the Roastery to cup them again when I returned. When I did, I wondered what I could have been thinking. What stood out from the crowd in the origin cupping room now reflected a flavor taint. Without the other cuppers around gushing over this sample, the shine disappeared. Once again I was glad that I didn't fall for the cupping table trap.

I was reminded of this episode just last week in the cupping room while sampling production roasts. With the seasonal weather changes the coffee cools faster and a couple of coffees’ profiles had changed more than expected. Anyway, while cupping a client stopped by and, after having a go around the table, was struck by one in particular. It was noticeably sweeter, honey-like, maybe more like molasses. I told him this was a coffee slated for a temperature adjustment. That this molasses flavor he was tasting would change to a more liqueur-like characteristic with a couple of degrees increase in final temperature. But he's hooked now. I know how he feels. He's got the bug of discovery, wants to have that experience at his shop, share his treasure. He's fallen for the cupping table trap.

The process of cupping is enjoying much attention these days and cuppers are often exalted for their ability to ferret out the nuanced subtleties hidden within coffee. The once esoteric art of cupping is now taught at workshops held everywhere, indoctrinating a whole new legion of master cuppers with their own arcane vocabulary. This naturally has spread out to the masses as converts share their new found gospel of taste. The altar of this new faith is the cupping table. A magical realm where secrets are revealed by revered adepts, bestowing favor in the form of a cupping score.

Of course, it wasn't always this way. The business of cupping was the purview of coffee traders and coffee buyers whose aims were not the same. For traders, the principal concern was defects and taints that could negatively affect a coffee's value. For this reason the cupping samples are given a very light roast, commonly referred to as a trade roast, to expose any off tastes. Particularly where taints and defects are concerned, it is not enough to be able to describe a flavor characteristic, one must also identify its cause. If something jumps out at you on a cupping table it is not always for the best of reasons. Coffee growers and traders have historically focused taste terminology on defects since the principal concern was rejection by buyers.

Mike Sivetz observed that quality cupping language should consist of three characteristics:1. A vocabulary pertinent to the item being tasted; 2. a common agreement on a taste or odor impression from the same sample; and 3. a depth and breadth of coffee tasting experience. In the past, most vocabularies for coffee flavor leaned heavily on taints and defects, not because we were looking for them but rather to avoid them and, if identified, to fix the problem. Coffees that were free of off flavors and displayed clean characteristics were approved for trade.

While popular notions of coffee buyers as intrepid explorers dominate our media depictions today, historically the reality has been far more mundane. Most coffee buyers of the past worked for large roasting firms producing a few blends for the commercial trade. Their job was not a search for an elusive coffee, it was rather to find the cheapest possible coffee for the blend. These cuppers, too, would have trade roasted their samples to reveal taints and defects. The goal wasn't to find the best bean, but the cheapest with the least defects. If they shaved even a penny off the cost it was worth it since most customers were not brand loyal - coupons dictated sales. Naturally, the coffee couldn't be so offensive that customers would object, but most commercial blends had so many components that it was a muddled mess anyway, making it near impossible to distinguish one brand from another.

Even with the rise of specialty coffee most roasters still focused on blends. Now, however, the goal was to create a complete coffee. One that could serve as the flagship of the brand and have wide appeal.

This emphasis on blends may have influenced what was desirable in a single origin coffee. Many roasters sought to align themselves with well known estates that could offer exclusive, signature profiles. It wasn't so much a uniqueness that was sought after, rather an ideal. Again, this coffee needed to be complete in and of itself, not needing to be blended. The operative trait associated with quality in this case was balance. Estates could deliver on this quality by crafting a signature profile from combining beans harvested from different parts of the estate. In this scenario, the cupper is not only responsible for identifying attributes that would detract from the experience, i.e. defects and taints, but for crafting a distinctive flavor.

This technique would be adopted by cooperatives as they, too, entered the realm of specialty coffee. Individually, small farms’ quality and flavor was often inconsistent and unreliable, but by combining attributes together into a coherent whole cooperatives could produce coffee that rivaled estates. For roasters such as myself, these coffees are often preferable over estates since the trees are more likely to be heirloom varieties grown in very biodynamically diverse environments as opposed to hybrids grown in specialized shade or even, too often, full-sun conditions.

In both cases, whether working for a roasting firm or working at origin, cupping is not simply a passive exercise, and quality isn't stumbled upon - it is something created. Today, however, with the focus on microlots this model is largely forgotten. We have come a long way since the days when a few commercial brands dominated the coffee market and now coffees are lauded for their own unique characteristics rather than simply for being the next Jamaica Blue Mountain. But what may have been lost along the way is that different is not always good. Having a sound knowledge of taints and defects, and an idea what one is looking for in a quality coffee would avoid the cupping table trap.

Some of this may have come from the very thing that the SCAA initiated to improve coffee quality at origin - cupping competitions such as The Cup of Excellence. In the beginning many growers would put aside a small lot that would be carefully prepared for the competition but many are simply baffled what it is cuppers are looking for anymore when they see farmers who do little or nothing with their lots win. Many view the competitions merely as one would a lottery ticket - it doesn't make much sense to make a special effort preparing a coffee for the competition when there's no sense to what wins.

Some of this also may have to do with the cozier relationship that roasters are encouraged to develop with growers in the world of Direct Trade. But grower and roaster interests are not always aligned and an inexperienced buyer may not recognize a known taste fault in a delivery and a grower is not obliged to train him or her. This goes beyond the obvious taste faults from growing to the more subtle taints from processing. Too often I hear taste descriptions that are the result of a mediocre coffee being subjected to processing taint, intentionally or otherwise. I recall one grower insisting on a sample's “wineyness”, when it was obviously ferment, despite the spin.

Perhaps, though, the real culprit here may be the trade roast itself. Trade cupping is meant to expose possible taste faults from taints and defects, not reflect potential flavor. A good coffee, free of taints and defects, is clean and straightforward at a trade roast. This would certainly seem boring after awhile. This may be why process taints are gaining favor among those cuppers caught in the cupping table trap, they create an impression of complexity and diversity. Some may argue that we are entering a new era of taste acceptance, that the old rules no longer apply. I must disagree. Taste faults are not taste preferences, ignorance does not make it so.  

Sivetz further asserted two aspects of taste terminology for coffee. One consists of the trade or lay terminology by non-chemists, e.g., growers, traders, and buyers. The other is chemical terminology by chemists, chemical engineers, and food technologists; the industry benefits from a combination of the two. While I am no chemical engineer myself, I benefited greatly under his tutelage when confronting the different taste attributes in coffee. Particularly when it came time to call a duck a duck when confronting an unusual taste characteristic on the cupping table. 


Recognizing a defect should be obvious to any cupper; harder, I think, is to recognize taints. Some coffee taints are generally accepted in the trade, i.e. processing taints such as dry-processed beans from Sumatra. Many would argue that this taint, so long as the dry-process is done properly, characterizes this coffee, is part of what makes it unique. Sivetz himself long carried Sumatra coffee in his roastery. But there are too many dry-process coffees out there, not just from Sumatra, that are simply dirty tasting and fermented. This is not character, this is not uniqueness - this is sloppy processing. Coffee left on the side of the road to dry is not quality coffee regardless of poetic waxing.

While the days of looking for the one complete coffee are over, we should be equally concerned about falling for “anything goes”. We can become so fixated on finding something different that we forget what’s good. Knowing the difference between a taste fault and a taste preference is crucial to creating true specialty coffee. One can develop a warped view of coffee flavor on the cupping table if one loses sight of the purpose of cupping. This trap can be avoided when one recognizes that the cupping table is a tool to be used for quality, not a world to stumble through hoping to discover treasure. Much of my own work on the cupping table isn’t looking for something new but cupping what we have done, i.e. production roast cupping, with an eye towards improving it.

In the world of coffee you can always have something different, but that does not make it good. True coffee professionals not only identify great coffee, they create it.