Last Friday, May 8, the Belgian Cupping Championships took place at Lion Products in Bonheiden. Cupping is the tasting of coffee, usually following a certain routine. Freshly roasted coffee beans are grinded in small (cupping) cups. At this moment a first evaluation takes place. By smelling the dry coffee – freshly ground – the coffee fragrance is detected. The fresher the coffee (closer to roasting date), the more intense the fragrance.
Water, just off the boil, is poured over the ground coffee. Coffee particles will rise to the surface and form a crust of coffee on top. You let it sit for about 4 minutes. Then you break the crust with a cupping spoon (this spoon is a little bit deeper and different in shape from a normal spoon) and gently stir in order to fully moist all the coffee. Breaking the crust is a second evaluation point. Sniffing the coffee thoroughly reveals its aromas. The tasting wheel below gives you an idea of the possible aromas in coffee. The range of aromas is different for each coffee.
The particles will sink to the bottom. Those that don’t sink should be skimmed off. Now the coffee is ready to be tasted. With a cupping spoon, a small amount of coffee is brought to the mouth and forcefully slurped as to fully aerate the coffee and spread it evenly all over the tongue. Attention is paid to acidity, sweetness, body (how the coffee ‘feels’ in your mouth) and aftertaste (what remains after swallowing). Usually the coffee is spit out, taste buds are cleared, spoons are rinsed and the process starts all over. Read more concrete step-by-step guides here, here and here.
Cupping is used by coffee professionals to identify the quality of coffees and to compare different coffees. It’s a way for coffee roasters to sample different coffees and decide which ones they want to use in a blend. It’s a way to detect deficiencies in coffees or just really outstanding crops. Related to this is the “Cup of excellence”, a contest held each year among farmers of a coffee producing country. More about this in a next post or here.
But there are also cupping championships, where competitors are asked to ‘cup-taste’ 8 sets of 3 cups of coffees. In each set of three, there are two identical and one different coffee. The latter one is set apart from the other two. The winner is the one who picks out the most ‘faults’ in the shortest time. (Note that the coffee is prepared as drip coffee, so different from ‘traditional cuppings’) As with other coffee championships, national champions compete against each other at the world championships. Last Friday, some ten coffee pro’s took the challenge. Several people from Efico (a Belgian trader, importing green coffee into the Antwerp harbour), some smaller roasters (Donko’s, Deprez) and few barista’s (Rob, Bird, Francois). OR was well presented with both Tom Janssen (our roaster) and Simon Boone (barista) participating. While the boyz were having fun, the girlz (Katrien and I) were securing income (aka working the bar). We were however happily surprised that Tom ended 4th, at only 5 seconds from the third. Efico’s well-trained cuppers took home 1st (Bart Vansanden), 3rd (Laurent) and 5th place (Jean). Louis from Donko’s placed 2nd and Peter Deprez 6th. Congrats to all participants and good luck to Bart for the World Cuptasting Championships in Cologne in june. More pictures follow soon.
As for my own cupping experience; I’ve participated in 6 sessions so far, evenly distributed between NYC (Cafe Grumpy, Joe, Intelligentsia) and Belgium (Caffenation, Efico, Deprez). Most memorable were probably Grumpy (5 really different and really good coffees and my first encounter with the amazingness that is Yirgacheffe), Intelli (most thorough and just the nicest knowledgeable people) and Efico (their cupping tables and skills are impressive ;) ).
I love cupping, it gives you the change to really try and describe what you taste and smell… what it is that makes you like or dislike a certain coffee. It’s easy to do at home (ok, you need a good grinder) and you can taste more coffees than you usually do at a cafe (where there’s at most two kinds on offer, here in Belgium that is). It broadens your palate, cos cupping and learning to discern and identify all those different aromas and tastes really just needs a lot of practice! How happy I was when I recently experimentally found out what they actually meant with ‘a clean cup’.
But mostly, the more you do it, the more complicated it becomes (up until a certain point I guess)… and hey, that’s just why I love coffee so much. :)