I like my coffee like I like my men. That's right, you're thinking it: COMPLEX. Turns out, I'm in luck. According to the experts at Portland's Stumptown Coffee Roasters, coffee beans have about 800 flavor characteristics, more than twice the number found in wine. The staff at the Southeast Belmont Stumptown offer twice-daily "cuppings" (at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.) to inform people about the finer points of the beverage. My sister Laura and I attended one with our aunt and uncle, who were visiting from Spokane last weekend.
Coffee buyers carry out the ritualistic cupping process before each purchase to determine the quality and qualities of the beans in question. And really, they approach the whole thing with a mug-half-empty mentality: they're in it to find the defects.
We were encouraged not to share our observations during the cupping so as not to influence each other's impressions.
At our cupping, a Stumptown coffee master lined up seven trays of coffee beans — from Guatamala, Panama, Ethiopia and Kenya — along the shop's low, wooden counter. We sniffed, snorted and sipped our way down the line five times, evaluating the beans each time in a different way.
The process took about an hour and went something like this:
- We smelled the dry grounds of each bean, making sure to inhale the fragrance through our noses AND our mouths.
- We sniffed the grounds again, this time soaked in just-boiled water.
- We used spoons to break the crust that developed on the surface of the solution and and inhaled the aroma again.
- We dipped our spoons in the coffee mixture and slurped it up as loudly as possible, trying to get the coffee droplets to reach both our tongues and the back recesses of our nasal passages. (The Stumptown staff member demonstrating had this part of the process down, but when I tried to execute with as much gusto, I ended up just inhaling the coffee. Cough.)
- We slurped down the line again to taste the coffee at a slightly cooler temperature, when its true qualities are said to reveal themselves.
Some are fruity, some are nutty, and now I can tell you which is which
I've been aware that different blends of coffee have different characteristics, but I've never paid attention to what those differences are. I just drink whatever's in my cup and have a general sense of whether I like it or not. The process of tasting coffees back to back enabled me, for the first time, to note the nuances that make each bean distinctive — and realize I have a lot to learn when it comes to café.