so today i ran up to the upper east side to have a little cupping with oren. i stopped for a moment to gaze at the vintage couture for sale in the shop next door to o's building, and then ran through the strange narrow maze to his office.
his building has a super-weird internal layout and you have to twist around, navigating by the art nouveau posters hanging on the walls. anyway, i arrive.
o knows what the coffees are, but i'm cupping blind. we have 1 flight of 4. oren has roasted up the samples to cupping level, and then ceremoniously grinds the beans at the last moment just as the water boils and starts to cool.
he scoops a level and equal amount of each into a drinking glass in front of the sample tray of green coffee beans. we sniff.
"hey o, i say, sample #1 smells coriander-y." "what?" o asks. "i don't know what that means, but i like it."
"it means it smells kinda woody-spicy, like you stick your nose in the jar of whole, un-ground coriander seeds that's been sitting in your kitchen spice cabinet." "ummm, well, if you say so," o says mildly, "i think it's a bit nutty." for o, this isn't usually the greatest quality for a coffee at this stage. . .
on to sample #2. i liked sample #2, sweetly floral. o agrees. i stick my nose so far into #3 that i get grounds on the end of my nose. what's great is that o doesn't notice, or at least is sweet enough not to say anything if he does.
"dry hay," o says of #3. "brown rice bran," i offer, "very health-food store-y smelling." neither of these are good. "no," o says, "it hasn't got to the cereal stage yet. it's still green, it's still growing." it's still bad.
#4 is a shock. "i'm thinking, ummm interesting. bad interesting," i just come out with it. "fruity," o says, "too fruity. maybe fermented." ok, so someone let this washed coffee sit around wet too long for sure. . .
o elegantly measures and pours in the hot water; we sniff again. i time 3 minutes on my iphone.
o still finds #1 nutty, but the nut's a little mixed in. #2, we both love #2, great flowers, no defects. (you can often smell a lot of defects in this stage when cupping.)
#3 smells even more like old toast to me. o takes his composition cupping notebook, draws out a little quick grid in pencil, and scribbles "road." uh-oh. road. you don't road in coffee.
#4, there's no saving #4. "it smells like stale apricot brandy," i say. o just wrinkles his nose. "it's not the worst coffee," he says with a light in his eyes that suggests yeah, but this is still just terrible.
since o may actually be buying one of these coffees, he does the break — that is, he drops the browl of his silver cupping spoon through the crust of grounds floating on top and clears them to the bottom. as he breaks each one, his nose goes deep into the glass, just a millimeter from the liquid.
when he comes to #4, he offers to let me break. ha ha! i decline, "no thanks o, that's the one i want to smell least!"
so we taste each sample, pooling a bit in the bowl of the big cupping spoons and then doing our best thunderous sluuurrrrrppppp! to spray the brew as even across the tongue and palate as we can.
the slurp is always the most hilarious part of the cupping, and i never stop cracking up the whole time. o's staff in the other room looks around a little, nervous: why can't this crazy woman stop cackling? (i can't stop cackling because cupping coffee is fun!)
#1 is obviously bright, but i don't really detect any other fantastic quality in it that i would name. "sweet," o says. "yeah, ok," i agree.
#2. i had the highest hopes for #2. i was thinking, you know, prom corsage already, so i was looking for a hot date here. and it was sweet.
i was beginning to be happy here. "this just smells like good coffee," i say. o likewise is a little perky about #2.
oren deems #3 nutty suddenly, citrus-y and nutty. uh-oh. i just don't find anything in it. very neutral. i can barely even summon the word "neutral" to my mind.
#4 is wine-y, but not good wine-y. it's all bad wine-y. o even goes so far as to scribble "rough" in his notes. . .
of course the final stage is when the coffee cools a bit. how does it hold up? this is crucial when it comes to actually drinking and serving it.
o thinks #1 gets a little better, a little rounder in the cooling, but still terms it "dry." i understand what he means by that, in so far as after i swallow a bit of cooler #1, i really want a drink of water. not another sip of the coffee, i want some water. not so good!
but wait, here's our prom queen, #2! and we eagerly sip a cooling #2, to discover. . .nothing. what a let down. none of the interesting qualities we had hoped for made it into the cup at all. it just flattened out like ribbon and rolled away across the carpet.
#3 stayed like itself. no change. because there was nothing there to change, alas. #4, i just couldn't even bring myself to do #4 at first, but o did, so i manfully kept pace.
"tinny," o said. "cla-aaarrrck-gh," i said, sticking my tongue way out between my teeth like a tibetan demon. "nasty."
"o," i stated with sudden insight, "you're not buying any of these coffees." o looked at the sample trays with a certain sorrow. "no," he said with a slight eeyore note, "no, i am not."
i didn't know what to do. my heart was still aching from the disappointment of #2.
"ok o," i asked, "where does these coffees come from?" o flipped the labels — all were supplied by volcafe specialty — #1 was a kenya aa from the leanna co-op, #2 was a kenya ab from the same leanna co-op, #3 was a tanzania, and #4 was a uganda bugisu from a well-meaning person uptown who wanted to help farmers.
not a coffee professional, obviously, because, to be frank, shopping that lower-quality coffee around probably was doing more to hurt the farmers than help them! i would never ever in a million years guessed the origins of any of these coffees, they so lacked any of what i consider the distinguishing hallmarks of their origins. which is another reason they just, in the end, somewhat indifferent beans.
but playtime was over, sadly. o tossed some same beans he had, an ethiopia west harrar from a co-op called ayinage into his funny old beige sirocco home coffee roaster. yes, i said a sirocco. i mean no one's seen one of those for like a million years!
i hung for the requisite time as the beans went to a nice brewing color, took the small sample, thanked o, and skedaddled. just another day of fine, very fine coffee!
on the way home in the subway, i smelled the fresh ethiopia. already the blueberry was coming out. . .oh yes and yes and yes. . .
btw, have i mentioned o's new coban yet? word to the wise: if you like guatemalan coffees, you will love o's new coban.