The Benefits of Coffee Cupping and Where to Do It in NYC
Thanks to the proliferation of specialty coffee shops in New York over the past 10 years -- particularly transplants like Gimme! Coffee, Blue Bottle, Stumptown, Toby's Estate, and Counter Culture -- what was once a relatively quick, less-than-$3 transaction has become increasingly complex (and delicious). Buying a cup of coffee might now include selecting one of myriad brewing methods, having your coffee run through a multitude of contraptions, witnessing theatrical presentations, perusing lists of beans organized by country of origin, and of course, spending more money for the final cup. It's become a little more like looking at a wine or craft beer list, and for many, it's a bit intimidating. However, you can start to make sense of it all when you have a few extra minutes in the café to ask questions. Or, even better, set aside 45 minutes for a cupping.
Lauren Mowery Brewing the coffee for the cupping at Counter Culture.
Cupping is a standardized process of evaluating the taste and aroma of brewed coffee to select and maintain quality of roasted coffee beans. It is primarily used by coffee buyers and roasters, but some cafes do it to select the beans they wish to offer customers, which also allows the baristas to better inform customers of what flavors and textures they can anticipate in their drink. But even for an amateur, the process is the best way to learn the differences among coffees before accessorizing with milk and sugar. And unless you order an espresso-based drink, by the way, try drinking drip coffee black, the way it's meant to be. You don't add soy milk and Splenda to wine, right?
If you've been to a wine tasting, you've had a somewhat similar experience, though cupping has more regimented steps. And as with wine tasting, you don't need to be a coffee geek to partake.
Lauren Mowery Map of Congo; Counter Culture's recent cupping featured DRC coffees
There are generally three stages in the cupping experience: Smelling the grinds, smelling the brewed coffee from those grinds, and tasting the brewed coffee using spoons. In some instances, you may be provided with a pre-printed form to record impressions; good baristas should open up a dialogue between staff and tasters to discuss the samples.
You can do this for free (or at a reasonable cost) in Manhattan and Brooklyn on weekdays and weekends. Some cafés offer public cuppings onsite; Joe Coffee and roaster Counter Culture have opened training centers. In either case, the experience is well worth the time. Cuppings are a kind of coffee social, chaperoned by knowledgeable baristas who are willing to listen to any description, no matter how outlandish, with a straight face. (Last week I tasted nori in a Congo coffee and was awarded a gold star for peculiarity. Someone else recognized salted plums in the same cup.)
The experience can be frustrating. Some attendees may cite that a sample evokes "floral, jasmine, and blueberry" while you may be thinking "it smells like hot coffee." Here's where starting with simple observations on body, finish, and acidity (brightness, not whether you feel heartburn) can help you differentiate between samples and gain an appreciation of regional tendencies.
Counter Culture's newly opened training center in SoHo is particularly impressive, with its large space, vaulted ceiling, blonde wood bleacher seating, and direct access from Broome Street. Page through for a list of the city's cuppings: