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'Cupping' with the boutique coffee titans in San Francisco

May 18, 2009 |  6:29 pm

Cupping group shot

Last week, some of the most respected coffee buyers in Northern California met to taste the product from a top-rated farm in Panama called Esmeralda. Never one to miss an opportunity to see obsessive coffee people at work, I decided to drop by. 

The tasting (it's called a "cupping" in the coffee world) was held at Flora Grubb Gardens, a nursery in San Francisco. It was a pretty, if unusual, place for the cupping. The initial mood was light. The tasters, six men and one woman, discussed coffee things such as altitudes and acidities. Then the coffee came out and the mood got more serious. 

The price of Esmeralda coffee can get expensive -- two years ago, a bidding war for one lot of its beans (one lot = 300 pounds) went for $130 a pound, breaking all previous coffee price records. It is unlikely that Esmeralda coffee will be that expensive this year, but the price is almost certain to be too hefty for each of the five roasters represented to buy an entire lot themselves. Hence the group tasting, which might lead to group buying.

Cupping is an elaborate, many-step process that involves smelling ground beans for "fragrance," smelling ground beans with boiling water on them for "aroma" and then walking around the table with special cupping spoons and slurping the coffee to test for things such as flavor, balance, mouth feel and after-taste. A handy standardized cupping score sheet helps the taster keep track of the various flavors.

After several rounds of slurping (each coffee was tasted roughly 30 times by each taster), it was time to discuss.

"Is anyone else surprised by the presence of underripes in the cup and in the coffee itself?" asked Ryan Brown, buyer for Ritual Coffee Roasters.

"I was getting a little parchment in No. 2," said Phil Anacker, buyer at Flying Goat Coffee

"Number 1 was the most promising dry, but it fell off in the cup," said David Pohl of Equator Estate coffees and teas.

"It's funny," said Colby Barr, owner of Verve Coffee Roasters in Santa Cruz, addressing a bewildered outsider who had no idea what "parchment" might taste like. "When I first started cupping, people would say, 'Do you taste the caramel notes?' And I'd think, 'I taste coffee.' "

Want to know what a cupping looks like? Click here for a photo slide show of the Esmeralda cupping in action. 

--Deborah Netburn

Photo: Colby Barr, David Pohl, Phil Anacker, Andy Newbom and Ryan Brown at the Esmeralda cupping at Flora Grubb Gardens. Credit: Deborah Netburn

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