Reflections on Cupping – Part One: Neutrality

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I ended my year-end round-up with a call for cupping as one of the best ways to experience, understand, and judge coffee. I had a slight surprise when I revisited my original cupping dispatch because we have since overhauled and changed our protocols. Beyond the need to revise these outdated procedures, I thought it be fun to spend some time on the topic of cupping. So over the next couple weeks: it is the Reflections on Cupping series!

Let us start with variables inside the bowl. Rereading those prior thoughts on cupping, I echoed a common industry myth that cupping is an impeccably neutral way to judge coffee. Yet, two things this year have changed my perception. First, a handful of coffees that brewed wonderfully but cupped poorly. After slurping, I was prepared to scrap the profiles and start anew but our ever-amazing Account Manager, Derrick Vella, stopped me with the assurance “let me give you an actual mug”.

So why did these particular coffees underachieve on the table? Well, not all beans are created equal. It is what makes coffee so exciting. The intricate minutia of terroir – be it altitude or varietal or processing – alters how coffee plants grow. As they fruit these environmental dynamics shape size, density, and internal moisture activity. This secondary set of factors then affect roasting and profiling, which too cascades down and shifts solubility and brewing. On my end, I could roast every batch to an identical point to create equal levels of solubility. Regardless of origin, it would translate to one grind setting.

However, this would be a huge disservice to the intricacies of terroir. By attaining this technical-oriented goal that sits at the end of that chain, all those previous links would lose alignment and the delicate picture of the fruit disappears. Hence, all of my profiles have different quantities and qualities of heat, applications of airflow, manipulations of air pressure, and timelines in hopes of drawing out the sweetest, juiciest and cleanest articulated flavours. And accordingly, we use unique grind settings for each origin.

Yet at the cupping table, we have one fixed universal grind regardless of varitial, processing, or roast degree. This benefits particular roast philosophies. Moreover, cupping is an immersion brew (versus a percolation process), which too favours a specific style of coffee.

The point I am not so subtly hinting at is that cupping is far from a neutral system. It surely has a use, especially in green buying and selecting coffees for a café program but let us not lose sight of its shortcomings. While tasting blind suggests an impartial approach, the selection of ratio and grind will help or hinder particular coffees. We should always cup. But equally, we should always brew cups and pull shots before passing judgement on any origin or roast.

This leads to the second thing that changed my mind this year: cupping with other people! Next week, I want to talk about flavour thresholds and the perceptions of flavour!