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December 1999 Issue
A Guatemalan Cupping and Review
by Chris Schaefer
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In the nose, we agreed with some regularity, noting the importance of the power in the smell. From there, however, it becomes apparent at how different our palates are. John and myself were each other's antithesis; not seeing eye to eye. While I was conservative with the aspects of the cups, John was liberal; the two of us flipping to and fro when it came to Acidity and Body. Randy and Tammy played each other's antithesis; Tammy remaining somewhat conservative, Randy liberal, until Body.

What's not noted, and what may give you a better insight as to what the numbers mean, are our taste observations. Tammy picked up a range of tastes from nutty and fruity, to spongy and woody. Randy, again playing Tammy's antithesis found buttery and chocolaty tastes with flowery and iodine-like notes as well. John and I found sweet notes, myself picking up additionally strong hints of spice in a number of the cups.

If one were to put all different possible tastes on a wheel (like the people of the SCAA did do), certain tastes would fall into certain categories. For example: sweet tones can be picked up as mellow and somewhat acidic, and would be described as delicate or tangy. Fruit and flowery notes are from a class called "enigmatic." They may even come more distinctive as in a particular flower or berry. What goes for the good, goes for the bad. In regards to defects, a characteristic we didn't look at assuming that all samples were found to be defect-free from their source, tastes and aromas might come in the shape of: improper roasting, changing fats, changing acids, and loss of organic materials. The sensations might follow as: burnt, scorched, or baked; moldy, musty, or earthy; sweaty, fermented, or rubbery; and woody or grassy, each having their own unique sets of aromas and flavours.

While the four of us had results that were across the board, distinctive characteristics held fast. A good Guatemalan is known to have a fair amount of acidity but a healthy balance between flavour and body. I felt in unnecessary to limit its acidity because all samples were from the same region. Guatemalans are also known to have their acidity picked up in the form of spiciness while finishing in the cup with a sweetness attributed to fruits or flowers. And, if it didn't complicate matters further, one source for our beans stood fast to the idea that a good Guat. should have a rich finish with chocolaty undertones. So, was the group right on?

The final scores are what professionals use for determining a coffee's ranking. I would suggest, for the home user, that until cupping becomes a second-nature as tamping a shot of espresso, you rely not only on the final score but put some weight into what you smell and taste. The proof is in comparisons not only between similar region's coffees, not only in similar processed coffees, but in all food and drink that exhibit qualities you can "measure" with your mouth.

For the purposes of this large cupping experiment, to be honest, the four of us couldn't agree on one coffee that reflected the good and bad of all the samples. Reasons range from atmosphere in the cupping room, what crazy things were running around in our minds at the time, external distractions, unfamiliarity with the coffees and the coffees themselves. The breakdown of the samples is as follows.

Coffee Prices (per pound)
Mountanous Bros. Coffee Bean Corral The Coffee Project Sweet Maria's
SHB Huehue. $5.50 n/a n/a $5.00
Huehue. Ex. Corp. n/a n/a $5.55 n/a
Huehue. Finca Tres Maria n/a n/a $5.55 n/a
Huehue. SHB shade grown n/a $4.25 n/a n/a
Huehue. organic n/a $4.65 n/a n/a
Antigua Santa Barbara n/a $4.65 n/a $5.20
Antigua La Tacita Estate '99 n/a n/a n/a $5.80
San Marcos Finca Dos Marias Estate 97/98 n/a n/a n/a price unavailable

Our answers only go to show that cupping isn't easy and requires patience, practice, and rather well-honed senses. What was discovered, what did open our eyes, were the relationships between the cuppers and coffees being cupped. While some coffees cupped with big aromas and fragrances, they sometimes failed to reflect that on the palate. Additionally, certain tones were picked up in the mouth that failed to make impressionable marks in the smell. One coffee would "wow" one of us, while the rest would leave our descriptions to wander aimlessly on the scoring sheet. For a coffee who reportedly had a "set-in-stone" flavour profile, our cupping results may shed light on something else -- that even though a group of coffees may come from the same region, many factors -- known and unknown -- play a large role in developing a bean's character.

As a side-note, all of these coffees were washed. Some were different pickings though that did not seem to hinder the balance of the scores. Some, as can be seen above, were produced shade-grown; some organically. Again, the "purchase factors" had little impact on our total weighing of these coffees against themselves.

It seems almost defeating to look back and reflect on how little information this may seem to be. But to reassure the reader, this information is valuable from a variety of standpoints. First, it helps, if anything, to test our tasting skills and whenever one stretches a muscle or skill that's been used little, it benefits that person immeasurably. Like the Mexican review from months earlier, I retreat to the stance that more cupping, more data is needed. To be fair to the brokers and suppliers, a more comprehensive test would include blind samplings, one at a time, of the Huehuetenangos we tasted that day, not pitted against the group, but against themselves. And to further the point, it would have been a tremendous help to roast three varying degrees of batches, of each coffee. This would give any cupper a more complete range of tastes and how age, processing, and agriculture play in the bean's development.

For the home roaster, this is a fair bit of information to digest. I chose some of the more popular sources for our samples. As you can see from above, the prices are reasonably balanced between each; this is surprising because I through a loop in the testing: we cupped coffees which should be marketed and retailed differently from each other: the organic and shade grown samples. It is not uncommon for batch and shop roasteries to take advantage of these differently produced coffees marketability. Or does it only show that there is a strong economic advantage to home roasting?

A last point about our sources: shipping. Green coffee is very affordable. But if you do not pay attention to shipping costs when purchasing from an non-local source, you could easily eat up much if not all of your savings. For example: the cost of the purchase of one pound of green coffee and it's shipping from the West Coast to my front door (in the lovely Great Lakes region) cost me more than a pound of roasted coffee of the same variety. What did I gain? Green coffee loses its weight as it roasts, so a pound of roasted coffee is actually more than a pound un-roasted. Freshness is an advantage: my green will last longer and I can roast on demand. So, as you can see, it's a tricky balancing act. My suggestion: buy in bulk when you can. Balance your shipping costs and stock up on beans when prices are favourable. Avoid the temptation to buy new and interesting coffees only to see whether you like them or not; wait until you can cup it or read a challenging and positive review before buying.

And Now, The Rest of the Story
To close, we cupped five different Internet source's of Guatemalan's Huehuetenango coffee. Each source cost differently although not overbearingly different. Each coffee roasted, ground, and brewed identically. And each cupper his or her own unique individual. What we found was that, for a coffee that had a reportedly "set-in-stone" definition, our "measurements" varied significantly on many of the cupping qualities. At the same time, we discovered that quality as a whole was on the up and up for each of sources -- not one coffee coming in drastically less than any other.

For the home roaster it means there's still good deals on good coffee through the Internet. And the discrepancies between Internet vendors seem to be nil. In other words, if you're looking for the best value, your money is safely spent at any one of the vendors highlighted here. The best part, in my opinion, is the selection and diversity of the selection. It keeps things interesting as it were.

It was an enjoyable and educational experience. One I hope this article will encourage you to try for yourself. You'll be surprised to find how easy it is and how rewarding the results can be.

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