For the Home Roaster

In following with the success from my earlier "research" with the cuppings of dry and washed Mexican coffees, I offer you this analysis and review of another Central American coffee: Guatemalan -- in particular, a regional coffee called Huehuetenango. The purpose of this piece is three-fold: to expose the art of cupping in a non-professional environment to the home coffee enthusiast; to show to the home coffee roaster what selections and prices are available; and finally, to instill the desire of learning more about taste sensation and appreciation of quality.

"Why?" Fair question. My original intent was to take a small and brief slice of the "home roasting pie" and compare products for the sole benefit of the home roaster. Once the project got underway, I realized that there was more to this than merely cupping and comparing. Additionally, there was the broadening of horizons for both myself and my colleagues in regards to coffee selection and the understanding of the roles that each variable have in cup quality.

I'd like to begin by first introducing you to the cuppers, individually. Next the cupping terms, forms, and bean data. Then the results of the cupping followed by an analysis of their meaning. And finally summing it all up with the application of this little event for both you and I.

The Cuppers
My intent was to make this a one-person project. But in the light of the reasons behind this quest, it only seemed right to ask others for their input. Since Randy and Tammy Ahl were looking for some new and exciting coffees for their roastery (located in Cedarburg, WI), they were excited about the potentials this cupping session brought to the table.

Randy, an engineering manager for a local company, and Tammy, his new wife, own and operate the Cedarburg Coffee Roastery; one of the newest roasters in Southeast Wisconsin. Tammy, who runs the shop during the day, is a very energetic and enthusiastic individual. Her passion for quality tasting coffees is matched only by her enjoyment to satisfy and encourage her customers. Randy spends much of his evenings and weekends tending to their 35-pound Deitrich batch drum-roaster. Here, he concocts new blends while at the same time learning the ins and outs of maining quality and customer demand.

John Eger, Randy and Tammy's employee, is a relaxed and quiet fellow. When offered this chance to learn more about coffee and to "test his taster," John leapt. He brings to the table not only his youth, but the future of specialty coffee.

Finally, myself -- famed writer and champion of all that is coffee. A home-roaster for some 4 years and now also a product development engineer responsible, in part, for the birth of the "wb" Coffee Bean Roaster from the West Bend Company. An avid home cupper and frequent patron of the above-mentioned roastery.

Cupping
For the purposes of our session, we relied upon the use of the Specialty Coffee Association of America's standard coffee cupping form. This form, available directly from the SCAA (www.scaa.org) is used to help growers, broker's, buyers, and retailers compare coffees from similar lots or shipments, pickings, and millings for the purpose of quality control and assurance. The forms are designed around a point system where each characteristic of a coffee, cupped blindly or not, are weighted and then tallied at the end. Such characteristics are looked at to detect defects and impurities between crops and shipments. Additionally, the cupping form is used to compare local and regional varieties; this is to insure individual farm's or co-op's quality when a bean leaves for the processing or milling plants. And finally, the form is a useful tool for brokers looking to stock the best tasting and best-valued beans they can. On the home side of things, the form is useful for determining cup characteristics at various roast levels whether for use in blends or brewed individually.

The cupper's form is mathematical. Limitations can be set on certain defining characteristics so that, when the session concludes and multiple coffees are weighted and pitted against each other, no one origin or variety will push or sink the scale for the other coffees. This limiting principle works by keeping a particular coffee or group of coffees from out-scoring based on a pronounced characteristic not found naturally in the others. For example, when cupping batches of African coffees, a selection from Kenya might have a delimiter set on its Acidity scale so that Ethiopians and Ugandans won't score unfairly lower due to their less-pronounced acidity.

And speaking of Acidity, just what is it? For that matter, what are the cupping characteristics?

There are a few characteristics that are examined when a coffee is cupped. To begin with, smell. Since smell accounts for about 90% of an item's taste, the smell of a coffee is very important.

Fragrance and Aroma are the characteristics of ground and brewed coffee, respectively. They are measured from a negative (-) to a positive (+) three. Things to look for in smell is its power, any noticeable flaws, and any particular "flavours" that are well-pronounced.

Defects are used by the professionals for measuring and noting flaws from processing, milling, and cultivation. From the Fragrance and Aroma, one can put a tag on a coffee's defects. If the Defects rank high with intensity, measured from 1 to 3, then it is multiplied and recorded. It brings a cup's overall quality down as it is calculated in the final score.

Acidity is not a pH measurement, but a sensation felt in the mouth and on the tongue. It's been noted as a "snappy" bite or sparkling on the palate, and can be coupled with a particular group of flavours; flavours include tannic, spicy, and peppery to name a few.

Body, or Mouthfeel, is a tactile sensation of a coffee's "weight" in the mouth. The four of us cupper had a challenging time quantifying this characteristic as we were tasting coffees from the same region and should, therefore, have similar bodies. The Body is cause by undissolved or insoluble solids from the coffee. It can be detected by rubbing the upper-side of the tongue along the roof of the mouth and the inside of the cheek. The best way to detect it is to taste a lighter-bodied coffee or tea, to become acquainted with the feel. To note, roast-degree has an impact on perceived and measurable body. Lighter roasts tend to have less pronounced body but, again, for note's sake, a greater degree of Acidity.

Flavour and Aftertaste are characteristics that take in the results of what you smell, feel, and taste. They're dependant upon the strength and lasting power a coffee has. If it is pleasurable both at and after first sip, then you might say it has a good Flavour and a pleasing, high-scoring Aftertaste.

Form and Function
The SCAA Cupper's form has six rows containing the columns for recording each characteristic. It has space for comments, a bar for noting degree of roast, and a tallying column for recording final score. The scores for each characteristic is depicted with a line-scale, from 0 to 10; the cupper merely marks on the line where the characteristic falls. The form's function is easily understood when first used. It is also flexible in that, as mentioned above, it has a space for writing down the limitations a cupper might put on Acidity and Body, to keep the scoring fair. Bean Data
For the purposes of this experiment, all coffee were roasted to the same degree with the use of a sample, convection (hot-air) roaster. (Note: the roaster was the aforementioned 'wb' available at http://www.wbproducts.com) The roast was a middle-of-the-road, House or City Roast; about a 60 on the Agtron Scale. Following are the cupper's numbers and final scores for each coffee. Below it, an explanation of each coffee.
Chris
Source Fragrance Aroma Flavour Aftertaste Acidity Body Overall Score
Coffee Bean Corral 2 2 7 5 6 3 21 52.5%
Coffee Project Tres Marias 2 3 8 6 5 6 25 62.5%
Mountanous 2 2 6 6 5 5 22 55.0%
Coffee Project Ex. Corp. 2 2 7 7 7 6 27 67.5%
Sweet Maria's Secret 2 2 8 7 5 5 25 62.5%
Cedarburg's 2 2 5 5 7 7 24 60.0%
John
Source Fragrance Aroma Flavour Aftertaste Acidity Body Overall Score
Coffee Bean Corral 2 2 8 9 1 9 27 67.5%
Coffee Project Tres Marias 3 3 5 3 4 9 21 52.5%
Mountanous 3 1 9 5 3 8 25 62.5%
Coffee Project Ex. Corp. 2 3 5 9 4 5 23 57.5%
Sweet Maria's Secret 1 3 10 7 4 8 29 72.5%
Cedarburg's . 1 9 6 6 5 26 65.0%
Randy
Source Fragrance Aroma Flavour Aftertaste Acidity Body Overall Score
Coffee Bean Corral 2 2 9 9 8 4 30 75.0%
Coffee Project Tres Marias 2 2 6 1 8 8 23 57.5%
Mountanous . 2 3 6 4 8 21 52.5%
Coffee Project Ex. Corp. 3 1 9 6 4 9 28 70.0%
Sweet Maria's Secret 2 2 8 9 8 6 31 77.5%
Cedarburg's . 2 5 3 7 8 23 57.5%
Tammi
Source Fragrance Aroma Flavour Aftertaste Acidity Body Overall Score
Coffee Bean Corral 3 2 6 7 4 7 24 60.0%
Coffee Project Tres Marias 3 1 2 2 6 8 18 45.0%
Mountanous 1 1 0 2 4 9 15 37.5%
Coffee Project Ex. Corp. 2 1 6 9 0 7 22 55.0%
Sweet Maria's Secret 2 2 8 8 5 6 27 67.5%
Cedarburg's . . 8 5 3 6 22 55.0%

As you can see, not only is it a myriad of cuppers but a myriad of what the cuppers cupped! As noted in the far right column are the final scores. Almost consistently did Sweet Maria's "Secret Source" come in with the highest ranking. Second and Third places being fought after by The Coffee Project and the Coffee Bean Corral. However, the proof is in how the final scores were obtained.

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 L

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