You've finally mastered the coffee menu and can easily explain the difference between a Cortado and a Macchiato, but raise your hand if you can describe the traditional flavors or acidity of an Ethopian or Columbian coffee. If your coffee knowledge is limited only to knowing that you prefer dark or light roast, you might want to attend a cupping. Most local coffee shops will let you attend one even if its not advertised. Coffee, like wine, is made from many types of varietals each with distinct flavors that fluctuate depending on the region they are grown in and the weather each year. All cups are most certainly not created equal.
Cuppings have recently taken off as an educational tool for local coffee shops. Instead of coffee purchased and roasted in mass quantity like national retailers, these shops are often times sourcing small batches from farms around the world, importing 30-40 bags, and then continually refining the roasting daily as they move through each of those batches. They believe that if their customers have a better understanding of what they like and a more discriminating palate, customers will be more likely to shell out $4.50 for a high quality pour-over. Think of your local roaster as an artisan who wants to share their work with you over the best cup of coffee you've probably ever had.
There is a two-fold purpose to cuppings. First, roasters do a cupping to sample each batch they roast. Since coffee beans arrive green, the head roaster is entrusted with the job of roasting the beans to perfection. While lower quality beans typically get thrown into a blend and roasted heavily to mask their lack of flavor, higher quality beans need to be finessed into perfection to preserve its complex undertones. Roast it too heavily and the dark flavor will mask any subtle nuances like chocolate, nuts, fruit, or spice. Traditionally, cuppings are the way a roaster monitors each batch and fine tunes the length and degree of heat that is used to bring the beans to flavor maturity.
A cupping begins with the whole roasted beans of each variety being blended and placed into a cup. Customers smell each cup of grinds and compare notes.
The aromatic grinds are then covered in boiling water and left to seep.
With the back of a spoon, the grinds floating on top are carefully parted and the aroma of each cup of the brewing coffee is inhaled deeply.
In an ninja-level expert move, the roaster uses two spoons to remove the floating grinds from the top of each coffee cup in one swift motion.
And finally, the coffee is tasted, mouthful by mouthful, swirling and rolling over the palate.
When you develop slightly more discriminating tastes, you should be able to pick out subtle hints of chocolate, nuts, fruit, florals, and spices as well as observing the body and degree of acidity. It takes practice, but there is beauty in developing an appreciation of the finer things in life. And a great cup o' joe is one of the finest.