In mid-May, seven of the top coffee tasters in Northern Califonia met in San Francisco to decide whether or not to go in together on a very expensive (and very coveted) lot of beans. The beans are from Esmeralda, frequently the top-rated coffee farm in Panama. When Esmeralda’s beans went up for auction two years ago, a bidding war ensued and one lot went for $130 a pound, breaking all previous coffee price records.
So how do these tasters decide that a coffee is worth several times as much as a regular good coffee? A very elaborate process called cupping. Here’s how it’s done.
Step 1: Measure the beans.
Everything in a cupping is very precise. Each cup gets 12.5 ounces of beans exactly. Here, Ryan Brown, buyer at Ritual Coffee Roasters in San Francisco, uses a digital scale for accuracy. (Deborah Netburn)
Step 2: Grind the beans
Each taster gets his/her own cup to use throughout the cupping process. The blue dish of unground beans stays on the table so the tasters can check for irregularities. (Deborah Netburn)
Step 3: Check the fragrance
Eileen Hassi, owner of Ritual Coffee Roasters, smells the recently ground beans to test the fragrance. In this case, the buyers were testing several different coffees from a single farm. (Deborah Netburn)
Step 4: Add water
Ryan Brown pours boiling water over the beans, which makes the grounds float to the top. That is called a “crust.”
While pouring, Brown announced that the water was from two different sources. “It’s a blend, not a single source,” he said. (That is called “coffee nerd humor.”) (Deborah Netburn)
Step 5: Break the crust
After waiting four minutes (exactly), the tasters bend their heads low to the cup and break the crust, smelling furiously to test the aroma. (Deborah Netburn)
Step 6: Remove the crust
Not even coffee tasters want to drink coffee grounds. (Deborah Netburn)
Step 7: Slurp
Rather than sipping, coffee tasters use cupping spoons, which have a deeper bowl than regular ones. They fill them about a third full with coffee, then they slurp the liquid out with a loud noise -- kind of like whistling backward. (It takes practice to get it right). The idea is to aspirate the coffee so it moves quickly over the tongue, hitting all tastebuds equally.
Also note the cup that David Pohl, associate coffee buyer for Equator Estate coffees and teas in San Rafael, uses for spitting. Just like wine tasters, cuppers do not actually drink the coffee. They taste it and spit it right out. “It prevents palate fatigue,” said Hassi. (Deborah Netburn)
So, how do the tasters keep track of all the different elements they have tested for during this half-hour process? A handy standardized scorecard. (Deborah Netburn)