Seattle’s New Way to Fetishize Coffee

As a marketing strategy, “cupping” is straight from the wine-industry playbook. As a means of enjoying coffee, it’s mostly hot air.

For a half-dozen patrons at Victrola Cafe and Roastery on East Pike Street, 11 a.m. on Wednesday is a time to adjourn to the back room, gather around a chest-high table, look furtively at one another, and then get down to some serious snorting.The table is ringed with tumblers, each containing a few millimeters of ground coffee. And not any old coffee—"single estate" coffee, where the beans have been purchased from individual farms. During this free weekly coffee "cupping," Victrola is aiming to open its customers' eyes—and more important, their nostrils—to just how rarefied these beans are.The nascent cuppers stare at the glasses like first-timers at a salsa lesson sizing up their dance partners. Then Perry Hook, Victrola's head roaster—a ringer for Ben Chaplin if you subtract 10 years and add shaggy hair—instructs everyone to walk around the table, roll the glasses in their hands to agitate the grains, and stick their noses deep inside to sniff the dry grounds. After that, Hook and assistant roaster Joe Anthony pour 190-degree water up to the rims, set the timer at four minutes, and wait. The participants pass the time lobbing questions at Hook, which range from "Where do you get your coffees?" to a request that he clarify the difference between an Ethiopian coffee that's been naturally fermented and one that's been "washed." Clearly it's a mixed crowd.The timer dings.Each of the tasters now takes up a deep-bottomed soup spoon and delicately swishes it in a glass to "break the crust"—the mix of bubbles and grains that forms when the hot water releases carbon dioxide from the beans. This is a critical moment, and Hook tells the tasters to stay close to the glass as they stir to inhale the fresh burst of aroma their spoon releases. Hook and Anthony then skim off the remaining scum floating on the top, and the tasters go back around the table (and around and around), spoons and paper spit cups in hand, to take sharp, ratcheting slurps of each of the samples, aerating the coffee and spreading it across the palate, noticing how the flavor changes as the coffee cools. Swallowing is optional. Hook encourages us to notice the bright berry aromas of a Sidamo Guji, note the mouthfeel and body of a bourbon bean from Colombia. "I catch a clear aroma of bergamot in this Yirgacheffe," he says. The curious cuppers file around the glass after him, slurp, and nod.The rite of cupping has been around for centuries among coffee traders. But now, following a pattern already well-established by marketers of wine, olive oil, and the like, a highly technical evaluation protocol once reserved for industry pros is being pitched to consumers. At the city's indie coffee shops, free public cuppings are regularly offered. Like the in-store wine tastings they mimic, cuppings are intended to showcase everything Seattle's artisan roasters are: small, passionate, aesthetically advanced, socially aware, personal. They're also meant to train us to be the customers these roasters dream of having—customers equipped to appreciate the increasingly elaborate lengths to which coffee purists are going in order to secure the best beans.Whereas Starbucks first sold the mass market on the romance of Ethiopia and Sumatra, the new breed of coffee merchant is taking it even further. At Stumptown, you don't ask for a bag of "Panamanian" anymore, darling. It's "Panama Duncan Estate," distinguished from Panama Don Pachi or Panama Esmerelda (batch #2). Much as vintners display the appellation and vineyard on their bottles, the artisan roasters are selling their coffees based on the microregion or estate where the beans are grown. Coffee is the new wine.With one critical difference, though. We all get to open the same bottles of wine and potentially enjoy the same taste experience. But cupping's achilles' heel—what makes it more an exercise in hype than culinary education—is that it's totally disconnected from the way every one of us actually drinks coffee.three characteristics distinguish Seattle's coffee elite from their Starbucksian forebears and ensure gastro-hipster approval: A renewed passion for perfecting the espresso beverage—the roast, the pull, the froth. An almost religious devotion to freshness. And the pursuit and marketing of estate coffees.Most of these outfits started up around the time Starbucks hit the 500-store mark. Mike McConnell opened Caffé Vita in 1995; Zoka started roasting beans in the back of its cafe in 1996, Portland-based Stumptown in 1999, Victrola in 2003. The owners, like the staffs, are still young. Their interest in single-origin coffees is even younger.These cafes and artisan roasters are often grouped under the name "third wave"—a term coined a few years ago by Trish Rothgeb, who spent a few years as head buyer for Seattle-based Zoka, and a D.C.-based roaster named Nick Cho. According to this model of the evolution of coffee civilization, the first wave spread coffee-drinking around the world. The second wave—aka Starbucks, Caribou, et al.—rescued fine coffee from the depths to which it had Sanka'd. The third wave celebrates coffee as a variable, unique agricultural product and tracks every aspect of its cultivation.Where Starbucks once sold America on the exotic allure of coffee by posting photos around its cafes of grinning farmers, weathery smiles belying the 100-pound sacks they lugged on their backs, it's now de rigueur for third-wave roasters to make pilgrimages to their sources and document them on their Web sites. Victrola's blog displays pictures of Perry Hook in Colombia on donkeyback, while Caffé Vita's blog includes a slideshow of the dinner that underground restaurateur and Vita collaborator Mike Hebb cooked for growers in Ethiopia. The exchange works both ways. Two weeks ago, Stumptown threw a special dinner for Aida Battle, a producer visiting from El Salvador, and coffee geeks from around the city showed up to shake her hand.No one trumpets its involvement with farmers more than Stumptown. Matt Lounsbury, the company's operations manager in Seattle and Portland, looks like a high-school football star who discovered the Decemberists and Salvation Army in his senior year, and speaks in triple-shot-quick phrases that weave together fine-bore technical details and good ol' spin. He joined the cafe as a barista in 2003, when Stumptown's first downtown Portland cafe opened. As he's moved up the chain of command, he's seen the company delve deeper and deeper into single-estate coffees (at any one time, the cafe sells 25 to 30 kinds, some multiple varietals from the same estate).Referring to the many travels of Stumptown owner Duane Sorenson and coffee buyer Aleco Chigounis, Lounsbury says: "I don't know how many trips this year each of these coffees represents. We're there pre-harvest to see how they're taking care of their harvest, then during harvest to see the cherries on the tree. We're with [the farmers] the whole time, in constant communication, challenging them to find out if they know what the really good stuff is on their farm, going through hundreds and hundreds of different lots to see what's good. These lots might be as small as 75 pounds.""More and more roasters are becoming aware how what happens at origin is crucial to the way coffee tastes," says Hook. "You can have great growing conditions, great plants, but if they don't pick it at the right time, it won't be good." Much smaller than Stumptown, Victrola generally stocks its shelves with four or five single-origin coffees. One Guatemalan coffee (ahem, Finca Vista Hermosa, Huehuetenango) is purchased through a direct-trade agreement. The others—like the vast majority of single-estate coffees—still make their way through a chain of exporters and brokers.There's no doubt that Seattle's third-wave roasters are a talented bunch. And in general their single-origin coffees are fresher and more vividly aromatic. To the converted, they make mass-marketed gourmet brews taste dusty, flat, and slightly burned.But the uptick in quality is matched by a surge in rhetoric. Along with the focus on single origin comes the idea of the coffee's terroir, or unique expression of place. And that's what cupping is meant to reveal."In order to sell a really good coffee, consumers need to have some kind of understanding before they're willing to shell out some cash," Hook says. "For us, it's about educating the consumer so they can make better decisions." Which is not to say that single-origin beans are always expensive: Whereas a pound of Starbucks beans tops out at $13.50, a bag of the Sumatran Mandheling costs $14 a pound at Victrola—a premium that's well worth it.Ted Lingle, for decades the executive director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, the dominant trade organization, literally wrote the book on coffee cupping back in 1985. He says that until he published The Basics of Cupping Coffee, it had been an apprenticeship-based skill passed down from boss to employee since the mythical first wave. Now all levels of middleman, from exporters to roasters, cup the coffee to check for flaws, identify high-quality lots, and buy and sell the beans accordingly. The bulk of Lingle's slim booklet, still the industry standard, is a glossary, which includes a few culinary aromas like cloves (produced by ethyl-4-guaiacol) and cucumber (trans-2-nonenal), but primarily lists roasting characteristics and bean flaws—like "creosoty," "brackish," and, my favorite, "rioy" (apparently a common flaw in Brazilian beans).In recent years, Lingle has become a cupping prophet, flying around the world to teach the protocol to professionals in the countries where the berries are harvested. "One of the underlying problems with coffee is that the grower seldom tastes the product, and has no idea where it will fit in the marketplace," he says. "One of the objectives of SCAA is to change that. By training cuppers at origin."But every connoisseur's product needs a ranking to back it up, of course. So a decade ago, the SCAA helped spearhead an annual series of national competitions called Cup of Excellence, in which growers in Latin and South America submit their green coffees to be assessed by cupping experts against those of their countrymen and scored on a 100-point scale. The finalists and winners sell their bags immediately afterward at an online auction. One winner, from Hacienda La Esmeralda in Panama, was rated 95.26 and famously sold in 2007 for $130 a pound, unroasted. (Since coffee loses 16 percent of its weight in the roasting process, the price was actually $155 per pound of coffee sold.)You'll see those scores floating around coffee-obsessed sites like Coffeed.com and CoffeeGeek.com (and for a time on Victrola's tasting notes, though they've mercifully dropped the habit). It's no surprise. The 100-point scale that wine critic Robert Parker Jr. introduced in the 1970s has been so popular among wine drinkers eager for an objective measure on which to rely that almost every wine publication in the English-speaking world has begrudgingly added scores to their reviews.Cup of Excellence has been instrumental in creating a demand for special lots of high-scoring coffees, identified by estate. And artisan roasters are setting up direct-trade contracts with those farmers who can regularly produce 90-point beans.Another cupping, this time one of Stumptown's daily 3 p.m. sessions in the downstairs education area of the 12th Avenue store. The tumblers and dishes are laid out along a ledge outside a glass-walled room containing a mess of small machines and a projection screen displaying a video of green hills and red cherries. The group assembled is younger and more relaxed than the one at Victrola, due perhaps to the proximity of Seattle U. All the Stumptown roasters leave the machines they're working at to swarm the cups, too. (According to Lounsbury, every Stumptown employee has to attend a cupping at least once every two weeks.) Like Lounsbury, the pros are all guys in their 20s and early 30s, all dressed in jeans, vintage shirts, and hipster-approved kicks. They've been handling coffee all day, yet there's no tinge of the blasé in the way they interact with the amateurs around them—the more questions I ask about what we're tasting, the more enthusiastic they get.I take my place in line, sandwiched between pros, and try to mimic the harsh snort of their cupping sips, which sound like that moment when your vacuum cleaner suddenly encounters a gum wrapper. Maybe I've been doing this for a few weeks by the time I get to the Stumptown event, but I do feel a little poetry come over me.What also becomes clearer to me as I cup is that I'm tasting something quite distinct from my morning mug. Not only are the infusions weaker and lighter, the slurp produces a markedly different array of sensations. Even when the liquid spraying up the back of my nostrils makes me choke and sputter—that'd be one time out of three—the flavors seem much cleaner and more delicate. I can sense a more pronounced acidity in the coffees: It tickles every corner of my palate and, just as acidity does in wine, buoys aloft vague aromas that my conscious brain is occasionally able to identify. Cupping the coffee instead of drinking it from a mug is like flipping on a tiny desk lamp in a room I'd only seen by candlelight: I don't exactly notice the dust in the corners, but I can make out the pattern on the wallpaper.From one Guatemalan, for example, I get a distinct impression of cooked tomatoes. The Lake Tawar Sumatran smells like dry bark and cashed bong, and I decide I would never drink a full cup of the stuff, even as the more learned palates around me are praising its balance. And a second or two after I swallow the Mordecofe Sidamo, I get the impression that I've just sipped a strong black tea. When I pick up a bag of this Ethiopian coffee after the event, the card states "Black tea and candied lemon fragrances become oolong tea and lemon hard candy flavors in a transparent cup with the flavor of raw sugar." Score! Er, one out of four.Part of the reason third-wave roasters are now catching these wine-like subtleties is that they've grown accustomed to tasting the cupping roast, traditionally lighter than the production roast they sell. And the indie roasters would never think of giving their single-estate coffees the French treatment. "As a general rule, every single estate coffee we would roast on the lighter side," says Zoka master roaster Drew Billups, a wiry, quietly intense guy who moved from Indiana four years ago to work for the company. "The darker you go, the more you taste roast instead of the terroir that comes from soil, the bean, and the environment. We want to highlight that taste of place. The longer you roast it, up to a certain point you're caramelizing sugars; after that you're carbonizing, which covers up those nuances."The oeno-fication of coffee continues in the newest edition of Lingle's The Coffee Cuppers' Handbook, which includes a pair of "Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheels"—concentric rings of adjectives that get ever more specific as you move out from the center. One wheel categorizes faults (improper roasting, loss of organic material), while the other contains aromas and flavors that come up in a cupping. Under its "Dry Distillation" category, for example, is industry jargon like "turpeny" and "ashy" as well as "cedar," "piney," and "thyme."The wheel is a direct copy of the Wine Aroma Wheel, invented by University of California–Davis sensory-science professor Ann C. Noble in 1984. "The goal of all my work was to facilitate communication among people," Professor Noble recalls. "To say that a wine is 'stupendous' is never to explain what are the sensory properties that make you think that." Noble brought together a panel of wine-industry contacts, who made lists upon lists of all the flavors they normally got out of various wines and then created a hierarchy of aromas, from general to specific. "It wasn't for laymen," she says, "though I vaguely had the layman in mind."Noble's wheel helped make possible the explosion of the American wine industry by providing a vocabulary all drinkers could use. In a June 2007 article on Slate.com, wine critic Mike Steinberger notes that while wine-wheel terms like "cherry" and "eucalyptus" may sound flowery to the uninitiated, they are actually populist replacements for the vague, impressionistic, and even more poetic language that came before. (James Thurber famously pilloried the tone of wine writers as "It's a naive domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption.") These aroma terms are also reproduceable—one critic can write that she smelled them in a particular Syrah, and a wine drinker half the world away can open a bottle of the same vintage and catch the same smells. Some aromas can even be tied to specific chemical compounds in the wine."You can give people a proper idea," says Noble, "so readers don't ask, 'I wonder what she means by "It's a nice New Zealand wine"?'"In a grand reversal, however, the language that the wine industry once adopted to popularize its product, making wine approachable to everyone from Baron de Rothschild to Joe Six-Pack, is now being adopted by every food producer that wants to assert its product's exclusivity.Coffee roasters, like producers of chocolate and beer (and olive oil, cheese, and salt), are trying to cultivate the connoisseurship that surrounds wine, selling their product with two types of story: origin and aromatic profile. You're now supposed to buy a pound of coffee because you feel a personal connection it. And you're supposed to drink it as an aesthetic meditation, not as a jolt of caffeine to kick-start your morning. This approach has its risks. It appeals to the buyer who loves the inside knowledge of the story, and it drives a vibrant online insider culture. But just as the language designed to democratize wine intimidates the majority of inexperienced wine drinkers, third-wavers may someday find their sensitive palates are keeping them caged in the niche they've built.The third-wave roasters aren't the only ones to play up the ties between coffee and wine. Desperate-to-reinvent-itself Starbucks, still the world's savviest coffee marketer, is taking note of this trend. In September, Starbucks' Web site introduced a podcast series titled "Coffee Conversations." In one, moderator Scott McMarten goes through a side-by-side tasting of Sumatrans and Syrahs with Marc Papineau, sommelier at BOKA Restaurant in downtown Seattle. They define parallel terms used in wine and coffee, like body, acidity, aroma, and taste.For instance, Papineau says of the Sumatran, "It definitely has the darker tones on it. It's really forward. I wouldn't call it an acidic coffee, though it has some acidity...The primary notes I get are definitely the nuts, the darker chocolate qualities to it?""Good!" agrees McMarten. "This coffee is unbelievably great when you pair it with cheese. A really creamy, triple-cream Brie experience or something that really brings out that earthiness." Ladies and gentlemen, be warned: Coffee and cheese pairings are coming your way.I began to feel better about my professional nose when I read God in a Cup, Michaele Weissman's new book on the third wave. Weissman, a freelance journalist who wrote one of the earliest national newspaper pieces on the trend, spent months trailing the coffee buyers from Stumptown, Chicago's Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture in Durham, N.C., as they flew around Latin America and Africa.Weissman describes attending a 2006 Cup of Excellence judging in Nicaragua to cup with some of the industry's top figures. Like me, she catches the occasional whiff of flowers or citrus but finds she can barely distinguish one cup from another. After the session, she approaches two of the experts. "I ask them to explain why I am having trouble perceiving the range of qualities in the coffees on the cupping table," she writes. "Paul [Songer, of Coffee Enterprises in Burlington, Vt.] makes it clear that it takes several years to train a coffee cupper, and even then, the ability to capture nuances in the cup continues to develop."Another coffee pro at the event tells Weissman, "Cupping...is like trying to remember the numbers on the license plate of a passing car."Each of the roasters I cup with readily confesses to me that it took him years to tell coffees apart. In fact, the most refreshing thing about the public cuppings—so far—is the absence of blowhard amateurs turning the ritual into an ego trip. We are all new to this game.Yet Weissman's book, and the events I attended, made me suspect that there's one critical difference between coffee tasting and wine tasting. Say you buy a bottle of wine based on the blurb you've read in Wine Spectator, and drink a glass of it while reading the critic's description. Sure, your palate may not be as sensitive as hers, but you're sipping essentially the same drink she did. Do the same with your morning fix, and the coffee roaster's tasting notes, gathered via the formal cupping protocol, and you're tasting different preparations drunk in a different way.I've tested this theory with more than a dozen bags of coffee over the past three months. For example, one of the coffees whose description most closely matched my experience of it was Zoka's Kenya Kiandu AA, which I cupped following Lingle's instructions and then brewed several different ways. Here's Zoka's Web blurb:"This central Kenyan coffee's light roast offers a complex and intriguing blend of macadamia nut and spice mixed with candied citrus flavors. Beautiful low tones of lemon, grapefruit, plum, currant and chocolate are found within this amazing cup."Tasted at the viscosity of tea via fast, airy slurps, the coffee did give off aromas of buttery nuts, spice, and candied citrus. I then brewed the coffee in both a press pot and a low-tech Melitta filter, per Stumptown and Zoka's precise directions regarding grind, water temperature, amount, and timing. The subtle acidity in the Kiandu AA, which came off as delicate citrus in the cupping, emerged as a high-pitched tartness that clung to the roof of my mouth, and all hint of the nutty, buttery, caramelly aromas that even I had faintly detected were compressed and flattened, overrun by the chocolate-roasty notes of...well, coffee.Great coffee, even. But not nearly as complex as wine.Even if you find that you have the nose of a Cup of Excellence judge, when you make a cup of coffee at home you're not likely to taste all the aromas described on the card that comes in your packet. Prefer lattes? Stir in milk or sugar? You're doing even more to ruin the effect.Drunk hot, thick, and unadulturated, early enough in the morning that I can barely remember my name, the single-origin coffees I've been making at home occasionally give off a fleeting fruity or floral note—a little apricot there, some blueberry there. In that regard, the cuppings and tasting notes may be working, at least on me. Victrola's Hook says that's what they're for. "When I cup with people who are more experienced than I am, I find it helpful to hear what they notice," he says. "Talking about things you taste is very difficult, and I guess I'm just trying to help people get the nuance out of the coffee."The third-wave roasters seem to be doing a fantastic job at locating small lots of good coffee, helping farmers improve their crop, and roasting their beans in such a way that the pros can taste layers of exotic scent. But they're doing us all a disservice by selling customers a taste experience they can't have. If the third wave is committed to treating coffee like wine, what roasters have yet to do is change the way we drink coffee. Until the day when we all sit around cafes drinking tea-like infusions of coffee in high-decibel slurps, the poetry of the tasting note is just marketing-speak.In a glancing comment, Victrola's assistant roaster, in fact, offered me the most honest rationale for all the hyperbole: the sense that customers should appreciate every ounce of care the industry puts into its wares. "We know that all this work is done all the way up the chain," says Joe Anthony, "from how the coffee's picked at origin to how it's milled and shipped to how we roast it here. It's a super-complicated chain. And still the average person has a drip machine that brews the coffee using too-cold water, and then lets it sit on the burner."jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

 
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