To The Cupping Room; To The Final Cup
BY AMY MCMAHAN
Last summer Rao’s went to origin. Origin is Mecca in the coffee world. Let’s face it, a life in specialty coffee is degrees of loneliness; this was never more obvious to me than when I almost gagged and spit out the coffee served at my best friend’s wedding. To snake down the mountain packed in the bed of a truck, holding on to the railings but crashing into your fellow coffee colleagues anyway, just to see where the coffee is milled. To walk amongst the trees, on the soil that feeds the cherries, to talk from dawn to, well, dawn on some nights, about roaster capacities and blends, and to argue about the correct pressure with which to tamp espresso - these can be the best moments in a roaster’s professional life, and the ones that feed us and remind us of the fact that coffee can be and is sacred. This is the beverage that has fuelled prayer, revolution, hard physical work and study. It is also a product that demands a tremendous amount from the skilled hands and muscles that send it to our facilities and, in many cases, for too little in return.
The farm we visited is an exceptional case of the opposite. Hacienda La Minita Tarrazu pays wages well above the average, provides health, dental, and housing as part of its benefit package. Sitting on the veranda of the big house - after a long day of touring the farm - I was not only astounded by the sunset at 5,000 feet, but also by the coffee served after dinner. It had an acidity that burst into my mouth like a mix of lemon and the white part of watermelon. It was delicately floral, slightly honeyed, refreshing, rich and buttery. This was great coffee before it went into the roaster and the roasting only enhanced its flavor. Trained to roast into second crack, I became intrigued by the flavor and almost bracing acidity that was highlighted in this pre-second crack roast. As fortune would have it George Howell was also visiting the farm at the same time. He invited Jeff Waskiewicz, president of Rao’s, and me to his house in Wayland, Massachusetts to cup.
Howell’s former venture, the New England based Coffee Connection chain of 24 stores, was built upon the concept of roasting coffee on the lighter end of the spectrum. These coffees were roasted darker than the commercial cinnamon roast but light by what is most commonly offered in specialty today. Howell calls it the “full flavor” roast style. He believes that coffees start to carbonize in second crack and become, in his view, attenuated. By dropping before second crack he avoids any hint of char, and highlights peak acidity, delicate aromatics, and the finer characteristics of a flavor profile, whether it be Antiguan, Andean, or Tarrazu. Howell also stresses the importance of airflow. The beginning of the roast is the time to dry out the beans in order to create pathways to the center; so, he likes a lot of air flow in the beginning of the process. Howell decreases airflow well before first crack, when the beans yellow. At first crack he lowers the heat because the beans have become exothermic. Somewhere between this point and second crack, Howell determines which beans have achieved peak flavor and that’s where he drops; using color, temperature, and time as deciding factors.
|Clockwise: Jill Pellarin, Jeff Waskiewicz, Raymond Trevino (George's right-hand man), Amy McMahan (Roaster and Author), George Howell.
Cuppings at George Howell’s house -which are conducted in a room that overlooks Dudley Pond - are a sacred time that I have come to equate with worship in the Temple of Coffee. Howell’s roaster, Jill Pellarin, diligently lays out strips of grounds and will re-roast if there is any discrepancy in the uniformity of color. Howell insists on six cups for each coffee in order to catch any defects and inconsistencies that might not show in a lesser number of samples. He has designed his own evaluation and scoring form with which rates the smell of the grounds, the crust, and the break. The evaluation continues rating - from hot to room temperature - the coffee’s acidity, mouthfeel, flavor, balance, cleanness of cup, sweetness, aftertaste, and overall cup. The acidity alone has two aspects for evaluation: one where you register the pure acidity, and the other where you score its quality - what Howell calls nerve-acidity - so that more acidic coffees don’t automatically score higher.
In the time that Waskiewicz and I have spent at George’s cupping room, we have come to expect to smell anything from flowers to melons to pumpkins in the grinds, to become intoxicated from the floral and blueberry aroma of the crust of that rare Peruvian, to lay sleepless at nights worrying about the diminishing blackberry flavor in the Kenya AAs we have cupped recently, and to occasionally correctly guess from which region a Brazilian hailed. Waskiewicz was actually considering flying to Peru and traveling by donkey up the Andes to find the farmer who grew that coffee that was beyond special.
The more time that we spend cupping coffee, the more reverent we become of the time we spend in front of the roaster. We have always bought great coffees, but now we look for coffees remarkable enough to introduce into and develop through our roast chamber; coffees that make us terrified of disturbing one iota of the olfactory amplitude we expect from the grounds, the crust, and finally the actual cup.
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