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Masters of Taste:
To Cup or
Not to Cup

by Timothy J. Castle

Cupping, the practice of brewing coffee cowboy-style and then tasting it for purposes of professional evaluation, celebrates its 95th anniversary this year. As cupping slouches toward its centennial five years, it is time someone asked what this deeply flawed process is doing as the totemic leitmotif of what it means to be a coffee professional.

Because, indeed, cupping is all that separates most of us from being mere desk jockeys and tradespeople. It is a thing we can do with authority and a sense of command. We don’t race cars, or make movies, nor can we remove minuscule tumors from the centers of a patient’s brain without effectively rewiring him to think like a turnip. We can’t even issue a speeding ticket.

But we do one thing-we cup. We slurp, spit and pronounce, with confidence, with solemn demeanor. When we are at the cupping table we know what we are doing. When we demonstrate for spouses and friends, they are impressed - it is a simple thing that passes them by every day, but something that we know with infinitely more experience, intimacy and wisdom than they will ever fathom. Cupping is to our trade what the observatory is to the astronomer and what the cyclotron is to the physicist. It is a pity more of us don’t wear white coats -- it would make us all seem smarter.

In this age of fairness, (in which we are likely to sink waist deep or worse), is it really fair to judge the effort of the men and women who spent the last year producing a crop, by hand, with one perfunctory slurp and spit? Conversely, and again we’re talking fairness, can we really expect the consumer to do more than slurp and spit what we’ve so lovingly expectorated and pronounced “mild” or “useful?” Is it, perhaps, the height of arrogance to reduce a farm’s whole production to a single swirl through the neck of a gaboon? Especially then to hawk (pun intended) “quality” in our packaging and advertising? Then again, maybe we get as we give - lamenting, with each hurtling lugey of tasted brew, the decline in standards. The question arises, can our industry afford five more years of cupping?

And fairness is a concern. How fair is it, after all, to evaluate a coffee, even give an award to or lambast a particular coffee, in print, based on one cupping, as is happening more and more frequently? For better or worse, cupping is uncertain and the human animal, on any given day, is a fickle chemical analysis kit. That needs to be accepted, and the law of averaging needs to be employed in order to weed out the fluke roasts and our off days.

What’s wrong with cupping? Well, everything. We all know (we are professionals, coffee doctors, after a fashion) that pouring boiling water over grounds and then steeping minute after minute after minute does not promote ideal extraction. We also know that this method of brewing does not exactly maximize a coffee’s strengths. It is as if a producer of La Bohême were to audition singers while torturing them on the rack - “Gee, ah, Pavaroti, yer ‘sposed to be a good singer, but you can’t carry a tune, can ya?”

We also know that a coffee roasted in our little sample roasters is not the same as a production roast and that the last thing the sample roaster can do is produce consistent and even roasts. (But, hey, we’re not talking anything fancy here, it’s just coffee.) How many of us have noticed a coffee that will completely alter in character and flavor with just a slightly different roast? Yet, when push comes to shove, we remorselessly sit down at the table, and with one quick swirl of the spoon, evaluate a coffee based on a few cups of one roast?

Wine tasters do the same thing, we rationalize to ourselves. Experts taste a wine based on one or two slurps (they slurp too), they reel off a few hundred adjectives and move on to the next glass. But wine is much more stable and repeatable. If you find a bottle you like you can order or buy another and likely get pretty much the same experience. With coffee it is a lot more problematic. Cupping roasts can vary radically as do our palates.

Finally, we know, despite the bravado and false certainty we indulge in at the cupping table that, in our heart of hearts, coffee is too changeable, too dynamic, too reactive to sit still long enough for us to get an adequate impression of its assets and liabilities in just one sitting. We know this about cupping, we recognize its limitations, really, but we usually resort to it because it is quick and brings with it the illusion of certainty -- even if it does not take into account how the coffee drinker will finally experience the coffee we taste.

Cupping does have its place, in the context of quickly evaluating a coffee that is already well known and well understood to the taster. It is a quick and dirty thumbnail guide to what might be going on with a coffee. If it is a coffee we have worked with before, we can get an idea of how a new crop version is, or whether an inventoried lot is getting baggy on us.

What is the alternative? It is not so much the method, exactly, but the way the method is used. Simply repeating the process several times helps to average out the possible of roasts or even the troubled morning we may be having personally (which can and does affect how we perceive a particular coffee). Many roasters know that they need to brew pots of the coffee they’re evaluating, just as their customers would, before they can really get an idea of how a coffee is going to work out. Obviously, this is a lot of hassle, and requires that much bigger samples be sent from shippers to importers and then to roasters. But how statistically significant is the typical hundred gram (or less) sample? How many disputes have there been about whether a preshipment sample was “picked through” or whether it was simply the luck of the draw that the few beans sent were not representative of all the blacks, sours and brokens that were, of course, in the coffee all along?

Finally, perhaps, the biggest limitation that cupping has is its lack of certainty. It is not very reassuring to think that our primary method of evaluation and inquiry is deeply flawed and highly uncertain, but that’s pretty much how it is, and you don’t get it right until you do it a whole lot of times. The results of one cupping are not much more than a guess, an indication of what’s to come with a particular coffee. Why should cupping, after all, be different than anything else?

Timothy J. Castle is the president of Castle Communications, a company specializing in marketing and public relations for the coffee and tea industries. He is also the co-author (with Joan Nielsen) of The Great Coffee Book, recently published by Ten Speed Press, and the author of The Perfect Cup (Perseus Books). He may be reached via e-mail at: qahwah@aol.com

Tea & Coffee - July/August 2000
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