Saturday, October 14, 2006

a fig tree cannot produce thistles

this will sound weird, un/under-educated, perhaps misplaced, and so forth. but i find it nearly useless to 'cup' for espresso. here's why.

typically, when i'm cupping i'm doing so for two main reasons. one is to cup for defects. i'm slurping quickly and deftly across a few or even a large number of coffees. fast and furious, simply working the table to separate the contenders from the pretenders. i call this cupping defensively because i'm basically putting up my filter system--comprised of my nose, my tongue and my gums (yes, i'm a firm believer in chewing coffee and washing it over my gums as part of mouthfeel)--to detect stuff in my work cup that i don't want to show up in my pleasure cup.

while cupping defensively is very, very important to my decision on whether to buy a coffee it cannot be done alone, which is why i also 'cup forward,' or, cup with the goal of proactively looking for desireable stuff that will enhance someone's experience when they are at home after ordering one of my coffees. this is where i use my skill as a wordsmith almost as much (in some cases, more) as my skills in assessing acidity, body, flavor and aroma. i'm cupping forward and taking notes, sometimes mentally, sometimes feeling as though my pen will run dry before i finish with the adjectives pouring from my brain. the synapses of syntax are firing and i'm generally at a loss trying to hold both the pen and the spoon at once.

this second reason for cupping is keenly important to the frontline roaster because whereas a professional cupper who is determining whether coffee will be sent from, say, the beneficio to the exporter is mainly concerned not with the subtle nuances inherent in a particular lot, but more, as my friend edwin martinez (see the last interview below) says, on the 'health' of the cup. they are simply concerned with passing it up the protein chain. i have to romanticize it, describe it ad infinitum, to sell the sizzle as much as the steak itself. so i begin come with the flower of language, which is guided by efforts at cupping forward. i am learning to be more relaxed, to take more profound slurps which can be as much philosophical as physical. i am deliberately slowing my rate of slurp not to detect crap but to enjoy the possibility of future bliss. i'm sucking at the future, at the what will be after i (potentially) buy this coffee, not sucking at the past, at what has already been done that i have no power of control over.

what, you may be wondering, in the sam hill heck does this have to do with espresso? some of you see it already. it comes.

as i mentioned at the top of the post, cupping for espresso is, for me, nearly useless. because i am a cupping hack? because i don't have a delicate enough palate? because i'm trying to get more than one person at a time to comment in the comments section by using the talk radio controversy approach to blogging? no. no. and, no. in that order. i say useless not really meaning completely devoid of benefit for me in guesstimating educatedly where an espresso will land or fly--or not--as it comes out of the portafilter. it does have its purposes. but those purposes are effectively obfuscated to me as i cup because i am using absolutely none of the same tools. it'd be like trying to run at a track meet in skis. or trying to hit a football with a baseball bat. how could one possibly be expected to make a judgment about Y using tools that have been designed to give insight into Q? another way of putting it might be to say that you're using the wrong map in the wrong laguage. when i want to determine how a coffee will taste as espresso the way to do that is through an espresso machine, with an espresso grind, at what more closely resembles an espresso roast (not necessarily an oiled roast, mind you), into an espresso holder.

maybe this is old news to any serious coffee person. but i seem to hear over and again people's conversations on making espresso blends, conversations that are devoid of the espresso machine. and that sounds a lot to me like the adage that when you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. maybe roasters get tunnel vision and try to approach espresso nirvana strictly from the cold science of the cupping table instead of the fanciful artistry of the espresso machine. two parts new guinea. one part brazil. three parts this, that or the other. stir vigorously and shazam! espresso alchemy.

me, i'm not built that way. maybe that means i'm more a barista at heart than a roaster at heart.

or maybe i am indeed just a hack at cupping.


At Sunday, 15 October, 2006, Anonymous Stephen Leighton said...

Nice piece my friend, but I’m going to have to disagree with you (I know we normally just nod when we talk but hey).

I can not create a blend without first understanding the coffees on the cupping table. This is not to say that all the blends I think will work do, in fact quite the opposite, but what it teaches and shows me is what a particular bean could bring along to the blend party.

I really like this idea of a party when blending. For instance Mr Brazil from Minas Gerais is a sweet kind of guy who in the wrong company cant get a word in edgeways with say Mr Sumatra Lingtong in the same room, he is loud proud and down to earth. I leant all this at the cupping table

But in small quantities Mr Brazil likes Mr Sumatra very much and as long as there are more Mr Brazils in the room, he can get his point across.

Sorry if I’m being a bit weird but I hope that it makes my point. To truly understand coffee and blending of coffee, you need to know intimately what the coffee does on its own on the cupping table, in a single origin shot and then in the blend, all these parts make up successful espresso blending (for me).

Love the thought provoking post though good stuff, any one for a party :)

At Sunday, 15 October, 2006, Blogger blanco said...

i totally hear what you're saying, steve. i love your metaphor of the party! my point is mostly about using the right tools. more along the lines of a chef who is putting together a meal. he goes to market that morning and selects the ingredients fresh: the choice cut of meat; the perfectly ripe vegetables; the freshly ground spices; and so forth. he knows what each of these will bring to the finished product in exactly the way you were saying a good cupper knows how brazil will sweeten and soften an earthy lintong. but instead of preparing his meal and setting it on a plate he may, for instance, put them all raw into a blender and drink them, or pop them all in the microwave to taste them. sure, he will still get their flavors but it's definitely not the same. instead, what he should do is if he is going to braise the lamb shank, he should use the proper tool-- in this case a commercial oven. he should use a proper vegetable steamer to cook the veggies.

in the same way, i just mean it's very hard for me as a roaster, cupper and occassional blender, to determine what will work best as a blend by cupping in the traditional cupping format. i learn best about blends by taking what i know about certain coffees, formulating a blend theory, creating a test 'recipe' and then pulling shots from the machine instead of slurping for flavor at the table.

i think you and i are saying the same thing. i'm just saying the espresso machine is the proper tool for testing the recipe, not the cupping table, in my opinion.

At Monday, 16 October, 2006, Anonymous Stephen Leighton said...

I don’t think there is a "proper tool" sure the espresso machine will give you the final result, but just chucking in some beans in a hopper isn’t a good way to create and replicate a blend. How do you know what to throw in the hopper if you don’t know the beans. (Hey I think I know you well enough to know this doesn’t happen but help me out here).

Excuse me while I get all pompous and authoritative but just allow me for second :) ..... I think you need to view the cupping table not as a tool for spotting defects, but a place to explore coffee, and begin to understand them. The espresso machine then takes over and SO shots (sorry Mark) and then blending them together (am I forgiven).

The chef analogy is a good one and if you think about it the vegetables he will taste it raw and he will cook the meat without sauce or seasoning to truly understand what it tastes like. He breaks down the components of the dish before putting them together, to understand why and how it tastes like they want it to.

Great thought provoking piece for me, been thinking about it most of the day.

At Tuesday, 17 October, 2006, Blogger blanco said...

it makes perfect sense to launch from the cupping table first. i hear that completely and i'm not disagreeing with that in the least.

i think i hear you saying that if the foundation isn't right--learning coffees at the cupping table--then the building (at the espresso machine) won't stand. that is a solid principle that i wholeheartedly agree with and have done for years in my former coffee life.

assuming that work has been done, though, why does it have to follow that we can't just work off the machine instead of adding the table first? you're gonna end up at the machine anyway. and how many times have you had something really shine at the table that was lackluster at best when you got to the machine?

again, i am NOT advocating ditching the table. i am NOT saying don't cup for all the right reasons you and i have listed here. i am saying i am trying to rethink everything and challenge old assumptions that coffees you think might be good for espresso MUST be cupped out at the table first. can't the glory and the guts be gotten at the machine without the table? i mean, almost everything is different at the table versus the machine. the grind is different. the roast is way different. the tools for tasting are different.

here's another thought. have you ditched your press altogether in favor of the aeropress? i pretty much have. when i really want to taste a coffee for pleasure anymore i almost always turn to the aeropress versus the french press for all the reasons i've blogged about before. the aeropress is the 'right tool' for what i'm trying to get out of my coffee. in the same way, the machine MAY be the right tool that corresponds to the work of building espresso blends (or s.o.'s)

keep it coming, steve. i'm enjoying the exchange of ideas with you. hope i'm not aggravating you too terribly.

At Wednesday, 18 October, 2006, Anonymous Stephen Leighton said...

Its truly understanding the coffee, all the way through. At the espresso machine it doesn’t give me any ideas of water temperature is it better as it cools (ok you can get that on the machine, but not as well) and picking the right profile for the coffee. If I put it through the machine I may miss something that could be critical.

On a commercial customer level its awesome to put a table of ten coffees on, let them pick out there favourites and let them tell you why, and then build there blend with those coffees and let them taste them as a whole in the machine.

The aeropress is different all together, for that I’m not evaluating (or at least trying not to it’s a hard habit to break) or trying to create a blend, I’m having some coffee. Although got to agree my french press is getting covered in dust ;) . In fact if you don’t want o cup then at least use the aeropress :)

No aggravation here my friend I’m enjoying the spar :)

At Sunday, 22 October, 2006, Blogger blanco said...

i know what you mean! i have already taken a cupping short cut two or three times by aeropressing instead of sitting down with the table of cupping apparatus. terrible, i know! maybe the word here is that the aeropress is the middle ground between the work that needs to be done at the table and the work that gets done at the machine???


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