it's okay to play with your food

Monday, June 22, 2009

Counter Culture Coffee Cuppings

Part 1 in my series on The Triangle, NC

Two weeks ago, a pair of my close college friends wed in Durham, North Carolina. The Triangle (Durham/Raleigh/Chapel Hill) is also home to
Counter Culture Coffee, where Ultimo Coffee at Brew gets their beans. When I told friends I was planning on hitting a coffee cupping at Counter Culture on Friday at 10am, I was met with a couple different reactions, all some variation on the theme of surprise. Most people didn't believe I would make it up that early after a bachelorette party the night before. This response was typically followed by, "What the hell's a cupping, anyway?"

In my ignorant pre-cupping days, the easiest comparison to make was that it's like a wine tasting, but with coffee. I now think that a better description might be, it's like a first-year college seminar, but on coffee.

After a night of mechanical bull riding and many glasses of a new cocktail named in honor of the bride and groom, I managed to get myself out of bed for the cupping. Shockingly, I was even able to wrangle a coffee cupping partner-in-crime, Melanie.

I can't speak for Melanie, but I was overwhelmed by the coffee cupping process. About 20 people, mostly good-looking, hipster, twenty and thirty-somethings, were sniffing and slurping coffee with acumen, tasting for brightness, body and aftertaste. The crowd also included a three-week old baby and a 9-year old boy.

We were greeted by Lydia, who gave us a sheet for taking notes, a pencil and a spoon. She briefly broke down the different coffee qualities for which we would be tasting: fragrance, aroma, break, brightness, flavor, body and aftertaste.

Fragrance: Each glass, or cup, contains a couple tablespoons of dry ground beans. Stick your nose in the cup and smell the beans.

Aroma: Hot water is poured over the beans. Again, smell the beans in their wet, brewed state.

The Break: Using a spoon, "break" the top layer of foam, releasing steam and fragrance. Dive in with your nose to capture the smell.

The Slurp: capture a bit of coffee on your spoon and literally slurp it, quickly and cleanly, into your mouth, tasting for brightness (acidity), flavor (sweet, salty), body (mouth-feel), and aftertaste.

Once we had experienced the coffee in its various forms, we gathered around a white board and the group discussion began. Three coffees were cupped that day and we discussed each of the aforementioned qualities for each coffee, finally guessing the specific coffee type at the end.

Baked beans, cinnamon sugar, citrus splash, rooty/medicinal, peaches, bright summery were some of the words used to describe the first coffee, which turned out to be Counter Culture's Bwayi coffee from Burundi.

I can't say that a novice such as myself tasted with such specificity, but everything that the other tasters said made sense to me. The first coffee was brighter, sharper, citrus-y; the second coffee did have mellow tones of chocolate and toffee (it turned out to be La Golondrina, my standby at Ultimo Coffee, which maybe explains why it was my favorite of the three). I feel like I'll be a bit braver at my next cupping and trust my instincts enough to taste with confidence. The cupping was followed by a tour of the roastery, but the previous night's fun was catching up to me and I needed to go home and take a little nap, so we skipped out on the tour.

Counter Culture's emphasis on coffee education is not limited to their Chapel Hill headquarters. They have opened up training centers along the east coast, including DC and NYC. Melanie sent me a Washington Post article on Counter Culture's educational mission that came out just a few days after our first cupping. Aaron Ultimo has mentioned that he hopes to bring cuppings to Brew in the near future. I'll keep you posted.

1 comment:

Saoirse said...

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