Barista, there’s cherry and caramel in my cup

After burying his nose in it, rudely slurping it with his lips slightly parted and stepping back to savor its phantom flavors in his mouth, Banks Thomas has decided the coffee he’s sampling tastes like blueberry custard, goes down like wine and is a downright pleasure to drink.

Coffee connoisseurs in the making: A recent “cupping” at Counter Culture Coffee’s Asheville training center. Photos By Jonathan Welch

“This is very similar to one of my favorite coffees in the whole world,” Thomas, a Counter Culture Coffee regional salesman announces after revealing the secret roast he and three civilian coffee drinkers have just spent over an hour analyzing is a washed coffee from Ethiopia’s most famous growing region.

Idido Royal Washed is one of three coffees given the reverential treatment at Counter Culture’s cupping, a free weekly event the company hosts to stimulate community members’ interest in really good coffee. Wine drinkers have tastings: Coffee acolytes have cuppings, a ritualistic process of evaluating roasts.

According to Thomas, the method originated in the late 1800s, when Folgers sent its buyers on great sniff-and-savor expeditions in hopes of finding beans that would produce a consistent and reliable flavor profile for the growing company. Along with creating a best-selling coffee, Folgers ended up pioneering a new vocabulary for coffee standards and a foolproof system for measuring roasts against them. Although conformity is no longer prized by most coffee connoisseurs, cupping is still regarded as the best way to gauge a roast’s overall quality.

“It’s a way to really dig into coffee and see what’s there,” Thomas says.

And that’s exactly what Counter Culture wants drinkers to do: “We feel that the more people understand coffee, the more they will drink great coffee,” spokesperson Mary Schroeder explains.

Ergo the Durham-based roaster’s info-heavy Web site, perpetual calendar of sometimes outlandishly specific barista trainings (think three hours spent on milk textures) and cuppings, which occur every Friday at 10 a.m. in each one of Counter Culture’s four regional training centers and three other locations nationwide. Everyone’s invited: “We get home coffee enthusiasts, chefs and people walking off the street,” Thomas says.

Each center posts its cupping notes online, so tasters across the country can compare impressions. The Indido Washed, for example, which Asheville drinkers called mellow and peachy, was described by Brooklyn cuppers (who Thomas thinks are slightly more culinarily adventurous than their fellow cuppers in the South) as redolent of trail mix and leather. Folks who buy a bag of the same roast and bother to read the label will learn the coffee is “in the most traditional Yirgacheffe style, with the classic Yirgacheffe cup profile: flavors of jasmine blossom, floral honey, and citrus over a light, perfectly clean body.”

“There are no wrong answers,” Thomas reassured participants in a recent cupping, none of whom had ever cupped before. “It usually takes three to four cuppings to start feeling comfortable.”

Counter Culture always showcases three different roasts in its cuppings: “We don’t even know until the day before what the coffees are going to be,” Thomas says. “Sometimes you’ll have three coffees from one farm, three coffees from Ethiopia or three coffees that are wildly different.”

Fortunately for the first-timers at the blind cupping in Asheville, the neatly-arranged lines of coffee cups awaiting tasting feature three very different roasts. When the coffees are similar, Thomas says, cuppers sometimes hurt themselves trying to discern a note of uniqueness. They’ll slurp too quickly, gagging on the hot brew, or smell so exuberantly that coffee grounds shoot up their nostrils.

Cupping begins by measuring out three seemingly identical cups of coffee grounds, to guard against a speck of dish soap or a single bad bean distorting the flavor.

Smelling the dry coffee is the first step of cupping. Cuppers are instructed to give each cup of grounds a swirl, then inhale deeply. “The first thing you’ll smell is coffee, and that’s good,” Thomas says. “But then maybe it’s nutty. And then maybe it’s almond. That’s even better. Roasted almond? Even better.”

Although Thomas likes to characterize cupping as a freestyle, no-rules endeavor, he does ask cuppers to keep their verdicts to themselves until the cupping is done. When a drinker enthusiastically exclaims “berries!” when sampling a roast, it’s often impossible for other cuppers to smell anything but strawberries, blueberries and raspberries when they approach the same cup.

Cuppers next determine aroma by smelling the coffee after hot water has been added. Water can transform the overwhelming odor of vanilla into malt, cloves into flowers and goat cheese into tar. To prevent one roast’s smells from seeping into a cupper’s perception of another, Thomas advises cuppers to smell something familiar—like their skin—between coffees to cleanse their olfactory palates.

The third stage of cupping is the “break,” which involves splitting the crust crowning the coffee, much like a server might prep a soufflé. Unlike other characteristics, a coffee’s break is fleeting—the aroma that wafts from the cup upon the instant of the break can only be experienced once.

“It’s one of the harder things for new cuppers,” Thomas counsels. “You only have one chance.”

The final four elements assessed in a cupping—brightness, flavor, body and aftertaste—are addressed simultaneously by actually tasting the coffee. At a cupping, that’s done by slurping from a silver spoon. As cuppers tap their spoons against glasses and inhale with the energy of yogis, the room begins to reverberate with a symphony of coffee drinking.

“When I’m by myself, it’s like tee-tunk-chunk, tee-tunk-chunk,” says Thomas, who can definitively write up a coffee in less time than it takes a microwave to reheat a cooled cup.

New cuppers may take longer to decide whether a coffee’s flavor is more like a baseball glove or buttermilk, but the experience seems to invariably heighten and focus participants’ senses. Asheville participants reported spending post-cupping hours attuned to smells with an almost-canine intensity.

“For some people, this really changes how they look at food,” Thomas says. “I had one lady tell me she still smells things differently.”

Counter Culture Coffee offers its free cuppings every Friday at 10 a.m. at its training room at 77 Broadway in downtown Asheville. For more information, call Mary Schroeder at 423-4827.

Next week: The fine art of coffee drinking, part two.

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