Java Enabled: Dedicated to Coffee and Free for All

"If you look out that window, you can still see the original smokestack that they put in when they started roasting coffee here," said Mike Marquard, a barista trainer for Kaldi's Coffee Roasting Company.

We were sitting in the back room of the roaster's DeMun café. Sure enough, tucked away behind the heavy curtains that frame the tall windows was a small, crooked smokestack. It felt like coffee archeology.

Sitting in the room where the Kaldi's first experiments with coffee occurred was the perfect place to cup new coffee.

When I walked into Kaldi's a few weeks ago, I spotted a small sign advertising cupping sessions that were free and open to the public. I'd attended informal cuppings in the past, but the chance for a guided, in-depth experience seemed too good to pass up. Plus, it's free.

(What more do you want?)

click to enlarge Java Enabled: Dedicated to Coffee and Free for All
Michael Marquard

The cupping started at 5:30 p.m., late enough for eight-to-fivers like myself to make it. As I walked into the back room, I was struck by how intricate the setting was -- somewhere between a formal dinner setting and a science experiment.

At each seat were three white porcelain mortars with fresh ground coffee in each. Beneath the mortars was a paper placemat with the names of the coffees we were about to sample: Organic Guatemala Santa Isabel, Kenya AA Gethumbwini and Burundi Kinyovu Lot # 5.

Two tumblers flanked the mortars: one with cool drinking water; another hot, already dripping with condensation, with two wide spoons. A color wheel broke down the possible flavors: piquant, smoky, chocolate, fruity and legume, to name a few.

Marquard asked us to sniff the dry grounds in the mortars as we gently swirled them. "Take short quick smells, like a dog would sniff something," he instructed.

After a friendly warning about accidentally blowing grounds, we leaned over the mortars. Dry grounds do have a smell, but the aroma's subtleties were lost on me.

But no one drinks dry coffee grounds anyway, right? Marquard then rakishly poured hot water on top of the grounds, and the coffee dramatically bubbled up, occasionally spilling grounds over the lip of the mortar. The grounds hissed and gurgled as the hot water made contact; soon, a layer of grounds formed on the surface.

After a four-minute steep, Marquard instructed us to crack the ground crust as if it were a crème brûlée and then slowly draw the spoon back and forth across the surface. The grounds that had floated to the top instantly fell to the bottom of the mortar, leaving only a fine, caramel-colored foam and releasing a burst of aromatics.

"The foam is mostly oils from the coffee and can have a murky taste," Marquard explained. "I personally like it, but the truer flavors of the coffee lie below."

Here's where slurping came into play. Slurping pulls the beverage across your entire palate while adding oxygen to the mix to release any previously dormant flavors. A good slurp should not be taken for granted. We're not sipping your grandma's chicken noodle soup here -- this is coffee!

click to enlarge Tastes like...plums.
Tastes like...plums.

After ladling the coffee onto the spoon, Marquard took a quick, loud slurp. (I remember almost choking on an over-zealous first try during a trip to Costa Rica a few years ago.) Then we spent the next half an hour "geeking out" on coffee.

For a rookie like myself, I was often tongue-tied when it came to describing what each slurp tasted like. The woman next to me hit the Guatemalan dead-on when she described dark chocolate notes. The Burundi was so bright I wanted to reach for a pair of sunglasses. Between the light, bright fruity flavors -- and yes, I know how this sounds -- I tasted notes of plum.

The Kenya AA was more elusive. One cupper said, "You can tell there's a lot going on here." He was right. The Kenya was well balanced on body and acidity. I would describe it as medium-bodied, fruity and slightly nutty. But this seems like a limp-wristed description for a coffee that I know has a deeper set of flavors vibrating just outside my culinary range.

Coffee is routine for most drinkers. We chug a cup here and there throughout the day but don't pay attention to the flavors beyond saying the coffee is "good" or "bad." The cupping was like a well-meaning slap to knock me out of coffee autopilot and back into the driver seat. But regardless of how good your palate is, a cupping is about helping you find out what you like and don't. It's all about you in the end -- with or without notes of plum.

Zach Dyer is a writer living in Saint Louis. He did his thesis research on coffee farmers in Southern Mexico. Since then, he has visited coffee plantations in Costa Rica and Mexico as well as roasters and cafés across the U.S. He blogs about coffee for Gut Check every Wednesday.

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