Thoughts after a public cupping

June 7th, 2009

I’ve really enjoyed the discussion going on after this post.   One comment that stuck in my mind was Aldo’s Fazenda Kaquend COE Vs Maxwell House experiment. It definitely affected some decisions I made when I was choosing coffees to take with me to a public cupping I did in East London as part of a charity fund raiser.

I knew I would have two separate groups, of between 10 and 20 people each time.  I had agreed to do a cupping, rather than a tasting of brewed coffee (which I would prefer to do with the general public usually), because they were paying for a bit more of an experience.

So which coffees to choose?  I ended up taking a pre-ship sample of the Herbazu, a 2008 Costa Rican CoE sample 1, some Takengon, some Tegu AA and some store bought, preground coffee from Panama 2.

I love watching the public cup.  They don’t know the rules, the etiquette that we tend to abide by in the industry.  They pull faces, they talk a lot, they think out loud about what they are tasting and are easily distracted.

So – what was the reaction?  As they were cupping many people were surprised by the acidity in the coffees.  Some found this, initially uncomrfortable because it was so novel.  The strangest reactions were around the past crop and stale samples.  They didn’t use positive words to describe them (dusty, bitter, cardboard, nothing, flavourless) and yet before the reveal a quick poll showed them to be oddly popular.

As I revealed each coffee I got them to taste them again, to look for the positive attributes and to notice the negative attributes.  I did my best to explain why each key flavour/taste was there (in general terms – high growing altitude, light roasts, terroir, processing).  People agreed that the past crop tasty unpleasant and like wet jute. 3

People also agreed that the stale coffee wasn’t very pleasant.  A couple of people seemed borderline outraged at the suggestion that they actually had to grind their coffee just before brewing to get a fresh cup.  I asked if they had a pepper mill.  They said yes.  I asked if they used it and if they considered it worthwhile.  They said they did, and I tried not to flog a dead horse.

When we cupped the coffees with explanations and revelations of what they were the overall preference of the group shifted away from the ‘bad’ coffees – as you would expect.  Nothing particularly surprising in people not wanting to admit they like something that is clearly ‘wrong’.  What remained interesting was the reaction by all involved to the Tegu lot.  Some loved the fruit, and others were almost offended that a coffee dared to taste so little like coffee.

I guess the only thing I can read into it is that we should be careful using the extremely unusual/super premium lots as conversion tools.  At least half the time they’ll probably reinforce the consumer’s original preference for stale, preground past crop.  In hindsight I wished I could have brought something very simple, very clean and sweet to put on the table.

  1. I am not going to say which one, in case the roaster is still selling it!  ↩︎
  2. Again, I am not going to say exactly who/where because I am not out to tarnish anyone’s name  ↩︎
  3. Despite this sample sat in ziplock bag for 12 months – I can’t help but wonder what term we would use instead of baggy if coffee had never been shipped in jute – a subject for another post perhaps  ↩︎

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