Thoughts after a public cupping

cupping

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  ↩︎

21 Comments

  1. I can’t convince people to grind their coffee just before they brew. And so, I’m thankful for the pepper mill analogy. It’s clean and simple and proves a point. Those to whom I extolled the virtues of fresh ground coffee are all cooks who would only use a mill.

    Great post.

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  3. Lots of food for thought here. I’ve thought the maxwell house/specialty experiment would be fun, but if I were to muster the courage to do it, I’d be inclined to have of several ‘pedestrian’ coffees (starbucks, McD’s folgers, etc) and only one of our specialty coffees and see how many of the general public can pick out the fresh / higher quality cup. Of course, I’m scared what the result might be. Although on the other hand maybe having several stale, lower quality coffees and only one fresh, better quality might make it easier for people to pick the oddball. An interesting methodology would be to ask one set of people to pick out the different coffee, ask a different set which one is the most expensive, and finally ask a third set which one they like best.

  4. James,
    We did round two of the street tastings yesterday. Our house blend (which is about the best it’s ever been) vs. Folgers. Again, only one question, just to get people talking about what they were drinking. No wrong answers, no pressure. About 30% preferred the Folgers.

    Using strangers on the street for feedback is interesting. A lot of them are people who’ve likely never give a single thought to tasting coffee. And they’d never attend a cupping – it’s just not important to them. When asked to describe what they taste (beyond coffee), they’re often flummoxed. But when they do give an answer, it’s pretty well thought out and they’re often surprised they were able to talk about what they were tasting in any detail. Some couldn’t remember the last time they tasted black coffee. They’re happy somebody asked their opinion.

    Again, this is all completely unscientific. But interesting patterns could be found. Far fewer men and young people liked the Folgers than women and older folks. Couples often disagreed.

    We’ll probably do this all summer long. It draws a crowd, it creates conversation about coffee. And it gets people who otherwise wouldn’t give a cup of coffee a second thought to give it a second thought. It’s not perfect, it’s not controlled and frankly we don’t even care what the results are although we are interested in seeing if the patterns that do emerge are consistent.

  5. Thanks for sharing. It’s also nice to see how you handle people’s reactions. I think your question about what coffees to chose is so perfect. When I’ve handed really high quality but, say, lightly roasted coffees to someone used to Starbucks or Peets, they will typically turn up their nose – too sour or too grassy. I like to think of it as finding the right gateway drug – something a bit darker roasted, but still high grade that will resemble the familiar qualities of the coffees they’re used to drinking while introducing them to something more complicated (and more fresh).

  6. interesting James – especially your last comments about what you’d use to ‘convert’ people. Only last week a friend of mine who never has enjoyed or even drunk coffee (especially not espresso in any way) tried a syphon light roast Beloya – and drank the whole cup, mostly because it didn’t really taste like coffee, more like fruity tea.

  7. “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.”

    An interesting muse, although I can remember way, way back when I was working for the chains, trying to get guys I was working with interested in whole bean coffee, and I found the only way to do that was to pick something that didn’t taste so much like the stereotypical idea of ‘coffee’, so they could see it didn’t all taste the same – a response I got a lot to any suggestions of cupping or tasting.

    On the flip side, when I did tastings with the public, I generally got the best response out of smooth, crisp blends – suggesting that those that are already somewhat engaged with coffee want the nuances of different levels of acidity, body etc without neccessarily going to major flavours, whereas those who are not need that ‘are you sure that’s coffee?’ moment to get them going.

  8. The pepper mill analogy is a great one that I’m going to co-opt. My question is: are we starting to think that perhaps there’s some “holy grail” coffee that we can use to win over the unwashed masses? Emily’s experience with the Beloya underscores the fact that people are different and have different tastes and preferences. As purveyors, I think it’s our job to learn the tastes of our clientele and select coffees that we think will appeal to them. Sure they may have their “favorites” but our task is to know the favorites and use that preference to push them a little and expand their experiences – isn’t it?

  9. I don’t think there is a holy grail conversion coffee.

    If (and it is a big if) you get enough time to chat to the customer then I think you can quickly work out what they will likely enjoy. I did like the flow chart at Volta that I think could easily be adapted for staff trying to hook people on the good stuff.

    Don’t get me wrong – I love giving people coffees that don’t taste like coffee, and I think they are of huge value for showing the diversity and range that coffee is capable of. However, we shouldn’t push some people too far too fast else we risk making them feel stupid/making us look like we’re selling the emperor’s new clothes!

  10. It really isn’t getting much attention, but Intelli’s decision to release their Panama El Machete mark as both a pulp natural and washed coffee has provided us with an incredible educational opportunity to help our customers understand the differences in coffees. We’ve had both formal and informal cuppings with customers, and of all the different attempts to provide coffee education, cupping these coffees together has provided a stronger “eureka” moment than any attempts to put CoE or microlot coffees on the table. Customers are really connecting with how coffee processing changes flavor and body, and people are beginning to understand that regional differences in processing are a big part of what we consider coffee’s terroir. We dialed in our clover specs so that the pulp natural is a silky porter and the washed is a blackberry/strawberry bomb, but when you mix in options for Chemex and syphon, we have one coffee that can be experienced through six very different cups. Almost all of our brewed coffee regulars will try one of each on the Clover; probably a quarter of those will also try both on the Chemex or syphon. The staff are energized by the interactions with the customers, and the customers really seem to be “getting it” in ways that I never saw before– even with CoE or reserve coffees that we’ve sold for twice as much.

  11. I think, as have been mentioned before, expectation of what a good cup should be is key. But once that obstacle has been overcome, and I’m sure it can be, it is also about occasion and context in general.

    An example, I presented a really good dry processed ethiopian coffee to my parents last christmas . They are generally open-minded about taste and flavour experiences, but high consumers of decent dark roasted off the shelf-coffee. The response I got was, “wow, this is a great coffee for dessert, it is so sweet and flavourful you actually don’t even need a dessert with this coffee”. But the next morning they still wanted the dark roasted stuff, as it tastes stronger and their palates wouldn’t enjoy the complexity of the ethiopian anyway.

    To me their response tells me that we enter a dangerous zone if we dismiss anything but high grown, sweet and acetic, exclusive coffee as being bad, or using only bad descriptors since people actually like it. Trying to find occasions where and when they might prefer it is in my opinion a much more attractive way to introduce specialty coffee.

    More expensive and exclusive does not generally mean better, in my opinion, but definitely more complex and interesting and often worth the extra cost. Still I am able to enjoy cheap stuff on its own merits, for sure. I, for instance, often prefer a mars bar to a piece of valhrona chocolate, and I don’t feel the least bad about it.

  12. I got a similar experience … once did a cupping for a national TV, placed in between some specialty coffees the usual “standardni smes” sample, i.e. 100% robusta mix … the moderator was shocked how extremely bad it tastes in comparison with the other coffees, eventhough she has drunk it numerous times before.
    Second example, big cupping downtown Prague last year, 100+ people … threw in at the end the Peaberry lot from Esmeralda (as well as your Muchoki, lol), lots of people objected that it doesnt taste like coffee – “why should I drink it then?”:)
    … people want here “coffee-like” coffees, bitter, heavy body, earthy, dark chocolate … fortunately, there are exceptions.

  13. we have cuppings for ‘regular’ customers every other month. mostly with 4 different types of singles one besides of the other, just to show how different coffee can taste. very interesting.

    Inspire in Breda did the same, but with an extra Douwe Egbert market leading coffee added. this gives people a better idea how good fresh quality coffee can taste.

    it’s a whole lot of work to keep on doing this, but if we don’t bring the coffee to people, I don’t see how we can improve the overal coffee intake and appreciation for premium coffee.

    June 22 we have our next Non Professional Barista jam with same type of coffee tasting. I’ll post an article with all our observations.

    keep up the good work

  14. This is a really interesting post James, thankyou. I think of a regular customer who drinks our Americanos because “It’s the closest thing you make to Nescafe”

    The simple fact is that most people don’t know what they like in coffee. What seems basic to us (brew method, grind size, roast level etc) is revelatory to many people who have simple never imagined that these things affect what they taste in their cup.

    When recommending individual coffees themselves we always run the risk of seeming patronising or just out out and out charlatan. Ultimately it is about getting a sense for your customer, and then giving them a choice that fits their specific relationship to coffee.

    I think certain high quality coffees are lost on people. I took an amazing micro lot Colombian to the America recently which I consider to be one of the best coffees I’ve ever tasted. Most of my (non coffee geek) friends hated it, thinking it sour and over acidic.

    People are on a journey. I have to accept that many people are going to prefer what seems like a ‘safe’ coffee to me, but perhaps after drinking that for a while they might be intrigued to be a bit more adventurous. Like the customers who have been buying the espresso blend for ages and love it, but want to try some single origin coffee that will less approachable.

    We just need to be grown up enough to let people discover for themselves, and educate them where they are at, not where we want them to be.

  15. As a new roaster I was very excited to share my love of coffee to my friends and customers, but was unsure how some would go over, especially here in the South (U.S.). I remember hesitantly giving a friend a sample of my Ethiopian saying things like, “Now, this is going to be a little different, keep an open mind”. As it turned out she loved that her coffee tasted of blueberries and that’s all she buys now. I’m reminded of what I keep hearing that I shouldn’t underestimate my customers, but there is a balance I think.

  16. Hiyo,

    Hearing you guys talking about how the public will prefer Folgers to actual real coffee, is parallel to my problem of people preferring Sickly sweet sugary cupcakes vs. our fresh fruit, fresh flavoured stuff.

    It’s a hard thing to ‘unteach’ childhood memories and what your expectations of particular foods are –there’s always an ‘archetype food’ in our heads. I think it’s a balancing act of whether we choose to fully break from the archetype and go for what we think is the ultimate, or compromise to reach a broader audience.

    -b

  17. If the coffee industry is moving toward “letting the coffee speak for itself” as many have suggested and I agree with, this only seems like a fair and logical step to take in cupping, especially within a public not industry setting.

    True it’s scary, but we can’t forget why we truly believe in quality fresh roasted. If we truly hold to it tasting better we have to be willing to allow it to be put on the chopping block.

  18. James,

    Another thought provoking post! I enjoy your “thinking out loud” because much of what you write echoes what we are thinking. Wonderful.

    I’ve often found many of the Ethiopian coffees to be a great transitional coffee as they can contain darker, bolder elements such as chocolate, cocoa, or spice, and then also have distinctive fruity elements.

    What I have observed is that coffees that have very distinct flavors, be it sweet spice, berry, chocolate, nut or fruit can really catch a customer, or coffee newbie’s, attention. Also, as I briefly mentioned above, it’s a safe bet to choose coffees that do have both typical flavors dark caramel, nut, chocolate, etc. and atypical flavors such as sweet spice, vanilla, berry, etc. I’ve found that sometimes coming right at them with an “in your face” coffee, like a bright Kenyan, or a super clean Costa Rican might be too much for them to absorb. But there are plenty who “get” it and who are enlightened when that first sip is bursting with mangoes and tangerines.

    Keep the coffees clean, keep them flavorful, keep them fresh, and most of the populace will be astounded.

    Ditto on the peppermill analogy.

  19. lso, as I briefly mentioned above, it’s a safe bet to choose coffees that do have both typical flavors dark caramel, nut, chocolate, etc. and atypical flavors such as sweet spice, vanilla, berry, etc.

  20. James S:

    You shouldn’t be worried about the results of a side by side quality vs “pedestrian” coffee. I’ve been doing that type of comparitive cupping with the public for years and it never, never fails. The difference is just so night and day. People pick it out of the lineup dead red. Their PREFERENCE might be for more traditional (read: stale) coffee tastes. But at least you can neutrally show the difference quality makes.

    James H:

    As always, thanks for the catalyst springboard. I’ve had my share of burst personal bubbles while putting a stellar coffee on the table versus stale coffees. I have to remind myself what a convoluted world we live in with coffee: so familiar with very, very good coffee that we chase wholesale after the great rare ones and forget the general public hasn’t even come close to awareness of the fairly good stuff yet.

    Great post.

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