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Wake Up and Cup the Coffee
With Sniffs and Slurps, We Learn How To Evaluate Seven Brands of Beans

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007

As soon as water hits the grounds in the little glasses set before us, the chocolate-brown liquid starts to churn and bubble. "What you're looking at is carbon dioxide released from the beans as the coffee blooms," explains our host, Murky Coffee's Nicholas Cho. "The fresher the beans, the bigger the bloom."

Once the bubbles subside, Cho coaches us on: "Now, break the crust and really get your nose into it." He takes a soup spoon and pushes the floating mound of grounds toward the rim. Into the glass goes his nose. We follow his lead, inhaling deeply while stirring.

This is what's known in specialty-coffee circles as a cupping, a formalized way to evaluate bean characteristics.

Coffee importers cup to appraise varietal beans from a particular farm. Roasters constantly cup to gauge the freshness of what they have in stock. With specialty shops such as Murky emphasizing the unique qualities of single-origin beans over the homogeneity of blends, and with shade-grown, organic and fair trade beans coming from some 70 countries, there's always a reason to cup.

Murky, which has hosted free public cuppings every week for the past 18 months, is one of fewer than a dozen coffee shops nationwide that does it, says Cho. Four to six people usually attend. As coffee interest has grown -- consumption in the United States increased in 2006 for the second straight year, with 25- to 39-year-olds responsible for much of the growth -- "it's a way of educating people's palates," Cho says. "The same way a wine shop does with a wine tasting."

For this cupping, in the back room of Murky's busy Clarendon location, our group of four starts with little idea of what the process entails. Our hosts are Cho, 33, Murky's president and head barista; and Aaron Ultimo, 28, Murky's director of coffee quality. Besides two Food section reporters, guest tasters are Ruth Poupon, co-owner of Patisserie Poupon in Georgetown and Baltimore; and Todd Thrasher, general manager and sommelier of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria.

All we know at the outset is that we will cup seven brands of coffee beans from Central and South America, some roasted locally and all easily available, including one inexpensive mass-market ringer. We brace for quite the caffeine buzz.

"It's just such a whole other world, a cult thing," says Poupon. "This coffee craze is what the 30-something crowd is really into, and I'm just amazed they know so much about it."

At a waist-high butcher block table that nearly fills the room, general manager Katie Carguilo intently weighs 11 grams of coffee beans into four glasses and then four more, repeating the procedure a total of seven times.

We each take a few minutes to compare the samples, which range in color from medium brown to jet black. Some are slick and oily, others dry and dusty. One smells grassy, while another is as odorous as a Starbucks at morning rush hour. It's clear from the get-go that No. 3, with its lifeless appearance and acrid smell of ammonia and cherry pipe tobacco, is in over its head.

Ultimo grinds the samples in each glass in a conical-burr grinder. Unlike the 20-year-old metal-blade machine that I have at home, this one produces a consistent grind and does not heat the beans as it whirls, the better to preserve their flavor. In short order, the glasses are filled with bottled water heated to between 195 and 205 degrees.

After the liquid bubbles and we break the crusts, stir and smell, what's immediately apparent is that the lighter beans have just as much aroma as the oily black ones, which Cho says have been over-roasted. "That oil should be inside the bean," he says. Several of the samples smell of wood or earth, and one is particularly nutty.

Then Ultimo and Cho demonstrate how to taste. With the grounds now settled at the bottom, each dips a soup spoon into a glass, raises it to his lips and sucks in the sip with a mighty slurp. "You want to spray the coffee across the palate," says Cho, repeating the procedure and growing louder each time. "Be careful not to burn your mouth."

Oh, yes, and after a good long slurp, the guys spit into a plastic cup. So much for the buzz.

The flavor, Cho says, should be appropriate to the origin of the bean. For Latin American beans, that translates to a "light and lively flavor and a light acidity, but not earthy." A medium to thick body is preferred and can indicate that the bean was fully developed and ripe. But there are no absolutes.

One of the more important qualities to look for is called brightness or perceived acidity, a perception that is not to be confused with bitterness. A good coffee needs acidity, but how much it needs is a personal preference. To my taste, No. 6 (which turns out to be from Mayorga, based in Rockville) has just enough: It is sweet and smooth going down.

For the most part, we hold our comments, remembering to wash our spoon each time and recording our findings on a form. But it's hard to remain silent after a slurp of No. 3, which causes everyone to grimace over a thin body and a flavor so sour it brings burnt green apples to mind.

"That has to be the Eight O'Clock," says Poupon of the inexpensive national brand, and Cho quickly reminds her to hold her comments until after the reveal. I'd been secretly rooting for that underdog, thinking how great it would be to so easily find a good, cheap bag of beans.

But sure enough, she was right.

Poupon said later that she was so impressed with the cupping that she signed up for a $150 barista class the next night. "My technique improved immediately," she said.

Thrasher, who as a sommelier is used to careful wine tasting, found the process eye-opening. "I tasted 100 different coffees when we opened the restaurant, but never like that," he said. "What I learned was that you get what you pay for, and what a big difference there is between mass-market and specialty brands."

Neither was so moved as to change coffee loyalties. At her shop, Poupon prefers Kahwa brand coffee roasted in Florida. At Eve, Thrasher serves Cafe Pronto coffee, roasted in Annapolis; "it's the best I've ever tasted," he said.

Then again, in case anyone doubts how subjective all this is, Cho cupped Pronto last week -- and didn't care for it at all.

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