There’s a lot that has to go into a cup of coffee before a barista can scrawl your misspelled name on it and send you on your caffeinated way. The path from berry (yes, coffee beans come from a berry) to mug is an intricate one, and includes — among other steps — a stage called cupping. Similar to a wine tasting, albeit more sobering, the cupping process is used by professionals and amateurs alike to assess the flavor, aroma and quality of the final product. “When baristas, roasters, cafes, importers, exporters, farmers or anyone else wants to know what a coffee has to offer, cupping is the evaluation method,” says Alex McCracken, co-owner of The Wydown Coffee Bar (1320 U St. NW; 202-506-2756). With an influx of independent roasters and coffee shops in D.C., a growing number of cuppings are open to those interested in drinking in the knowledge, all for free. Here are a few of our favorites.
The Wydown Coffee Bar
1320 U St. NW; 202-506-2756, thewydown.com. (U Street)
From its temporary space on U Street, The Wydown Coffee Bar serves coffee from three roasters: PT’s, Kaldi’s and Intelligentsia. The cafe, run by brothers and co-owners Alex and Chad McCracken, will move into a permanent location in the Louis at 14th/U apartment building later this year. In the meantime, spontaneous cuppings — hosted by either of the McCrackens — tend to be lax and free-style. Often, tastings include the same coffee bean roasted in different ways. “A lot of times folks know what they’re tasting, but they don’t have categories for it,” Alex says. “Until you taste things side by side in a controlled environment, it’s hard to teach your brain what’s going on.”
When: Varies. Follow @TheWydown on Twitter for information.
1515 N. Courthouse Road, Arlington; 703-243-2410, bayoubakeryva.com. (Courthouse)
In addition to Cajun classics like gumbo and muffuletta, Bayou Bakery serves fair-trade Counter Culture Coffee. Overseen by head barista Kyle Pool, the cafe portion of this quaint, New Orleans-inspired eatery is intent on serving a proper cup of joe. “New employees that join the team usually go through at least a four-hour training process,” Pool says. “Cupping is a great ambassador to tell people it’s all right to be snobby about your coffee.” The cuppings at Bayou serve not only as an educational tool for guests, but also as a method of garnering feedback on what varietals to offer next. Bonus: Fresh beignets are awarded to participants who answer coffee-themed trivia questions correctly.
When: Thursdays at 5:30 p.m.
501 E. Monroe Ave., Alexandria; 703-370-5050, swingscoffee.com.
Neil Balkcom, the director of coffee operations for local roaster M.E. Swing, holds weekly tastings in the Cupping Lab at the company’s Del Ray facility. Each hourlong session includes three sections: a comparative cupping that pits two disparate specialty coffees against each other; a themed cupping based on regions or country of origin; and a triangulation cupping in which two identical coffees and an outlier are served, and sippers are challenged to determine the odd one out. “Coffee has somewhat of a learning curve,” Balkcom says. “We start off with baby steps, and by the end of the tasting, people have a pretty great grasp.” If you haven’t gotten your fill, linger in the adjoining cafe, where iced coffee is served on tap.
When: Fridays at 10 a.m.
1017 Seventh St. NW, inside Hogo; vigilantecoffee.com. (Mt. Vernon Square)
Vigilante supplies its beans — sourced ethically from around the globe and roasted in the Trinidad neighborhood of D.C. — to various markets and shops in the area. Vigilante will eventually make its permanent home at Maketto, an in-the-works, mixed-retail market from Toki Underground’s Erik Bruner-Yang. Until then, Vigilante operates a pop-up cafe at Hogo, where, in addition to serving pastries made locally by Whisked, it holds public cuppings. “Little by little, people are waking up to better coffee,” says CEO Chris Vigilante, who guides sippers through a sampling of three coffees he’s chosen by a rigorous vetting process. “I select coffees by what blows my mind. It has to wow me.”
When: Varies. Follow @VigilanteCoffee on Twitter for information.
1203 19th St. NW, third floor; madcapcoffee.com. (Farragut North)
Previously, if you wanted to enjoy a cup of joe at MadCap cafe, your only option was to trek to Grand Rapids, Mich. But a D.C. outpost is scheduled for a late 2013 opening, when you’ll be able to sip the lauded selection of beans harvested from around the globe. Founder Trevor Corlett is organizing weekly cuppings in the interim out of Canvas Co/work, a mixed-use office share near Dupont Circle. Corlett serves three or four samples of pour-over coffees while sharing anecdotes about the farmers who produced them, with whom he has close relationships. “I’m a bartender in a sense, but in a different way” Corlett says. “They work from recipes, and I’m developing the product as we make it.”
When: Fridays at 10 a.m.
Neil Balkcom of M.E. Swing, one of D.C.’s oldest roasters, provides a breakdown of the four basic steps of cupping:
1. Grind the beans and smell the grounds. “Smelling the dry fragrance is the first indicator of how the coffee will perform and the first glance at its attributes.”
2. Pour just-off-the-boil water and let the grounds steep for four minutes.
3. Break the crust. “Coffee expels carbon dioxide gas as soon as it stops roasting, causing solubles to float and form a crust. We break the crust with a cupping spoon. This gives us our second look at the aroma.”
4. Finally, slurp (and spit, if you plan to drink a lot and want to avoid overstimulation). “Our palette is like a map. When we slurp, we aspirate the coffee, spreading it evenly to give it us a snapshot of all the flavor characteristics.”