Tales from the Coffee Crypt
"It sort of smells like a barnyard," I said. "Or maybe beef jerky, if you'd left it under the car."
I had no idea if these were idiotic assessments of the glass of coffee grounds and boiling water my husband Din had set before me, the first of six coffees we would taste in a practice known as coffee cupping. This, so Din, a coffee roaster, would know which beans he would buy, nearly by the ton, for his caf√© and wholesale business.
"To me, it's more like rotting wood," said Heather, the manager of the caf√©, who, like my husband, was already hazarding guesses as to origins of the beans we were tasting blind. As I watched her write "Sumatra" on her Cup-Value Evaluation Form, I felt, somehow, as though I were cheating on a test. But what could I do? I'd never cupped before.
Din had the process down. He'd bought a case of small rock glasses, which he lined up by threes. Into these, he spooned a few tablespoons of freshly ground coffee, onto which he poured enough boiling water to reach the rim, where the coffee grounds heaved and bubbled like a little volcano.
While we waited for it to steep, Heather gave me a four-page Coffee Taster's Glossary. It opened with a drawing of a tongue, indicating where our flavor receptors are located (back to front: bitter, sour, salt, sweet), and moved on to forty-three terms, from "Baked" to "Winy," and including "Hidy," defined as "Smell of hides or leather from improper storage," which I guess is what I'd meant by that first cup.
Still, the primer did not give me confidence, especially when Din told me to pay attention to the acid balance. The what?
"Don't worry about it," he said, sliding me two more cups, and demonstrating, with the back of a teaspoon, how to break the crust of grounds that had formed. "Write down what you smell."
I leaned over until my nose was an inch from the hot cup. I smelled. I closed my eyes so I could smell better, and found myself moving fast through a tight dark corridor, with aromas jumping out from both sides, but disappearing before I could identify them.
I opened my eyes, and thought, that's like being in some kind of movie; like that segment in Tales from the Crypt, where the guy is being chased by a German Shepherd down a hallway lined with razor blades, a hallway that keeps getting narrower and narrower... well, not exactly like that. I closed my eyes again, and inhaled. Again, the aromas jumped out, and acting quickly, I could just about catch... wow, jasmine. And... chocolate? No... cocoa. I kept doing it, with all the coffees, encountering pepper and paper; cigar smoke and cotton candy; maple syrup, lemon; the questionable meat smell of the bodega, and, oddly and over and over, clean laundry.
"All right, now we're going to taste them," said Din, and I followed him in scooping the grounds out of the cup, and taking a loud slurp, to better aerate the coffee and tease out more taste. I still couldn't discern acidity, which gives coffee snap, or body, which lends it mouth-feel, but I did get flavors, and not all of them good. Pine in coffee? Uch. But mostly, it was toasted nuts, and vanilla, and cloves, and cherry, and cinnamon hearts and citrus and lots and lots of chocolate.
As Din and Heather gave numeric values to the coffees' characteristics, I thought about how, for years, I'd imagined those who write wine descriptions racking their brains to come up with florid terminology, a sort of can-you-top-this for the vinous set. But I saw now, it wasn't so; that the tastes are there, you just need to concentrate and identify them.
"All right, what did you guess?" Din asked, when we got to origin, a segment I'd left blank. Heather, on the other hand, got three of the six, whereas Din got all six, from Mexico, Sumatra, Ethiopia, Peru and two from Brazil. I told him, I was sorry I couldn't be more helpful.
"You can," he said. "Write up the descriptions of the ones I wind up buying."
That I can do.
Ethiopia Sidamo: Exquisite, wild-grown coffee. Full-bodied and complex, with jammy berry notes and just a hint of smoke.
Sumatra Mandheling PWN Grade 1: Bold, with lots of body, earth tones, and a touch of chocolate.
Mexican Chiapas, Terru√±o Nayarita: Silky smooth and well rounded, with a milky body, a caramel sweetness, and hints of clove and vanilla.
Peru (Certified Organic): Deep-bodied and syrupy, with the aroma of caramel, this coffee is bold, complex, and crisp, with hints of tart apple, tobacco and spice.
Nancy Rommelmann is a columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Bon Appetit and other publications, and a frequent contributor to Portland Food & Drink. She is the author of several books, including %%AMAZON=014026373X Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask,%% and the recently completed memoir, Leaving Los Angeles. Her personal blog can be read here.
Nana Mouskouri sings "Black Coffee"