23 July 2016 – In my cups, at 11 on a Saturday morning? Disgraceful.
Except we’re talking coffee, not wine. Though there is at least the echo of a relationship: I’m about to take part in a coffee cupping. Like wine tasting, except with coffee.
And you do it with sturdy mugs, not elegant wine glasses.
We’re on the shaded patio of Merchants of Green Coffee, a favourite Toronto café of mine, housed in a former factory smack on the banks of the Don River just south of Dundas St. East.
No longer a jam factory; now a centre for Fair Trade, organic coffee in all its permutations — green & fresh-roasted beans for institutions & individuals, fresh cups of coffee on-site, coffee paraphernalia, & coffee roasting classes. Also, on occasion, coffee cuppings.
Today, for example, with three high-quality Rwandan coffees.
This Rwandan coffee project is my first experience with a cupping, and I have more than passing curiosity. I helped promote it with a mid-July article for the MGC website — all about the recent emergence of Rwandan specialty coffees; the young Rwandan-Canadian entrepreneur, Assadou Mwunvanezaa, now importing them to Canada through his company, Massa Inc.; and the project with MGC’s Derek Zavislake to promote these coffees & make them available.
Shiny aluminum jars are lined up at the top of the patio table, each containing beans for one of the three to be sampled. Derek (L) and Assadou (R), snappy as all get-out in their Massa T-shirts, describe the coffees, and the cupping process.
All three, we learn, are Rwandan arabica coffee beans, Bourbon variety, AA designation, and all come from some part of the country’s western region, recognized to have the best soils & climate (terroir counts with coffee, as with wine). All three are Fair Trade and organic, produced by small farmers who belong to local co-ops: the Kopakama, the Abakundakawa, and the Kopakaki, respectively.
There are various cupping techniques, we’re going for the simplest, says Derek.
First you brew the coffee very carefully from freshly roasted beans …
and then you taste it.
OK, the process is a tad more nuanced than that. You line up your three mugs; you pour hot water into the first mug to warm it; you transfer the hot water to each succeeding mug to warm it before it in turn receives its own coffee sample.
We are instructed to pay attention, not just to the flavour, but to where the flavour first hits the tongue — and where it goes from there. I pay attention to my tongue, I do, but I also take a moment to appreciate the sturdy, totally unglamorous old pot from which the coffee is being poured.
We are invited, through our comments, to help build the flavour profile for each sample. Derek stands by the flip-board, three colours of marker to hand, one for each sample.
The issues are acidity, and body. Acidity is not (I repeat, NOT) about acids. It is about the brightness of the flavour. Body is, well, body. Weight. African coffees, we are told, typically fall into the higher acidity range, with lower body. Rwandan coffees are distinctive (terroir, again): typically also the higher acidity, but with medium, or higher, body.
Derek works that flip-board as we talk.
Allow me to decipher.
Those ovals on the left show the tongue. Number 1’s flavour (blue) landed mid-tongue & pushed back from there; number 2 (red) hit right at the front of the tongue & travelled toward the sides; number 3 (green), like number 1, landed mid-tongue but then pushed forward as well as back. Number 1 evoked words like “spicy & “smoky”; number 2 evoked “dry woods, dry grass”; number 3, called up “vegetable,” “fruit” & “sweet” — the widest range of flavours of all three.
From that came the flavour profile curves, acidity on the left & body on the right.
The samples’ curves are at the top: # 1 (blue) with the lowest acidity & highest body of the three samples; # 2 (red) with middle acidity and # 3 (green) with the highest acidity, but 2 & 3 merging in the body column, below # 1.
That green dotted curve below? That’s the profile curve that Derek seeks in Rwandan coffee — which, look again at those results above, is most closely matched by sample # 3.
Well that’s all fine & carefully considered. Then we were invited to forget fancy analysis & just pick our personal favourite. Practically a dead heat: 3 votes each for the first two, and 4 votes for # 3.
Me? I voted for # 1.
My first coffee cupping. Been there. Done that. Even got the snappy black Massa T-shirt!