A coffee shop proved to me that I didn’t know beans about coffee.
I came to this realization after attending a public coffee-tasting at Hot Numbers, a coffee shop and roaster in Cambridge, England. Properly called a “cupping,” the process, led by two shop employees, involved roughly two hours of sniffing, slurping and analyzing coffee and concluded with a quiz, which I failed.
Cupping is designed to reveal the nuances of flavor in a coffee, and the process can seem quite arcane. The Specialty Coffee Association of America’s cupping guidelines dictate how wide the cups should be (3 inches to 3 ½ inches) and insists that once you break the surface of the brewed coffee, you must stir three times then allow “the foam to run down the back of the spoon while gently sniffing” the coffee in the cup.
Our session was far less rigid. The first three stages of judging revolved around the coffee’s aroma.
We held cups of dry coffee grounds to our faces to determine the aroma, then we set the cups down and the baristas added hot water. As the coffee steeped for four minutes, we leaned over the cups for another whiff to see what water did to the aroma. The steeping process causes a layer to form on the top of the liquid, trapping some of the gases below, which is why our final sniff test was to break the surface with a spoon and smell the coffee fully brewed.
Research has shown that coffee has about 1,000 substances that can be smelled when the grounds are brewed. Sadly, this evening, I could not seem to smell more than one of them. Others could pick up flavors in the aroma, but I often had no idea how to describe it. (I could broaden my palette by ordering an aroma kit that comes with 36 of the most common coffee aromas, but I cannot justify spending $350 on preserved aromas to sharpen my own nosing abilities.)
Gulping down the coffee doesn’t give an accurate taste, so we used spoons to slurp it into our mouths. Using a spoon, according to one source, helps aerate the coffee: “Ideally, the retro-nasal breathing helps to pull the coffee into the nasal passages even more,” wrote Tom Owen on a well-regarded coffee website. “The coffee falls down in the palate and can then be circulated around the tongue.”
I was able to pick up far more in the slurping. The first sample tasted of hazelnut, a flavor that was suggested by another taster. My favorite was the third, a pleasant, earthy, perhaps woody flavor.
Sadly, however, my love for this coffee didn’t help during our final exam.
The shop employees, still keeping us in the dark as to what type of coffee we had been tasting, brewed each of the three coffees in a manner they might give it to a customer. They used a siphon pot, which is an hourglass-looking device that involves heated water gushing like a geyser up to the top chamber to saturate the grounds. We drank the properly brewed coffee then tried to guess which one each was, based on our cupping notes.
As if my lack of vocabulary for most of the cupping wasn’t bad enough, I failed miserably when it came to guessing which brewed cup corresponded to the samples we cupped. I could not even identify my much loved earthy coffee, which turned out to be a Mexican bean, because the brewed cup tasted quite different to me.
Failure in this setting is not a bad thing. One of our hosts noted that there are no right or wrong answers. Maybe next time I’ll get a passing grade.
Location: Units 5/6 Dales Brewery, Gwydir Street, Cambridge. Parking is available on the street and a parking lot with a limited number of spaces is across the street from the shop.
Hours: Hot Numbers is open 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays.
Costs: The ticket to this cupping cost 10 British pounds (about $15). The shop also offers private tastings.
Information: Cuppings are not held on a regular schedule, so check with Hot Numbers frequently to see when one will take place.
Telephone: (+44) 01223-35966; the shop’s website is hotnumberscoffee.co.uk