Cupping, Home-Barista, Incredible coffees...

I've managed to finally start to really process the whole Home-Barista.com coffee event. I'm going to write about it over a series of posts (I hope). This is intended to be the first of the series.

I'm going to start with the context and then the conclusions.


On Saturday there was a get-together of non-professional coffee fanatics (organized on Home-Barista-com). The goal was for people to meet each other, learn from each other, share with each other and have a good time. My objective was for people to grow in their understanding of coffee.

Given my objective, I pushed for a structure that started with coffee cupping before moving to espresso technique and tasting. My hope was that cupping in a non-judgmental and low-pressure environment where everyone cupping were peers would enable people to quickly discover how much fun cupping is - and how much you can learn from cupping. My dream was that this would make the discussions about coffee and taste as opposed to gear and technique.

I solicited coffees from a large number of top roasters - and they came through (in spades). The resulting table on Saturday was 22 coffees deep and of extraordinary quality. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the roasters.

Because I knew that I wouldn't really have a chance to taste and consider these coffees in a thoughtful manner (given that I was running this large cupping), I also planned to cup the coffees the following day (on Sunday) with a very small (3 people) group of coffee professionals.

The idea was that this would allow me to really focus on the coffees - but would also give an interesting data point when it came to the expected differences of opinion between the non-professionals and the professionals.

In addition, by taking the input from the first day of cupping, I could adjust the table for the second day (in terms of coffees on the table as well as sequence of coffees).

The coffees cupped over the two days were:
  • Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose
  • Tim Wendelboe Honduras Cielito Lindo (CoE #5)
  • Tim Wendelboe Brazil Santa Barbara
  • Ritual Kenya Karimikui
  • Ritual Colombia La Orquidea
  • Mecca Kenya Mtaro Estate
  • Mecca Bolivia Mondo Novo (CoE #7)
  • Four Barrel Kenya Kangunu
  • Four Barrel Colombia Cauca Norbey Sancho Microlot
  • 49th Parallel Kenya Handege AA
  • 49th Parallel Costa Rica Finca Roblas Microlot
  • Ecco Kenya Kiunyu
  • Ecco Kenya Kangocho
  • Olympia Costa Rica La Mirella "Honey"
  • Olympia Colombia Finca La Florida Manuel Antonio Ovies
  • Barefoot Costa Rica Herbazu Honey
  • Barefoot Costa Rica Cerro Paldo
  • Intelligentsia Honduras La Tortuga
  • Intelligentsia Kenya Thiriku
  • Square Mile Kenya Tegu Kirimukuyu
  • Square Mile Ethiopia Yirgacheffe
  • Stumptown Colombia La Esperanza
  • Stumptown Kenya Kangunu
  • Stumptown Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon


In the end the experience (for me) was incredible and very rewarding.

The table was the most incredible cupping table of my life. But that's not what was most rewarding. To me, the truly incredible part was sharing the process of discovering cupping and discovering the relationships between coffees and flavours that most if not all of the non-professionals went through in that 4 hour period.

I've pulled shots with home baristas a number of times. A major frustration for me in the past has been that it's always defaulted to discussions of gear and technique. It's really never been about the coffee. This time was different.

We walked from the cupping into the espresso lab - and the conversations were all as follows
The shot you pulled tasted like this - the one I pulled tasted like that - what do I do to make my shots taste like yours?
The shot of coffee X tasted like this - the shot of coffee Y tasted like that - what caused the difference?

In other words.... the conversations were about taste. And about coffee.

I had the biggest shit-eating grin on my face.

And then we had the door-prizes. And it was clear that the most desired door prizes were not the demitasse sets or the cool t-shirts. They were the cupping spoons.

And my grin got bigger.

After the event was over various people who had been there got in touch with me. Some of the thanks were gratifying, of course. But the most rewarding thing? Almost all of them said, "I'm going to try and cup at least once per week from now on."

I can't stop smiling.

Cupping is great. And coffee is incredible.
Getting people to the point where they are comfortable cupping coffee and exploring it and discussing it... priceless.

On a less selfish note (grin)... I think it was rewarding for the folks there as well. At least, some of them have said it was!

Finally, the opinions of the folks there in terms of the coffee were really interesting. Keep in mind that the cupping was blind.

I think that palate fatigue played a part in the end results (22 coffees is a lot for a seasoned cupper much less a novice one). And I think that such a large table (with so many amazing coffees) tends to skew opinion towards the coffees that really stand-out (the cupping star coffees).

In the end we had a consensus that the top three coffees (in order) were:
  1. Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose
  2. Tim Wendelboe Honduras Cielito Lindo (CoE #5)
  3. Stumptown Kenya Kangunu
What's really interesting (to me) about this result is that the Wendelboe coffees were very light roast and very bright (the sort of coffees that, in the past, have performed poorly with consumer cuppings). Now... to be fair, I actually considered leaving the Esmeralda off the table given that it will dominate basically any cupping table. It's just such a powerful and unique coffee that it is guaranteed to stand out. Perhaps this is simply an issue of the difference between "consumers" and coffee fanatics? Or perhaps it's the difference between cupping and drinking? Or maybe it's just that these coffees, while light roast, were so good that the roast was irrelevant? Or perhaps the whole "roast degree" thing is over-rated and consumers are, in fact, ready for lighter roast coffees....

The next day (the professionals cup) was an equally incredible experience for me. Cupping that first day was very superficial for me. I didn't really get to dive into the coffees. You cannot imagine how much I was looking forward to really focusing on this incredible table.

And it didn't disappoint.

The coffees were almost all very good or better. The best coffees were truly incredible.

And, again, we came to a consensus on the top three coffees on the table. These were, in order:
  1. Stumptown Kenya Kangunu
  2. Stumptown Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon
  3. Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose
I think a large part of the difference between the results of the two days had to do with the familiarity (or lack thereof) with the Esmeralda. I can remember the first time I cupped this coffee and how it blew my mind. Now that I've cupped it over a number of years, I'm a little less shocked by it and as a result can put it into better context. Yes. It's a truly glorious coffee. Don't get me wrong. But I understand it a little more.

I think the second largest contributor to the difference was palate fatigue (or the lack thereof). A coffee like the Injerto isn't going to jump out at you on a table like this. As such, if it's later on the table and your palate is starting to go - you're going to have a rough time really appreciating it. I think the pros were able to handle the size of the table far better, and the results show this.

My notes on the top three coffees were as follows:

Stumptown Kenya Kangunu - An incredibly complete coffee. It not only has both of the common Kenya classic flavour profiles - it integrates them. High-end contains lovely clean citrus and cassis acidity and aromatics of black currant, lively berry and lime zest. Middle of the profile is a gorgeous melding of huckleberry compote and cassis syrup and caramelized brown sugar. The low-end is rich with leather and tomato paste and demi-glace. Incredible green coffee, wonderfully roasted. Would be ideal brewed in a Clever brewer or Chemex.

Stumptown Guatemala Finca El Injerto Bourbon - A classic example of the central american bourbon cultivar. Wonderfully balanced and nuanced. High-end contains sweet lime, kumquat and blackberry and has aromatics of jasmine and raspberry jam. The middle of the profile is rich with amaretto and brandied raspberry and nectarine / pluot. The low-end is dense dutch processed cocoa and ganache and hints of macadamia nut. Resembles a chocolate raspberry truffle. A gorgeous, near-perfect roast of a wonderful coffee. Would be great in a Chemex or a Hario brewer.

Tim Wendelboe Panama Hacienda La Esmeralda Mario San Jose - One of the greatest green coffees in the world. A stunning flavour experience that is like no other coffee. Completely unmistakable and amazing. The high-end is incredibly complex and layered with an incredible citrus fruit medley of bergamot and tangerine and papaya and candy sugar and elderflower. Aromatics are of bergamot, jasmine, orange blossom, tangerine, papaya. It's a very sparkling and effervescent coffee on the palate. Middle of the profile is orange marmalade and orange blossom honey and mango and champagne grape. There is little on the low-end other than more sweet citrus (sour orange, sweet palestine lime, buddha hand) and tons of honeyed sugars (reminding me strongly of Moscato d'Asti). One of the greatest coffees ever. Guaranteed to dominate any cupping table. Would be great in an Aeropress or a Hario.

What's crazy about this is that some of the coffees that did not make the top three were truly world-class coffees (the Square Mile Kenya Tegu is a singularly strong example). That's how good this table really was.

To sum up....

This was an amazing experience and I am incredibly humbled by it. I need to thank all the participants (from both days) for sharing with me and for teaching me and for allowing me to be along for the journey. I need to thank Doug from Fullsack Coffee for the use of his space for Saturday's event and to thank Valerie for letting us spend all day Sunday taking over her house for that event. And most of all I want to thank all the roasters for their involvement, their love of the coffee and their commitment to quality - and the growers and producers for all their hard work, their sacrifices, their love for what they do and their dedication to producing the world's greatest coffees. Each of us are just trying to do justice to what you give us.

Thank you.