This is a guest post by Greg Albright. If you are interested in writing guest articles for the Table, feel free to contact me.
Cupping is the coffee industry’s practice of evaluating numerous coffees side-by-side. Coffees are cupped at origin, before and after shipping, during the roast process, and (the place where most of us encounter them) across the counter and coffeeshops. While most cuppings for the consumer present three to five different coffees, Sprudge laid out 36 coffees on the tables and counters throughout the cafe.
Events like this are some of the only places where consumers and baristas, along with other coffee professionals, can access so many well-prepared and well-chosen coffees all in one place. It is also one of the most convenient places for coffee people—whether professionals, part-time baristas, or home enthusiasts—to get together. Wholesale representatives from local roasters, baristas from some of the city’s best coffee shops, and interested coffee consumers all had the chance to mingle in a setting much more relaxed than a busy cafe workday. This event, and other similar coffee gatherings are where I find the time to talk shop without actually being in the shop.
After being introduced by Sprudge founders and editors Zachary Carlsen and Jordan Michelman, Geoff Watts (co-owner and coffee buyer for Intelligentsia) presented on the Kenyan coffee industry. In addition to showing photos of his own travels to Kenya, and taking some questions on Kenya’s particular fermentation practices, Watts reminded the fifty or so participants that “These are really special coffees.”
This was an understatement.
The coffees presented were roasted by the big names in high-end specialty coffee (Intelligentsia, Counter Culture Coffee, Stumptown), regional chains, boutique roasters (Los Angeles’s Handsome Coffee, Atlanta’s Batdorf and Bronson, San Francisco’s Sightglass), and even some international companies (Canada’s Bows and Arrows, Australia’s 5 Senses, Denmark’s Coffee Collective).
Any cupping featuring so many coffees from such a crowd of excellent roasters would be a treat, but the cupping party’s titular focus made it that much better. Every single coffee on the table came from Kenya. Nyeri, Gichathaini, Thiriku, Kangocho, Kartina; all the Kenyan coffee regions I’ve heard of (and more!) were represented.
After Watts’ opening remarks, participants milled about the space, smelling the dry grounds in no particular order. The staff then cleared the space to allow a team of Intelligentsia baristas to brew and clear up the cups for tasting.
The whole room filled with the sound of slurping as participants – now in an orderly line – filed through, tasting every coffee. The staff would occasionally call out a reminder: “Please keep moving! The coffee is cooling and not everyone has tasted yet!”
In a smaller cupping, one can return to the cups again and again, seeking out minute differences between coffees. Here, we had one or two slurps on each coffee before moving on. In a spread of coffees that were all top-tier and all falling into a classic Kenyan taste profile, it became difficult to separate one coffee from another.
Those of us who have tasted a few of them know that Kenyan coffee are often associated with intense notes of blackberry, blackcurrant, plum, citrus, tomato, wine, or grapes. Watts reminded us to taste for “acid complexity”—meaning that a really special Kenyan coffee won’t just have a grapefruit profile (citric acid), but it may have (for example) some apple (malic acid) and some raspberry (phosphoric acid) in the cup. He pointed out that some of these coffees, despite being very acidic, were also very sweet. That kind of balance can move a coffee from being an exemplar of its origin to being a standout on a table crowded with such exemplars.
That sweetness was a powerful determining factor in this cupping. Malty and chocolatey notes jumped out in some of my favorites (the offerings from 5 Senses and Bows and Arrows). Acid complexity jumped out at me in Counter Culture’s Thiriku coffee, and in the Intelligentsia roasts marked specially for the event.
As someone who drinks coffee day in and day out, whose job it is to think about the grind setting, the extraction parameters, etc. it was refreshing to get together with like-minded folks and taste some really, really good coffee. After all, enjoying coffee is what the specialty arm of the industry is all about, and Kenyan coffees are some of the most enjoyable.
The event was still in process when I left for the evening. The crowd was still filing through and slurping all the coffees. Unless I suddenly find myself at the coffee auction house in Nairobi, I doubt I’ll ever smell and taste so many excellent Kenyan coffees in one place.
Kenya Dig It? I certainly can.
Greg Loring-Albright is curious about coffee.
This curiosity has led him to drink, serve, roast, and educate about specialty coffee here in Chicago.
He currently trains baristas (and is one himself) at Istria Cafe in Hyde Park.