That post on El Vergel two weeks ago was picked up and retweeted by the company that produces that gem, among many other excellent single-origin coffees, Terroir Coffee. We tweeted back and forth a few times with the result that last Wednesday, I made the trek out to Acton, MA to cup this season's Kenyans with the owner, George Howell, the quality control ninja Jenny, two of the roasters Jacko and Doug, and a lovely couple from Quebec.
I managed to get lost in finding the nondescript headquarters building, but the smell of roasting coffee through my open window soon had me on the right track. As I walked in, George was just beginning a tour of their beautiful facilities with the Quebecers (one of whom was wearing Toms, as I was, and the other wearing Birkenstocks (I so need to visit Quebec: Toms, Birkenstocks, and a love of coffee? YES)). The facilities were immaculate and everyone was working in happy harmony as we wandered about learning about different storage methods, the idiosyncrasies of different countries and the wealth of information that only a legend in Third-Wave coffee can deliver. George has been in the coffee business for thirty-five years and really pioneered, in many ways, the high-end coffees that are available today. He brought this love and wisdom from the West Coast (*cough* where all things good and beautiful originate) to the East Coast and remains an influential player in the global high-quality, artisanal coffee arena.
I was able to meet the roaster responsible for one of the best coffee experiences I've had, Doug Sparks, who roasted the El Vergel I raved about. See, I have this thing for high-altitude Guatemalans and it takes considerable skill to bring out the lofty, bright notes in those coffees. There is a huge element of science but an even larger element of understanding the bean itself, it's potential, it's nature... only the best roasters can make such wonders sing. One such is Doug Sparks.
After the tour we gathered in the cupping room where ten different Kenyans were laid out by Jenny, who also had roasted them. The cupping process is one of carefully woven art and science. For each coffee offering there are six old-fashioned-sized glasses of grounds arranged around a table so all the cuppers can access them easily. There are several stages, all of which have their own ranking system for the purposes of Cup of Excellence rankings or buyer's analysis:
Aroma: first the grounds are sniffed as they sit in the cup, then the cupper shakes the cup to release the pent-up vapors in the dry grounds, keeping his/her nose close to the cup at all times. The third aroma-focused period is, after the water has been poured into the grounds and the crust noted, the cupper takes her/his spoon and breaks the crust, stirring 2-3 times. Again, the cupper should keep his/her nose as close to the surface as she/he can.
Using a spoon, the cupper will take a taste of each of the coffees, from all six cups, aspirating strongly for each one, so he/she can experience the full effect of the coffee on the senses. At this stage, the cupper is looking for several things:
Taste: as the coffee cools, different flavor profiles will emerge and decrease. A coffee that tastes decent in the beginning can become a favorite, while an initial favorite can decrease in the passage of time and drop in temperature. Not unlike a novel, no one can really tell if a cup of coffee is really good until it is finished. Rolling each sip over the tongue, allowing it to interact with each tastebud, this stage composes most of the cupping experience.
Mouth-feel: as apposed to taste, mouth-feel speaks to the way the coffee coats the inside of your mouth, the feeling that it leaves after it is swallowed (or spat out in the case of cupping), and the "weight" of the coffee's body.
The coffees were numbered and we quickly discovered that three coffees rose to the fore. Numbers 9 and 10 won out, and for different reasons. Nine had this beautifully keen acidity that sang high notes as it went out, but Ten had the completely coated mouth-feel of an epic Kenyan. A few of the other coffees were notably old, giving them a stale taste that grew as they cooled. Some tasted fine to begin with and slowly aged, others were okay, but not remarkable in any particular way.
As we finished up, George explained that he would roast the coffees again, do another blind cupping of all ten, and based on the results of both, he would place his orders. A complex and lengthy process, but one that results in the best coffee, from the best and most careful farmers.
After the cupping I headed home, three bags of coffee in hand, a better understanding of the current state of Kenyan coffees, and a place and faces to attach to the Terroir I often find in my hand.