• Cupping and The Concept of Other
  • Scott Carey
Cupping and The Concept of Other
First, some not so quick definitions to get out of the way. As in all these compositions, these definitions are set up for the express purpose (a) to talk about coffee, and (b) to make wildly irregular conclusions in the closing paragraphs.

Cupping. By this, I don’t mean what one experiences as the masculine sex in the doctor’s office when asked to turn ones head and cough. But instead by cupping I mean the formal and ritualistic process of experiencing the quality and character of roasted coffee. A coffee cupping is like a wine tasting, but more communal, messy and without stemware. In brief, 9 to 12 grams of coarse ground coffee is combined with 8 oz of hot (but not boiling) water in a bowl/cup of about 8 to 10 oz in size. The resulting combination sits undisturbed for 4 minutes (think French Press) at which time the ‘crust’ (the coffee bits floating on top of the water) is broken with the back of a spoon -forthwith falling to the bottom of the bowl/cup, with any resultant ‘film’ skimmed off the surface. Next participants take a soup-like spoon and slurp mouthfuls of coffee (preferably at an upright 90 degree angle between the mouth and spoon) from each cup, making between 3 to 5 passes per cup/coffee, all the while making mental and often times written observations about each cup. The observations include, but are not limited to, acidity, aroma (wet grounds), fragrance (dry grounds), balance, body, taste, and flavor. There are many standard and nonstandard forms (qualitative and quantitative, scored and non-scored) that people use to check and mark and remember and judge each cup/coffee. After I say this, I change my mind, it is much like a turn your head and cough experience -but for the coffee -a sort of coffee check-up or maybe more of a college entrance interview. A cupping is a highly ritualistic way, steeped in rigid procedure, to taste several coffees at a single time/event/‘seating’ or to discover the quality (and thus the final roast profile) of a singular coffee prepared using different roasting curves.

The Problem of Other minds (see perhaps solipsism, but really don’t it’s not necessary). This is less of a definition, and instead more posing a question from a point of view that will best lend itself to the conclusions of this writing. The question is to what extent can an experience be shared? (i.e., know another person’s experience.) All experiences are private. From context, what is happening in the ‘private’ can typically be inferred from external cues -like laugher means joy, crying means sorrow, and a blush response coupled with a raised voice means anger. We can see these outward expressions and then recall times we experienced those or similar moments and then ‘experience’ the ‘other’ mind. But I would argue that it’s more approximation than precision -more hand grenades and carpet bombing than smart bomb. It’s similar, but not the same experience as the other.

It’s totally anathema to say, but historically Sump has not been a fan of coffee cuppings. (But you say -how can this be? you roast coffee, how do you arrive at a roast? at quality? Well, we brew it or pull it as a shot -essentially prepare it as if we were going to serve it to someone in the shop. We would argue that spending time with a drinkable cup is worth a 1000 slurps.) As stated in prior posts, we dislike coffee cuppings because it does not put coffee in parity with wine. However, this is not to suggest that cuppings have never had a role to play. Cuppings are more like practicing battlefield medicine than modern metropolitan hospital medicine. Cuppings are and still remain a method for determining the quality of coffee in the field -an experience that a very small percentage of the population ever experiences. In the absence of the typical accoutrements of a modern cafe, cupping is a light, tool-wise, method of experiencing coffee at origin to make potential contracting and buying decisions. But in a consuming environment, such as a cafe, such a method lacks parity with wine. In addition, in our experience, what is experienced at a cupping is not always close or even 50% of what can be experienced by actually brewing the coffee. This premise, of cupping being less elegant or less desirable or a less precise method, was one of the main driving reasons our shop purchased a Steampunk. The Steampunk had the promise of the possibility to still customize and explore each coffee in the shop, but with a relatively quick cycle time, so as to offer something more akin to a flight of coffees, like what is experienced in wine and now in craft beer. However, there are current limitations on the necessary minimum bed thickness that preclude such a use -at least for parties less than 2 people. Minimum brewing bed thickness require cup sizes of around 12 oz. (I know work is being done to resolve this ‘limitation’, but as of this writing a ready solution does not exist.)

Summing up from once we’ve come thus far. (a) Sump has historically disdained cuppings because they are messy, communal and lack stemware. (b) Cuppings have a role to play, but that role is more akin to the role triage medicine plays on a battlefield. (c) Sump thought the Steampunk would act as a means of producing flights (i.e., real tastings) of coffee for groups as small as 1, but instead found a minimum bed thickness limitation -currently, if only for the moment. (Now, why won’t this work for 1? We have found that people in general are more sensitive and aware of the amount of coffee (really caffeine) they ingest than say other libations. Thus, small production volumes are critical for flights.) (d) Summing (a)+(b)+(c) equals Sump dislikes cupping in the shop because it does not produce a classic wine tasting experience. What’s a boy to do? Change the goal of cupping to one of the concept of other.

As ‘barbaric’ as Sump thinks cupping is, it is a means for setting up a foundation for a common experience and as such turning the ‘private’ into the shared, an experience of the other. And because of this aspect, a coffee cupping might even be a more elevated and philosophically rich experience than wine tastings. Everything in a cupping is shared and commonly experienced, again expect for the spoons. The singularity of focus and unity go experience allows an intensity and alignment with what it might be like to really know the experience of another or the other -or perhaps to even understand how impossible it is to actually know the other. In our experience, depending on the group size, a cupping will usually produce only between 30% to 50% overlap in opinion as to what is in the cup and/or what are the best cups on the table. (Professional coffee people will suggest that is because of the novice status of the cupping group -and maybe, because we lack a foundation for an agreed upon subjectivity to become objective. Nay, I call palate bullying on that (but likely true nonetheless).) A cupping is both beauty and tragedy, connection and alienation simultaneously. It’s beautiful because it’s a moment in time when everyone present -is present, is on a common journey (L.O.T.R.), tragic in that we find different outcomes or disagreement; a deep connection because of the identity and unity of the experience and what agreement can be found in the cup, and alienating because we find ourselves alone when no one sees what we see/experience/feel in a cup. However, and this is the insane bit, the entire time we’re all slurping out of the same cup. Thus, despite its barbarism, Sump is perhaps for the first time a proponent of (non-turn your head and cough) cupping. Often times in coffee people do what they do because there is a higher authority or passed on wisdom (without clearly articulated reasons) -just as in any field. Sometimes questioning such authority produces liberation and new directions other times that questioning reconnects and reaffirms the rituals. We would still argue that cuppings still maintain all the aforementioned and prior posted detractors, yet the possibility of experiencing the experience of the other is well worth the mess and the missing stemware.
  • Scott Carey