Archive for March, 2009

Cupping Confidence

Posted in coffee, coffee cupping, coffee roasting with tags , , , on March 24, 2009 by Chad

Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.   –Marcus Aurelius

I often read or hear comments from other roasters, or other coffee drinkers to the tune of

“I just don’t have the taste buds to cup coffee”


“I can’t taste what [some well-known cupper/taster] does”.

I used to buy into both of these views, doubting my capability to discern tastes, aromas, and quality in the cup.

It’s BS.

Anyone who loves coffee has the ability to cup and assess the quality of a coffee.  ANYONE.  You don’t have to be a supertaster, or an oenophile, or a foodie, or have a thesaurus of flavor descriptors implanted in your brain.

Cupping is a skill–one that can be learned and honed with practice.  I’ll agree that there may be differences in abilities, but they are more akin to the differences in capability of any of our senses.  The best cuppers return to the cup daily, and have done so for years.  They’ve also cupped with others, shared descriptors, tasted the same coffees, discussed and written about their experiences–taking every opportunity to hone their skills at detecting flavors and aromas, acidity and mouthfeel, and defects in the cup.

Peter Giuliano of Counter Culture Coffee, wrote some excellent thoughts on cupping in response to Dan Kehn’s after action report of taking the SCAA Sensory Skill Test.  Full context here.  (my apologies for just linking, but it’s not my content).

He’s spot on.  If you can taste the difference between two brands of soda, and you like coffee, you have what it takes to cup.  The keys are that you pay attention, trust what you smell and taste, and write down your experiences.

Lastly–and this is certainly not an original thought–cup with others!  The steepest ramps in my coffee knowledge has been when I’ve cupped with other people.  Our coffee vocabulary and knowledge grows by leaps and bounds when we share the experience with others at the same table.  At times, cupping can feel like a vocabulary test–what’s the word for what I taste and smell??  Your cupping partners may have the word you need.

So, grab your moleskine, a cup and start sharing your experiences.  Your coffee knowledge, your roasting skills and your confidence in your senses will follow.

You could even end up like this guy (hint, hit play).


Posted in coffee, coffee cupping, coffee roasting, home roasting with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 20, 2009 by Chad

Each contact with a human being is so rare, so precious, one should preserve it. –Anais Nin

We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results. —Herman Melville

I may have mentioned this previously, but it bears repeating–the best part of falling down the rabbit hole of specialty coffee has been the PEOPLE.  Connecting with other rabbit hole decenders, coffee importers, professional roasters, coffee shop owners, and coffee growers has excited, rewarded, validated, and energized me.  It’s what keeps me wanting to write, to roast, to source coffee, and to give back as much as I’ve received.

So what’s next?  What do I want to do when I grow up?  Trick question–I don’t want to grow up!  I never want the wonder and excitement of learning the bean to depart.  But that’s not all.

Finding ways to connect fellow coffee nuts–whether nano-roaster, home roaster, micro-roaster, or shop owner– drives me.  I relsih sourcing beans for home roasters not just for the joy of the hunt, but for the satisfaction that what I’ve done allows someone else to continue their coffee journey.  It’s thrill and excitement multiplied tenfold or more.  I want to take this to the next level, to help develop, maintain, and take advantage connections within the East Coast specialty coffee community to spread the coffee good news.

So what next?  I will work to improve outcomes, connections, people, and creativity (inspiration–Umair Haque’s Smart Growth Manefesto).   How does my (our) efforts improve the outcomes of coffee farmer, suppliers and roasters (and their customers)?  How can I help connect the nano- and micro-roaster to the farmer, and ultimately connect the customer to the farmer?  How do we create new avenues and opportunities in specialty coffee?

The Internet allows for small folks to connect in ways that were not previously possible, it provides the potential for locally focused small businesses and communities to become greater–BUT–harvesting that potential requires an essential element.  The essential element is nothing less than what most small businesses understand completely–hard work.   The hard work of someone actively developing, nurturing, raising, and caring for these connections.  The hard work of someone organizing–whether it’s a regional roasters group retreat, a hosted cupping, a visit to origin, or a training event.    If someone does not coordinate and drive the interactions, it is all too easy for the next urgent thing to push the important, but less urgent work of larger community building aside.

The first order of business will be to continue to develop the idea of a Mid-Atlantic or East Coast Cup of Excellence buying group, starting with group cuppings.  I’ve connected with a few folks this week, and the email and phone calls will continue until we’ve got something going.

Some of us are already putting together a database of local roasters who sell at farmers markets, with an idea that we can put together a site where people can search their area for local roasters.  How would you like to gain insight from other coffee cuppers–another resource where you can more quickly hone in on some of the better coffees at the importers, perhaps with someone with home you’ve crossed spoons?  I won’t say the possibilities are endless, but WE can do a whole lot more than you or I can.

Here’s looking forward to another year of connections, and connections that can make a difference.

James Burke

Cup of Excellence – Tilting

Posted in coffee, coffee cupping, coffee roasting with tags , , , , , on March 19, 2009 by Chad

Roasters of the East Coast, Unite!

One of the things that has driven me batty on occasion is the vast difference in available resources between the left and the right coast.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been able to meet and connect with great coffee people here on the East Coast, but at times I feel like we’re the backwater of specialty coffee.  Ok, maybe not a backwater.

One example–Atlas Coffee in Seattle generally hosts cuppings for most of  the Cup of Excellence competition lots prior to the auction.  Our East Coast importers generally host one or two of these events (thanks Royal NY!) every year, and of course, the events are in New York.

So crazy me has an idea–why don’t we host events in the Baltimore-Washington area?  There are quite a few microroasters around these parts, from what I’ve learned.   If DC can host a Coffee Fest regularly, surely we can put together some cuppings and buying groups for Cup of Excellence coffees.   I’m on it.

Call me Don, but it’s time to chase another windmill.  The Left Coast can’t have ALL the fun!

Flight of the Kenyans

Posted in coffee cupping, coffee roasting with tags , , , , on March 18, 2009 by Chad

Last night and tonight, I had the pleasure of cupping four recently arrived Kenya AA auction lot samples.   For some, cupping Kenyas can be difficult, as the intense brightness of many of the cups can become overwhelming.  A year’s worth of regular cupping has made it easier for me, but I’ve not yet built up enough palate stamina to handle more than four of these at a time.

Certainly I have not yet mastered enough of the Way of the SpoonTM to manage what some of the exporters do during auction season–some of them, such as C. Dorman, Ltd. cup up to 3,000 samples (Kenya and Tanzania lots) each week during the peak of auction season, as reported by Thompson Owen in his latest travel log.

As for this latest flight–the table was graced by an outstanding cup–a Gethumbwini estate AA, as well as two other excellent coffees–Eegads Estate AA and Tassia Estate AA.  The Gethumbwini Estate stood out as a cup that hit on all cylinders across the range of flavors.  Excellent brightness balanced by a creamy, full range body and sweet citrus and caramel notes.  Citrus notes included grapefruit and hints of orange, with both pulp fruit and zest notes.  Clean, rich finish with caramel or toffee hints.  Only regret is that I managed to just grab one bag–hopefully the next shipment from this importer cups as well.   As for 2nd place, the Tassia and Eegads both presented similar flavor profiles favoring more of the higher-end bright citrus and winey fruit notes, with all of the richness of the Gethumbwini.  I picked the Eegads–perhaps the name swayed the scoring, though I think the correct name should be Eegads! Estate.  More East Africa coffees to come–Malawi and Uganda samples hit the table Friday.  Hoping for a similar in quality to the morphing Mapanga AAA from past years, even though these are smaller screen beans.

Cupping at Fresh Off the Roast

Posted in coffee, coffee cupping, coffee roasting with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 14, 2009 by Chad

Friday, I had the chance to stop by Joel’s soon-to-be-opened coffee shop, Fresh Off the Roast, in the Petworth neighborhood of DC.  Joel has been roasting his coffee for local customers has had stands for his brewed coffee at farmers markets and Sundays at Summer Delights in Takoma Park.  He wanted me to stop by so that we could cup some Nicaraguan samples he received directly from the farm.  One of the samples passed muster, a “zero defects” mix of screen sizes.  The coffee had balanced body and acidity and a deep and rich flavor profile with fruit, chocolate and molasses.  It finished clean with rich dark chocolate and spice and sweetened as it cooled.

As we were finishing up the flight of Nicaraguan coffees, Samuel Demisse from Keffa Coffee arrived to deliver four bags of his Ethiopian coffee, including a washed Yirgacheffe Koke and a pulp natural, or semi-washed Harrar Ayinage.  Samuel was in perfect time for a flight of Ethiopian coffee samples from Ninety Plus.  As soon as the first beans hit the grinder, the room filled with berries and jasmine.  The fragrance jumped off these coffees, and they both cupped well.  Samuel and I preferred the Beloya lot, with Joel dissenting and preferring the Aricha.  Both were excellent Natural process Yirgacheffe coffees.

We briefly discussed the ongoing situation with the new law mandating commoditized blended regional grading of all coffee lots (except for farm owners and coops) at the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange.  The main result of the law will be that differentiated lots from mill/washing station owners like Abdellah Bagersh and Samuel’s cousin Solomon Worku will be blended into generic graded regional lots, thus losing their provenance.  There are many variables on the ground in Ethiopia now, and we reached no conclusions.  Samuel said that much of the coffees from the private mills and stations have been held locally and not sent to Addis Ababa for trading.  Mill owners and many farmers seem to be holding out to see if there will be any exceptions to the law.

I’ve got more thoughts on this situation I’m trying to cobble together, which I’ll share in another post.

Thank you for hosting, Joel, and well met, Samuel.

A Tale of Three Roasts – Part 2

Posted in coffee cupping, coffee roasting, home roasting with tags , , , , , on March 12, 2009 by Chad

As stated in Part 1

Inspired by a technique we reviewed at a Coffee Fest cupping course, Dave (aka BoldJava) and I have taken on the task of repeating the single coffee, three roast level cupping exercise.

At the start, I had three goals: 1) Improve roasting technique focusing on hitting three specific roast profiles on one bean, 2) learn more about this particular origin (an Ethiopia Natural Harrar), and 3) learn more about how roast levels and profiles affect the cup.

I covered the roasting process in the first post, this post will cover the cupping.  I cupped the three coffes together, using my standard cupping technique.

Cupping Ritual

Grind slightly more than 8 grams of coffee into a Duralex Picardie 5.5 oz. glass.

Dry Grounds in Tumbler

Smell the fragrance of the dry grounds.

Fill the cups with just off the boil water (208°F from my Zojirushi water heater)

Filling the cups

Smell the aroma of the cups after filling, and then break the crust that has formed on top of the cup, keeping your nose as close as possible to the cup to capture all of the aromas released (bonus points if you get grounds on your nose).

Breaking the Crust

After breaking the crust on all cups, then use one or two spoons to remove the grounds from the top of the cup.

Take a small amount of coffee  in the spoon, slurping the coffee (loud is good!) to get the coffee to aerate and coat all of the palate.  Evaluate the coffee for the following:

  1. Body/Mouthfeel
  2. Brightness/Acidity
  3. Flavor/Depth
  4. Aftertaste/Finish

Repeat the tasting several times as the cups cool  to get a sense of the attributes across the range of coffee temperatures.

When I score coffees, I use the following scoring:

  • Dry Fragrance – 5 points
  • Wet Aroma – 5 points
  • Body/Mouthfeel – 10 points
  • Brightness/Acidity – 10 points
  • Flavor/Depth – 10 points
  • Aftertaste/Finish – 10 points

I add fifty to the total score to get a final score out of 100.

Results – Ethiopia Bagersh Harrar

City+ Roast

I liked this roast the best of the three–it had the most fruit coming out of the cup.  It had berries and other wild fruit in the fragrance, along with spice.  The wet grounds continued with berry, spice and a hint of graham.  Overall the cup was balanced with medium body and brightness, and flavor hinting of fruit, spice and graham.  Clean finish with a touch of honey.

Full City Roast

I could taste more of the flavors resulting from the deeper roasts–some of the dry distallate products.  Fruit was still present, but a bit muted.  Spice and dark fruit in the dry grounds; wet grounds hinted of vanilla, molasses, spice and a touch of chocolate.  Medium, creamy body along with less brightness (as expected with a darker roast).  Flavor hung more on a bittersweet and dark chocolate, with spice and some dark fruit.  Finish was clean with spice and dark chocolate.

Full City Roast

Roast flavors dominate this cup, with very little fruited notes remaining.  Dry fragrance mostly chocolate and spice, with a bare hint of berries.  Wet grounds had toffee, cedar, and an ever so slight berry note.   Brighness dropped down, but the body was off from the Full City roast, a bit thinner and not as creamy.  Simple flavor profile dominated by the roast taste, dark chocolate and spice.  Clean finish, though less lingering,  with slight dark chocolate note.  This was my least favorite of the roast levels.


I didn’t get too surprised with this one–nothing jumped out across the roasts.  Part of the problem may be that this coffee is starting to show its age–it’s from the early part of last year’s crop.  Flavor overall is muted–I’d score this at least a point or so off from when it arrived here.

Good training exercise–will try to repeat it regularly, especially with newly arrived coffees.

Roaster space upgrade – visual version

Posted in coffee roasting, home roasting with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2009 by Chad

I posted a few days ago about upgrading and revamping my roaster space.   I managed to snap a few shots last night after coming home with a truck full of coffee.

Roaster, Datalogger, Computer

Notice the seismically rated electrical conduit.  I also got the tables arranged so that I could fit a decent computer (i.e., not one running Windows 98) in the space.  The not-quite-as-ancient laptop brings wireless for internet and filesharing, and it can manage to keep up the temperature display from the datalogger without as much lag.  The connection with the network shared files eliminates my whateverittakes (TM) file transfer system from the old computer.  The whateverittakes (TM) systems uses as a file transfer medium the only storage device I could get to work with this antiquated laptop–my old digital camera.

Here’s a broader view of the new setup, looking to the back of the garage–you can see both new circuits (the kill-a-watt is on the left outlet).  Plenty of space and plenty of power.

Roaster space, wider angle

No photo op of a home roaster space would be complete without the obligatory stash shot.

The stash

Green Coffee Pickup

One of the perks of my new vehicle is that its large enough to haul a full pallet of coffee from freight terminals, which saves residential delivery and lift gate fees and additional mileage costs.  The only downside is additional bag wrestling, but I was thinking–this would be a great training exercise for folks planning to enter strongman competitions.  Heavy, bulky, with shifting weight as the beans move.  Of course, it’s a bit more expensive than a large sandbag…

Here’s a view of my latest order waiting patiently to be unloaded, 8 bags total, including Ethiopia Natural Yirgacheffe, Yemen Hufashi, Peru FTO, Mexico Coatepec, and Guatemala Decaf.  The smell of fresh green coffee permeated the truck on the way home.

Coffee via Expedition

Most of this coffee will be headed off to fellow home roasters over the next few days, so I’ll be busy bagging, boxing and shipping, roasting all the while.  What a great way to live.  Happy roasting, everyone!

A Tale of Three Roasts – Part 1

Posted in coffee roasting, home roasting with tags , , , , , , , on March 7, 2009 by Chad

Inspired by a technique we reviewed at a Coffee Fest cupping course, Dave (aka BoldJava) and I have taken on the task of repeating the single coffee, three roast level cupping exercise.

At the start, I had three goals: 1) Improve roasting technique focusing on hitting three specific roast profiles on one bean, 2) learn more about this particular origin (an Ethiopia Natural Harrar), and 3) learn more about how roast levels and profiles affect the cup.

Before I talk about the roasts, ask yourself one question:  Which roasts level will require more roast time–lighter or darker?

I targeted three roast levels for the exercise

City+:  First crack is completely finished, further progress with additional temperature increase and bean caramelization.

Full City: Roast has progressed and is on the verge of second crack, smoke odor begins to shift.

Full City+: Second crack has begun, but is not rolling–usually about 10-20 seconds after the first 2nd crack snaps.

City+ Roast


As you can see from the chart, I cut power about thirty seconds after the drying phase (from drop to 300°F) ended to slow the roast and set up a slow first crack.  I wanted to get the ramp rate below 15°F/minute just before the start of first crack.  I further cut power to 50% when the beans reached 365°F.  That power level allowed for a nice, controlled path through 1st crack and a controlled roast for just under four minutes past the start of 1st crack.  Total roast time was 16:30; 1st crack began at 12:40.

Full City Roast


The setup for this roast was to keep the roast moving between 300°F and 1st crack, but to allow a higher ramp rate at the start of 1st crack.  I cut power to 80% just over two and a half minutes after drying was complete.  I dropped power to 60% when the beans reached 365°F, and then to 50% when the beans reached 375°F.  Finished off the roast by raising power, with roast completed at 16:00, about 4:30 after the start of 1st crack.

Full City+ Roast


This roast followed a similar path as the Full City roast, except that I kept power at 60% throughout 1st crack.  The roast had more momentum coming out of first, and I dropped power to 40% just under a minute before pulling the beans.  Second crack happed at 15:10, and the roast finished at 15:30, four minutes after the start of first crack.

I’ll be cupping these for the first time tomorrow at 2 days rest, with an additional cupping at 4 days, after which I’ll post my notes and concluding thoughts of the exercise.

So, what was your answer to the roast time question?
Were you surprised by my results?

Roaster space upgrade

Posted in coffee roasting, home roasting on March 7, 2009 by Chad

Today we installed two dedicated 120V 20A circuits in the roasting room (aka my half of the garage).  My dad was a journeyman electrician many moons ago, and still maintains proficiency helping out family.  His version of a garage circuit installation will probably outlast my house.

We toyed with the idea of putting a 220V circuit, but decided against it–the next roaster upgrade will be to a propane or natural gas fired model.  We moved everything around to put in the wiring, which of course means I can rethink the arrangment.  I should also do another stash inventory.

On a purely coffee note–last night’s cupping found one winner–an organic Tanzania lot–very clean with hints of tangerine and chocolate along with other tree fruits, citrus brightness, and smooth well-rounded body.  An extremely well balanced cup that remains that way as it cools.  I’ll bring some bags down at the end of the month–looking forward to coaxing more chocolate out of this to match with the tangerine notes.

Breaking the Crust

Posted in coffee roasting, home roasting with tags , , , , on March 4, 2009 by Chad

There’s a whole lot of this going on ’round these parts.

Breaking the Crust

I’ve cupped a dozen samples in the past week (most of them at least twice)–got a few more to repeat, and four resting for a Friday cupping.  I’ll post more thoughts and my cupping procedure shortly.  One quick missive from the soapbox for you fellow home roasters –cup your roasts!  Cupping is an essential skill to improve your roasting.   Being able to tie the cup back to your roasts, in a repeatable manner, will increase the slope of your learning curve exponentially.  Don’t shy away from this–cupping is not about talent–it’s a learned skill, just like roasting.  So break out those spoons and cupping forms, it’s time to test your roast!