News & Politics

Coffee Obsessives

On a visit to a local Counter Culture Coffee training center, our author finds out that there's a lot more to a cup of coffee than the amount of caffeine.

On a Friday in February, even before it begins to snow, Washington takes a snow day. Extending their lazy mornings or knocking off work early, a small crowd of twentysomethings gathers at Counter Culture Coffee’s local training center housed in an Adams Morgan loft. Inside the spare, modish space, espresso machines, burr mills, and ceramic filter cones compete for space on the countertops. This is more laboratory than coffeehouse.

Counter Culture, a specialty roaster based in Durham, North Carolina, isn’t selling anything at the center. Instead, it’s a training site for the owners and baristas of the half-dozen Washington coffeeshops that source and brew Counter Culture beans. No barista, no matter how many years they’ve worked the bar, gets to pull shots of Counter Culture espresso for customers before they’ve gone back to school here. On Fridays, though, Counter Culture’s workspace becomes a house of worship for the city’s over-caffeinated denizens, from the unemployed hipsters to the well-heeled intelligentsia. And at this Mass, in place of communion, there’s a coffee tasting—an hourlong “cupping,” free and open to the public.

“We’re learning to develop our palates together,” says Alex Brown, Counter Culture’s Washington rep. (When a coffeeshop’s bean order goes astray, espresso machine blows a pressure pump, or grinder seizes up, Brown is the guy who shows up on the doorstep at any odd hour.) Weekly, he plays coffee sommelier for the uninitiated. In a teal, retro bowling shirt and cowboy boots, with a curly mop of brown hair, he looks like the bassist of band still hoping to make it.

“We’re cupping three coffees from three distinct regions,” says Brown, as he arranges a row of highball glasses on the counter. In each, there are a dozen grams of just-ground coffee. As carafes of water heat up, he passes out worksheets and pens.

“The first step in cupping is fragrance. Fragrance is the coffee’s dry smell. This is like the handshake, getting to know the coffee, saying, ‘Hey, how ya’ doin’?’ ” He picks up a glass, knocks it against the counter. “Give it a little bump, stick your nose in there, and smell.”
Cuppings are typically hushed affairs, with a pretension otherwise reserved for wine tastings. They’re always done blind. The only sound is of clinking glasses, deep inhalations, and the furious scribble of pens on paper. Today, though, the giddiness of the snow day is pervasive, and the cupping has all the solemnity of a cattle auction.

“Call it out! What do you smell?” Coffee One draws a quick response: “Olives,” “grass berries,” “salted peanuts,” and “honey.” Coffee Two earns “chocolatey” and “meaty like a prosciutto.” Brown picks up the third offering. “Smell the earth in that? The spices? What else?” A young, well-put-together blonde, sporting a bob, hesitates. “Hemp,” she says.

“Now, when you say ‘hemp,’ do you mean ‘weed’?” She allows that she does. Brown laughs. “It’s okay to say that. There are no wrong answers.” Everyone goes back to the coffees for a second smell. Nuances begin come out. “Sweet, baked lime,” says one man. “Homemade bread crust.” Tofu, black pepper, and cherry wood make appearances. In Coffee Three, more of the same-forest floor and “jungly.”

Brown pours hot water, 30 seconds off the boil, into the glasses. “Aroma is different than fragrance; it’s the coffee’s wet smell. It’s what you used to wake up to on Saturday mornings as a kid.”

And the smell does change. In the lowest notes of the coffees emerges a dark warmth, like baked chocolate and crystallized raw sugar. There’s a bite that comes through, too, like red pepper. “Shower skin,” offers one woman. “You know—your skin when it’s wet and clean.”

As the group waits for the grounds to brew, Brown tells of a recent coffee-buying trip to Nicaragua. “Cupping down there is a very different experience. All the farmers and buyers are crammed into one room, with 13 samples on the table, and you can’t say anything out loud because someone’s feelings will get hurt.”

Four minutes later, some of the coffee grounds have settled to the bottom of the glass, but most are trapped in a tight matrix of gas bubbles and oils, forming a thick crust just below the rim. “You’re going to take your spoon and break the crust. And what you’ll smell is those tiny bubbles popping. It all comes out at once—a quick, clear picture of what the coffee’s going to look like.”

Like a movie preview, a coffee’s break is its best bits condensed into one tour de force. And at any cupping, the “break” is what separates the professionals from the mere aficionados. It requires deft technique. The line between capturing the full range of smell and inhaling scalding grounds is a fine one. Even so, the delicate act of breaking the crust with a spoon is as satisfying as if it were crème brûlée. Out comes a waft of something sweet and complex: French toast and maple syrup, oranges, toasted nuts, and coriander.
The young blonde, Kristen, who admits that, as a consultant, she’s more interested in the sustainable development potential of coffee than its taste profile, says, “I know I have a palate, I just can’t understand what it’s saying to me.” The room is quick to agree.

While Marianne Tolosa, director of coffee at the new Liberty Tavern spinoff Northside Social in Clarendon, and sporting a V-neck apron, uses two spoons and practiced hands to skim the broken crust off the coffees—it’s the kind of geeky party trick that baristas post on YouTube—Brown offers a short lecture on each of the three coffees.

Coffee One is Salvadoran. From nine different coffee varietals, workers pick out just the “peaberries” for a Grand Reserve blend. (A coffee cherry typically produces two, half-watermelon-shaped seeds; on occasion, it produces just one dense, fully-rounded peaberry.) “The theory on peaberries is that all the flavor from the fruit gets channeled into just one seed, instead of two,” creating a rare, intense taste. “No one’s ever proved that,” he muses. “But everyone believes it.” He passes around a handful of peaberries, and soon they’re rolling underfoot on the floor.

Coffee Two is from Burundi, located near the birthplace of coffee itself, Ethiopia. It’s grown on a farm close to 2,000 meters up. At that altitude, the cherry is slow to mature, infusing the beans with a complex mix of fruit and tea-like flavors. The war-torn country has only begun to export beans in the last few years, but the first lots have proved uncommonly good.

Coffee Three is Sumatran, from a farm on the northern tip of the island nation. “You can taste the green pepper, the forest, the spices. You can taste the earthiness. But there’s good earth and bad earth. Bad is like dirt, like the road, like mud.” He assures the group this is good earth.

Tolosa passes out don’t-dribble-on-your-nice-shirt spit cups. It’s time to actually taste the unfiltered “coffee liquor.” Brown explains that most of our ability to taste comes from the olfactory bulb in our nasal cavity. “You taste coffee like you’re slurping soup from a spoon as loudly as possible. The more air you force into the process, the more you’ll taste.” He demonstrates a practiced, violent slurp.
As advertised, it’s loud.

“You’re tasting for three things,” he reminds the group as they set to work slurping and jotting notes. “Brightness, body, and aftertaste.”

Brightness is acidity in disguise. Brown knows that any talk of acidity conjures up images of stomach ulcers and reflux. Brightness is a happier word. In coffee, it’s the top note, the fruity bite, the first thing that hits your palate.

“To describe a coffee’s brightness, think of citrus,” he instructs the group. “Is it as bright as a lemon? As an orange? Or as subtle as an apple?”

The second element of tasting, body, is typically linked to brightness. Body is tactile—it’s a coffee’s mouthfeel and viscosity. “Think of types of motor oil. Is it scummy, oily, silky, grainy, watery, heavy? Or, milk: Is it skim, two-percent, or whole?” Conventional wisdom holds that as you roast in brightness, you roast out body. Coffee One is interesting, Brown says, because it retains a heavy body and strong brightness.

What follows is a boisterous discussion of what bodied coffee is best at which time in the day. For mornings, the group is divided: Half want a thin-bodied, bright coffee—something that kicks them in the face with acidity first thing after rolling out of bed. The other half argues in defense of heavy-bodied, viscous coffee—closer to high-test jet fuel.

Brown steers the group to aftertaste. “Does it linger, or disappear quickly?” Coffee One’s aftertaste is short-lived. Two’s, someone offers, “is like 3 AM badness.” It’s an apt description. “That’s because caffeine and nicotine are both alkaloids,” says Brown. “That’s the bitterness you’re getting. A lingering burnt, smoky taste.” And Three’s? It’s still holding your tongue’s attention five minutes later. He points out that, in ordering the coffees on the counter, he put the one with longest aftertaste last, so as not to interfere with the next cup.

Outside, it begins to sleet sideways. Any excuse not to leave is a good one. Brown and Tolosa hold forth on the intersection of coffee and culture. They trade remembrances of exceptionally good and bad cups of coffee. The group lingers and listens, as if having slipped back stage after a show at the Blue Note to hear a jazz quartet talk improvisation. And, maybe for the same reason we get lost in jazz without being able to describe modal theory, we drink coffee even when we can’t give name to all the things crossing our palates. Shower skin and forest floor may be enough.

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