Coffee and culture: The art of coffee cupping

It wasn’t until recently that I came across coffee cupping. I think I had heard of it before but didn’t take much notice. I think because I had just assumed that coffee cupping was some snobby way of sounding exclusive about the ware you chose to drink your coffee in. How wrong I was. One day I had just returned from a visit at the osteopath. This particular osteopath had scarred me so badly with the cups she used during her procedure that I became increasingly intrigued by the process as the day went on. By the end of the day I had asked every individual I had come across whether they had heard of cupping. While most people looked at me with puzzled eyes, one bright spark said ‘you mean coffee cupping?’ At that point I knew that my assumptions about the coffee snobs I had heard talking about it in the past could quite possibly have been misguided. Indeed they were.

Coffee cupping is actually a national sport in some parts of the world. Believe it or not. In fact in areas where Kona coffee is grown it is a most prestigious pastime. Coffee farmers take it very seriously and the prize winners are heard about throughout the region. So…what is it? What does it actually mean and what odes it have to do with cups? How can coffee cups stir national interest? The short answer – they can’t! Coffee cupping has absolutely nothing to do with crockery.

With the myriad of coffee beans we now have available to us, choosing the right bean nonetheless the right blend can be a major headache for many of us who many not necessarily know what we are tasting. Some of us seem to waltz into what we assume to be reputable coffee establishments, asking for their best cup. We think we are receiving some of the finest grown coffee beans roasted at the optimum levels to produce a boutique, nay bespoke, cup of coffee. Yet what do we really know about where the beans came from and how they were roasted?

Coffee cupping competitions and events endeavour to regulate the seeming flood of entrants into the world of coffee and coffee roasters. When almost any café own can cal themselves a roaster these days ,with a little equipment, some money and a lot of imagination behind them, how is the layperson to really know the difference?

Coffee cupping involves, knowledge, technique and skill. Coffee cuppers are proud and passionate participants who take their coffee very seriously. They have studied everything there is to know about the golden bean, from the way it is grown, harvested, packed, sold, bought, ripened and roasted. Yet still, I see your confusion as you pose the question ‘yes, but what does it mean???’

Well, we have clarified that coffee cupping has absolutely nothing to do with crockery or fancy coffee cups. Nor does it have anything to do with pouring coffee into cups similar to the way waiters in American diners do.

We also know that if a tow nor city has a coffee cupping event happening in it, then it must be quite a cultural hub as far as cultural hubs go. We know that coffee cupping is also considered a sport in some parts. So let’s get down to the technicalities of the thing and find out what in the hell coffee cupping involves.

Coffee cupping is actually synonymous with coffee tasting. Yep, there it is. After all that confusion and guess work and fancy word play, coffee cupping is simply coffee tasting. So why the song and dance and sporting activities around something that you and I could do? Well, firstly it is fancy and secondly we couldn’t do it- we are simply not qualified to taste coffee with the likes of the top coffee tasters of the world.

There are some people whose world revolves around the next glass of fine wine they can place on their palates. They walk into a restaurant and straight away you just know –they’re wine people and proud of it! Their attitude, panache and posture are all dead giveaways. To argue with them about which bottle to choose for the meal would be suicidal, really. Why would you even think about it? When it comes to coffee cuppers, think wine people dressed slightly more casually and a little hipster-looking. Just as you would not dream of arguing with a wine person about their choice of wines, so to you would not think to question a coffee cuppers choice of tastes.

Coffee cuppers, or coffee tasters are artists in their own right. They are coffee bean professionals, with trained palates whose job it is to determine the body, flavour, acidity, sweetness, aftertaste and possibly region of the coffee bean they are tasting! That shouldn’t be too difficult a task now!

There is even specific coffee cupping paraphernalia. The most well known item that every coffee cupper must have is a coffee cupping spoon. This specially designed spoon, often from pure silver, has been carefully crafted to measure out exactly 7grams of coffee to be tasted. Other items include stools, specially measured cups, laying trays and tags so that each type of coffee can be distinguished.

Next time you are in a coffee shop or café and happen to notice that their coffee flavour is out of the ordinary or somewhat special, consider the coffee cupper who chose it for you!

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