Author's note: In early June, I attended the coffee harvest in Pedregulho, Brazil, with leading specialty coffee producer Octavio Café and Dallis Coffee, the highly respected New York coffee roaster Octavio recently acquired. Down at Octavio's Nossa Senhora Aparecida farm, I leaned how coffee goes from the plant to your French press—as millions of coffee trees are picked, sifted, seeded, dried, roasted, and brewed into the coffee that wakes you up every morning. Here's Phase 5: the coffee itself. —CJ
When we last saw our coffee, it'd been picked and sorted, pitted and dried, rested and roasted. Now? It's time to make a cup of coffee. For that, we'll take you back down to Brazil. For maximum enjoyment, we'd leave you to the eminently capable hands pictured above: those of award-winning barista Silvia Magalhães at Octavio's São Paulo Cafe
But first? We're doing a cupping.
A cupping is the coffee equivalent of a wine tasting: a deliberate, focused examination of the fragrance, flavor, body, and finish of a given brew of coffee. (And yes, you get to spit, too.) Ours was hosted by Luciano, pictured above, the director of Octavio's coffee lab. He's the set of taste buds that every microlot of Octavio coffee has to get by. If you walk through the storehouse of coffee sacks, you'll notice that many have what look like stab wounds—that's where Luciano has taken a sample from that bag, roasted it up, and cupped it to make sure he can't detect any defect notes. Anything seem off? That bag won't be sold as Octavio speciality coffee.
First, Luciano grinds each sample of coffee to a precise ground size. If there's one key to good coffee, other than buying good beans, it's probably this: grind your coffee right before using it. By any means possible. Once you grind your coffee, you're exposing surface area and setting free all those lovely aromatics that give coffee its character and complexity. But the minute you break down the cell structure, they're gone—some people say within hours. ("If I walk into a coffee shop and I don't see a grinder," says John Moore, "I won't buy that coffee."
We cupped samples of all the coffees we'd seen that day—including a yellow Bourbon, both natural (dried with fruit and skin on) and pulped natural (dried with the skin and most of the fruit stripped off) and a Mundo Novo, along with a few others thrown in for contrast. Cuppings start off with a good, strong whiff of the dry ground coffee.
The cups are then filled with water, and it's time for another deep smell—picking up the nuances of the fragrance that come through with the steam.
After it's brewed for about four minutes, gently break the coffee crust that's formed with a spoon—getting your nose in there to get the smell that comes up from within. (Bonus points for coffee on the nose. John Moore calls it a rite of passage.) After that? Clear the crust, and take a sip from the spoon, aerating the coffee as much as possible on the way in. (Professionals make one hell of a slurp.) Pay attention to the flavor, the mouthfeel, and the finish. And congrats! You're done with the cupping.
John Moore and champion barista Bruno Ferreira da Silva can discern all sorts of complexity in a sip—discussing the precise length of finish, debating the citric-to-malic acid balances of the natural and pulped natural Bourbons. All seem a bit much? Here's a flavor wheel, detailing just some of the notes that might be found in a sip of coffee—the good, the strong, and the defects. The complexity is endless.
The last step? Enjoy. The best coffee, of course, is the one you want to be drinking—whether that's bus station coffee at 5:00 AM or a few minutes spent with the beautiful drink above.
But we hope that this look at the coffee process will get you thinking a bit more about whatever cup you're drinking. Only a few decades ago, in the American perception, coffee was standard-issue strong black drip—a commodity crop whose origins no one would wonder about. After a look at the coffee farms, though, it's clear that every variation in the soil and weather, every degree of roast temperature, every stray bean, and every turn of the barista's hand dramatically impacts the coffee you drink. Coffee is every bit as tied to the land and the grower as wine is—and there's every bit as much story in each cup.
It may be one of life's simple pleasures. But it's anything but simple.
Want more? We'll be back next week with a look at Octavio's state-of-the-art São Paulo Cafe—and the craziest espresso drink we've ever seen.