Taste Coffee with the Pros at MadCap in Grand Rapids, MI


[Photos: Liz Clayton]

Grand Rapids, Michigan, may not be at the top of your brain along with Portland, Seattle, or Melbourne for great coffee...but clear aside some room and let it dwell there alongside the greats. Local roasters MadCap have built national acclaim by sourcing excellent coffees and presenting them to their smaller-city audience and international competition stages alike. Their 2011 Los Lobos coffee from Costa Rica won a Good Food Award, and barista-owner and barista Trevor Corlett and Ryan Knapp have made it to some of the highest ranks of the competition stage. But more importantly—to them and to you—is their goal to change how everyday people think about their coffee.

We visited their first ever seated Sunday coffee tasting, a new format offered for limited hours once a week during which patrons are seated restaurant-style, and offered a specific selection of seasonal coffees from the day's menu, where they are actively encouraged to talk, taste, and learn. (The idea recalls Square Mile Coffee Roasters' espresso-free Penny University pop-up in London of 2010, which led guests through a patiently curated tasting experience.) Served in both horizontal and vertical style flights—three coffees one way, or one coffee three ways—even the novice palate won't help but make note of where the coffees compare and diverge.

African coffees took the stage at this particular tasting, which featured the Ethiopia Kochere, Ethiopia Ardi, and the Kenya Karatina single-origin coffees all roasted by MadCap. We selected a three-way flight of Kenya Karatina, roasted for espresso and brewed as espresso and macchiato, and a V60 pourover cone, roasted for filter brewing.

The guided exploration serves enough for two, and necessarily stimulates a conversation about taste—the kind coffee experts wish were happening at home all the time.

"Obviously the idea is getting people to taste coffees somewhat in the way we are," says Corlett of the Sunday structure. "Even across three ways of preparation, there's going to be a common thread throughout. In a flight setting it's unavoidable to become aware of the similarities and differences."

082411-167207-coffee-tasting-madcap-1.jpgThe coffees—which arrive all at once, not for the faint of heart —are paired with local seasonal foods to cleanse the palate, as well as complement the coffees. (A somewhat overfluffy housebaked scone is, it turns out, perfect for resting one's palate between sips.) With a mind on the lifespan of each drink, we turned first to the espresso shot—very sweet and bright but full of puckery tart blackberry flavors. Next was the macchiato, so ultralush you'd mistake it for a cappuccino if it wasn't gone in half the time. The darker, deeper tones of the rich fruit in this Kenyan stood out in this much more sweetness-forward preparation. Finally, a smooth cup of pourover-brew of the same concoction yielded a new dimension of juice, with the same tart finish, a little creamy overtone and a little bit of green grape.

And beyond the opportunity to taste so many variations of a coffee, or a region, all at once, is the less common opportunity to open a greater dialogue about what one is tasting. The tablecloth atmosphere helps you take it more seriously, too—no one's taking their laptop out today.

"In a busy cafe setting, you can't actually have in-depth conversations, but I've had the chance to sit down with people today and talk about process, regions, seasonality, and how that effects the way a coffee tastes the way it does," said Knapp.

Once the door to tastings like this is opened in people's minds, the room to grow one's coffee palate can flourish. And though Grand Rapids may not be on your flight path, tasting and comparing—as formally or informally as you like—can happen anytime, anywhere, and can open a rabbit hole of coffee curiosity, and appreciation of all the complexities that lie within the increasingly better coffees we have access to no matter where we live.