Sniff. Slurp. Spit. Repeat. Coffee Cupping at Counter Culture DC

March 1, 2008

Until recently, my formal beverage tasting experience has been singularly focused on beer. I’ve judged beer in competitions from South Africa to Virgina and held countless semi-formal tastings with friends and family. But, although I roast my own coffee beans at home, I’m a newbie when it comes to professional coffee cupping.


My first official cupping was just last month when I visited the Asorcafe coffee lab (above) in the small town of Pedregi, in the Cauca region of Colombia. The lab technicians were experts, as were my companions from Peace Coffee and Higher Grounds, so I had good coaching that helped prevent me from dribbling coffee down my chin. I did, however, begin the cupping while wearing a cowboy hat which Jody from Higher Grounds suggested I remove so as to avoid knocking over glasses as I bowed my nose to the grounds.

This morning I attended a free cupping at Counter Culture’s lab in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (For background on Counter Culture’s “direct trade” business model, read my online conversation with Kim and Peter from Counter Culture and my other recent post about the chat I had with folks from Intelligentsia, the company that trademarked the term Direct Trade.)

Here’s a primer on the tasting procedure and a report on the three coffees we cupped this morning.

The Cupping Ritual
Our host, Ryan Jensen, Customer Relations, prepared by lining up a set of about ten 8 oz. glasses for each of the three coffees. He scooped about a tablespoon of grounds (13 grams to be exact) into each glass. It’s important to cup several glasses of each coffee in order to avoid mischaracterizing a whole batch based on just one cup. A single glass can exhibit a defect from one bad bean but the rest of the batch might be flawless. Once the glasses were filled with grounds, we were armed with pens, clipboards and cupping forms. Silence and furrowed brows indicated that the ritual was about to begin.

1. Moving from glass to glass, we sniffed and noted the fragrance of the grounds.

2. Then Ryan poured 8 oz. of hot water into each glass. Going glass to glass again, we smelled the aroma of the steeping coffee.

3. We were given small paper cups and large spoons with deep basins. We used our spoons to once again move down the line of glasses and “break” the layer of grounds floating on top of the coffee, noting the fresh burst of aromas released by this technique. The grounds were then removed from the glasses.

4. For the final gauntlet of grounds, we dipped our spoons into the glasses and raised the samples to our bowed heads. Using our lips, we slurped across our tongues, aerating and roiling the coffee throughout the mouth, saturating every taste receptor from front to back, top to bottom, and side to side. After each swish, a few of the cuppers opted to avoid ingesting too much coffee by spitting the samples into their cups. Most, including me, chose to go whole hog and swallow every ounce.

In this last step we actually tasted the coffee, noting brightness, flavor, body, and aftertaste. In beer tasting terminology, brightness is similar to crispness. A bright coffee is snappy and clean like a pilsener, whereas a less bright coffee is mellow and smooth like an ale. (I’m generalizing here, don’t take this beer comparison too far because the exceptions will just make it confusing.)

Flavor wheelFlavor is what you taste. Anything goes – the point is just to recognize all the flavors you can identify. Flavor can be intense or subtle, direct or nuanced, complex or one-dimensional. I relied on one of the handy tasting wheels Ryan had distributed in order to help connect what my taste buds were experiencing with what my food-memory has stored in the recesses of my mind. Body can be full or thin. Going back to beer, Bud Light is thin-bodied and watery, while imperial stouts, barleywines, and double IPAs are rich and robust. Aftertaste is how any flavor lingers on the palate or cuts short and clean.

Here is a summary of my tasting notes.

Coffee #1: Peruvian from Valle del Santuario, Ignacio
Representative of its region, this certified organic, shade grown coffee is an everyday cup, the equivalent of what beer drinkers call a session beer such as an English bitter or American amber. Milk chocolate and brownies dominated the fragrance. Sweet, roasted peanuts appeared in the aroma. The break released leather and malt. As a routine morning cup, the brightness was light and mellow, with an earthy flavor, mild body and little to no aftertaste.

In one word: quaffable.

Kenya GatuririCoffee #2: Kenyan from the Gaturiri and Nyeri regions (auction lot #4486)
After the cupping, the participants unanimously requested this one to be brewed as our cup to savor during the post-cupping discussion. Because of the Kenyan national coffee system, direct, fair trade coffee buying relationships are nearly impossible. So, although this coffee’s region of origin is known, its exact farmers are anonymous. Furthermore, it is neither organic nor shade grown. Damp earth and dark berries and fruits in the nose made way for roasted nuts at the break, followed by a bright, tangy grapefruit, tangerine, spicey cinnamon flavor. While it was perhaps the most rewarding cup of the three, the medium body was just shy of the strength needed to counter balance the punch of citric acid that lingered in the finish.

In one word: conversational.

Coffee #3: Sumatran from Gayo, Aceh
Certified organic and shade grown, earth and smoke came to the fore throughout this complex cup from the damp forest lands of Sumatra. The nose was rough, like roasted chestnuts, pungent and acrid, with a full-bodied musty, tobacco-like flavor and lingering hide-like aftertaste.

In one word: comforting.

Proof that Beer and Coffee Are the Best Companions
After the tasting, I thought it was only fair to let Ryan know that the reason I attended was that I am an author and I’m conducting research for my next book. He replied that he had just started reading Fermenting Revolution two days ago. I’m hoping to make the Counter Culture lab a place for repeat visits in the coming months of research. I’ll have to treat Ryan to a beer sometime as thanks for his free educational cuppings.


Big Boss (Fair Trade) Coffee Stout

February 2, 2008

Posted by Chris O’Brien

Some of you know that before starting the Bean Activist, I cut my teeth (so to speak) on beverages as the Beer Activist – oh, the difference two little letters can make! But why choose coffee over beer or beer over coffee? Why not pour one over the other? Check out this near little video about this Coffee Stout produced by combining cold-pressed fair trade coffee from Larry’s Beans and a stout brewed at Big Boss Brewing, both in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The world gets a little better every day.

How to Find Independent Coffee Shops: “Delocate”

November 10, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

When I travel, my mission is to visit every brewpub within striking distance. For coffee though, I always make do with whatever coffee is provided in the hotel room. It is never very good and it is never organic, fair trade or from a small business. But hey, it’s free.

DelocatorNow it’s getting easier to find local, independent coffee shops though, so I might have to start venturing out of the hotel room early enough to sample some black gold from a local cafe or roaster before my business meetings get started.

Here’s how you do it: just visit the Delocator. Enter in the zip code of the area where you want to find a local cafe and it spits out a user-generated list with addresses, phone numbers and web links to all the independent cafes in the neighborhood.

Here’s the purpose of the tool, according to the Delocator website:

Corporate industries invading American neighborhoods, from coffee chains to bookstore chains, music chains and movie theatre chains, pose a threat to the authenticity of our unique neighborhoods. Although there is room on the map for shared territories – both the homogenous corporate enterprise and the independent ventures across the nation, our independent, community-operated businesses deserve your dime.

And it’s true. They do deserve your dime because on average they return that dime to the neighborhood at much higher rates than do corporate chains. I wrote an article about this for American Brewer magazine, right here.

So get out of the house (or hotel room) a little more often and support your locally-owned coffee shop. And don’t forget to ask them for organic, fair trade coffee.

Beer and Coffee

November 2, 2007

Posted by Chris O’Brien

(This first appeared in the Oct-Nov 2007 issue of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.)

For millions of people, a glass good beer brings the day to a close and a mug of good coffee gets it going again the next morning. Beer is America’s alcoholic beverage of choice, outselling both wine and spirits. Coffee is our most popular non-alcoholic elixir, although cola is giving it a run for its money.

Beer and coffee have a lot in common. Grain is fermented to make beer and many coffees (though not all) include a fermentation stage that removes the slippery “mucilage” from around the bean before it is dried. Both beer and coffee played pivotal roles in massive social transformations – beer was closely linked with the development of settled agriculture and the ancient urban centers that emerged from it. Likewise, researchers such as Stewart Lee Allen, author of The Devil’s Cup, attribute the revolutionary creativity of the Renaissance era to the caffeine-inspired minds of its great “renaissance men” like Voltaire and Newton who drank coffee as it spread across Europe for the first time.

The two drinks have alternately been exalted and rebuked. Beer has been celebrated since ancient times for its tonic and healthful effects. Civilizations from Sumer to Peru praised special goddesses and gods of beer and fermentation. Coffee has also had its worshippers, such as the Arab Sufi monks who drank it to stay awake for late-night prayers. But both eventually had their detractors as well.

According to Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast, The Womens Petition Against Coffee complained in 1674 that: “We find of late a very sensible Decay of that Old English Vigor . . . Never did Men wear greater Breeches, or carry less in them of any Mettle whatsoever.” All this was due to “the Excessive use of that Newfangled, Abominable, Heathenish Liquor called Coffee, which . . . has so Eunucht our Husbands, and Crippled our more kind gallants . . . They come from it with nothing moist but their snotty Noses, nothing stiffe but their Joints, nor standing but their ears.”

And one must look no further than the national Prohibition against alcohol that was enforced in this land from 1920-1933 to find the most extreme example of anti-beer sentiments. In a different twist, there were also those who disparaged coffee in favor of beer, as Frederick the Great did in 1777 when he declared: “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the like amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. My people must drink beer.”

Green beansA Different Kind of Microbrew
Up until around the turn of the 19th century, beer was brewed by thousands of small breweries and coffee was roasted by small roaster-retailers across the country. But after Prohibition, beer went through a “dark ages” of roughly fifty years as the large brewers consolidated into ever larger companies, destroying “beerodiversity” along the way. By the late 1970s, a handful of breweries controlled the market and produced a single mono-crop of beer called “industrial light lager.” Coffee experienced a similarly profound industrial period when Americans were convinced to swallow instant coffee crystals pushed on them by mega-corporations that had devised it as a cheap transportable version of coffee for the soldiers away at the war in Europe.

In both cases, it took about fifty years to recover from this industrial onslaught. But today, full-flavored beer and gourmet coffee are enjoying unprecedented revivals – craft and artisanal production have returned. In a mere 25 years, America has embraced a new generation of well over one thousand small, town breweries – so many that the majority of us now live within ten miles of one. Microroasters, i.e. producers of “specialty” coffee, are that industry’s equivalent of microbrewers. The Specialty Coffee Association reports that in 2006, there were nearly two thousand specialty roasters retailing their coffee in the U.S., and that 75% of that coffee is “home-brewed.”

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together
With all this in common, it is no surprise that people are experimentally combining beer and coffee to create some truly unusual brews. Starbucks and Redhook teamed up a while back to produce Double Black Stout, a beer containing 30 milligrams of caffeine per 22 ounce bottle – that’s a little less than the average shot of espresso. The Nestle Corporation patented something they called “coffee beer,” a beverage fermented from coffee beans that foams like beer and tastes like coffee, but has no alcohol. Thumbing through an old beer magazine, I even discovered instructions for how to brew beer using a coffee pot!

Roasting green beansA couple years ago, Anheuser-Busch introduced “B to the E,” their attempt at a caffeine-infused beer which also contained ginseng and Brazilian guarana berries. They later renamed it Bud Extra and though it sounded like an interesting idea to some, most of the reviews have been less than complimentary.

Getting closer to what most people would recognize as beer, a great number of brewers have experimented with “coffee stout” – which is exactly what it sounds like: a stout brewed with real coffee added either during the boil or the fermentation. Some brewers use roasted, ground beans while others use brewed coffee like Capital City Brewing does in their Fuel Stout (late-breaking news: Higher Grounds Trading has teamed up with Shorts Brewing to make a new beer with their fair trade coffee – more on this soon). London-based Meantime Brewing uses Fair Trade certified Araba Bourbon coffee beans from Rwanda in their Coffee Porter – I’d tell you about their Chocolate beer too, but that will have to wait to go in a “beer and chocolate” article.

So, what to do when you long for a rich, roasty coffee-stout combo and there is none to be found at your local brewpub, bottle-shop or good beer bar? The answer is quite easy. In fact, it’s something I’ve been doing for years. Simply pour your favorite stout into a large glass and then pour in some cooled coffee. Experiment until you discover a proportion that suits your taste. I like a ratio of about one to one.

Actually, I like the combination of beer and coffee so much that I just signed a contract to follow up my first book, Fermenting Revolution (which was about beer), with a second one about the coffee roasting revolution. And now its time for me to start the research! To read more about coffee and beer, visit my beer blog:; and the new blog I just launched with my pals at Higher Grounds Trading for our upcoming co-authored book at: For home-coffee roasting supplies, check out Seven Bridges at or the new roastery/cafe/shop Higher Grounds is opening in Traverse City, MI.