Coffee cupping

 (Kyle Chidester)

(Kyle Chidester)

When you pour yourself a cup of coffee in the morning, do you ever think about how it got to your cup? Where did it start, and what has it gone through before you gulp it down?

On Oct. 12, the friendly folks at our own El Capitan Espresso taught a handful of students all about the great mysteries of coffee. They held a “coffee cupping,” or tasting, in front of their cart, and informed those present of many fascinating aspects of the coffee bean-from its origins as a consumable product to its countries of origin, to how it is picked and processed, and to how long the roasting process should take.

“[Coffee is highly] ignored and underappreciated,” said Sarah Henry. And for being the second highest international commodity, this is a bit unexpected.

The tasting was conducting as a “blind cupping,” which means that the types of roasts were unknown to those tasting them. They explained that there are a few variables that need to be considered and regulated. The amount of grounds and water used is not as important as keeping the ratios consistent. It is also recommended that one does not eat anything spicy or pungent before tasting, and to avoid wearing perfume or other strong odors, as these factors can interfere with your senses.

The tasting process included a number of steps. First you would smell the grounds (dry), trying to have some of the aroma enter through the mouth. You would then do the same with hot water poured over the grounds (wet). To get the proper smell from the wet coffee, you would use a technique called “breaking the crust” where you would use a spoon to gently disperse the thin layer of crème on the top of the liquid. The last step is the actual tasting. This step takes another special technique to do correctly. Using a spoon again, you would scoop up a small serving of the liquid, then putting your lips to the side of the spoon; you would suck in very loudly, trying to spray the liquid across your entire palette. At first, it is a little tricky-and funny. Everyone is making obnoxious slurping sounds, and if you’re not careful, you could inhale the coffee, resulting in a coughing fit.

During the tasting, other topics were discussed. The origin of coffee was explained in a myth about the “flying goat.” It is said that a goat rancher discovered the effects of coffee after noticing that when his goats ate the cherries of a specific plant, they gained high amounts of energy causing them to “dance” or “fly.” Some of the different processes of drying the beans were also discussed. There are basically two main ways to process the beans. They are either the dry or natural process, which allows the flavor of the cherries to come out more pronounced in the final product. The other is by washing the cherries off of the bean. Each of the many countries where coffee is grown has their own way of doing it, and each of them believes their process is the best. These two processes eventually lend themselves to specific descriptions of the coffee flavor, naturally resulting in an “earthy” or “dirty” flavor, and the wash having a “clean” taste.

Another part of the coffee trade that is highly overlooked is the politics involved. Current trends have brought some of these issues to the surface, but still, most coffee drinkers are unaware of the differences in organic and fair trade coffees, let alone what a “green” buyer is. The term, “organic” refers to the way the coffee is grown. It must be inspected and certified by the USDA. Coffees that are referred to as “fair trade” directly speak to how the coffee growers are compensated.

“[We need to] respect the labor [involved],” said Henry, one of the employees at El Capitan. Most coffee is grown in underdeveloped countries and the farmers are often underpaid for the amount of labor they invest. There are certain importers that are trying harder to recognize that labor, and give the farmers proper compensation. One of these companies is Barefoot Coffees. Focused on a more familiar approach, Barefoot personally visits each farm that it buys from, and treats the farmers like dear friends or family.

El Capitan owner, Phil Jolley, has spent the last year renovating his business to reflect some of these aspects of the coffee industry. After attending a barista competition in the East Bay, he began researching on the internet. He began to upgrade the equipment he used, turning toward more “green” practices and products-even roasting his own coffee.

“Now that I know [what coffee should really taste like], I couldn’t keep serving what I was and feel comfortable about it,” Jolley said.

Jolley and Henry, as well as the other employees of El Capitan, take their work very seriously, doing their best to bring the Skyline Community the best cup of coffee available. One thing that Henry said she thinks about a lot is the amount of hands that coffee passes through.

“[Mine] are the last hands [passed] before reaching the customer,” she said. And, that is a big responsibility to her.