Ok. So we’re agreed that we no longer have bartenders, we have ‘mixologists’. The bloke who heats your milk is a ‘barista’. The girl who can take the cork out of a bottle without clamping it between her knees and pulling a face is a ‘sommelier’. And when you try a specialty coffee you are no longer tasting it, you are present at a ‘cupping’. Nothing to do with breasts, balls or traditional medicine, I swear.
I attended a cupping last week, in the hope that I’d pay a small amount to have some freshly brewed bean lined up in front of my greedy gob, preferably with some pastries on the side. We’d learn something about right side of the plantation versus the left, have a few laughs and spend the rest of the day buzzing like a squadron of Messerschmitts over London.
I won’t say where I was (because I know how rabid foodie bloggers are), but will say I was in Carlton, the floor space was large but the tables few, and the staff were attired in skinny jeans, ironic plastic glasses, tattoos, Gaydolf Hipler hairstyles or all of the above.
We were shown into a glass booth with a view of the extensive coffee roasting facilities on one side and the heartbreaking sight of semi-normal people on the other, enjoying their morning coffee. A lazy susan dominated the centre of the booth, and a number of cups were arrayed around the outside labelled A to F. A humble, serious fellow entered the room and introduced himself. Rather like the Worshipful Master of a Masonic Lodge, he was about to induct us into the Mysteries. Straightening his apron he began.
A clipboard was pressed into our hands with a chart that looked something like this:
Although one would imagine this interesting document required some explanation, cupping was imminent and we were wasting valuable time. We approached the coffee and were invited to sniff. The grounds were to be shaken briskly from side-to-side and the eager nostrils held above. At this point one could take notes on the experience. And what did it smell like? At this hour of the day? I am only a novice cupper, but I would go so far as to say that it smelt like coffee.
I stared at my sheet as the lazy susan turned. In a room of that size it was hard to subtly nudge one’s companion and bug one’s eyes then narrow them again, but I can speak for both of us when I say that the sight of hipsters poised and quivering around a tableful of unbrewed coffee is one of the greatest sights of the urban environment you’ll ever see.
Once the water was boiled to precisely 86 degrees, it was poured into each cup. We were invited anew to approach the cup to ponder the ‘crust’. More feverish note-taking ensued, and like a kid who hasn’t studied for a Chem test, I began to feel a bit panicky. “Nescaff” I wrote about one. “Beef in black bean sauce” was another. “Ground in Africa after the rain” was a third.
Ping! The timer chirruped again, and we’d moved onto the next phase, the tricky part. Boiling water was poured into the empty cups and spoons were rattled. The Worshipful Master (WM) demonstrated the breaking of the coffee crust three times (the magic number in all good fairytales) and the shuddering inhale – and the race to the clipboards was on. I realised then what healthy fun all of this was, and began to elaborate:
“A cocked brow.”
“Drip tray at the bottom of my oven”
“The first time I walked into Ishka.”
“Mysterious…musky….complicated…like a divorced man.”
Now wait one cotton-pickin’ minute I hear you cry! How can you hold these youngsters in such judgement? Isn’t cupping just the new generation making their mark on the inner-city tastebud? One can attend tastings at a winery, yes? Or sample cheeses and quince paste at any market eg Prahran? In case of misunderstanding: these things are fun. You have a few yuks, learn the difference between dessert wine and shiraz and roll off a few bottles heavier. Let me tell you these tattooed coves were solemn, and quiet as a church. And somehow, we the heaving public seemed incidental to the process – I got the feeling they wished we weren’t there at all. To reiterate:
I could have written a novel, but the timer kept pinging at us. WM and his junior were busily scraping off the scum for the final blast of aroma. Then things got serious (no really, I mean it this time!). With the grim intensity of Harvey shooting up in The Bad Lieutenant, WM deftly dipped his spoon in the coffee and took a hit with a noise like a rifle going off. Grown men wept, ladies fainted and elephants trumpeted. He worked his way around the table in this fashion, and I nearly broke a rib from not laughing.
I had already documented everything I wanted to document, my companion had given up long ago, and it was time to unveil the origin of the coffees. How we slapped our foreheads! Of course it was Tanzanian! And I KNEW that quizzical crust was west Costa Rica, I’d bet my iPhone cover on it. West you say? I was going to say south, you impish coffee-guzzling junkie! Oh, the tales we could tell. Size of bean was analysed, and one in particular was praised with relish for being hand-sorted only. I had a sudden image of the toiling coffee workers in some remote part of Kenya having their own sudden image of women with ‘Sail Away’ tattooed on their fingers snuffling over the beans they’d just spent all day extracting.
If you ask me, cupping seems like an opportunity missed. Had it been me I would have pounced into the room in a white coat and Stetson, roared something like “let the cupping commence!” and taken my guests on an olfactory adventure they’d never forget. But after a rollercoaster 45 minutes I am none the wiser about coffee, except for the fact that my temper is not improved by that amount of time exactly. Don’t let me put you off – this is a Gen Y experience you don’t want to miss, for perhaps all the wrong reasons. But I think if you’re going to be open to the public, you might try actually, er, involving them in it.