Dismas Smith never calls himself a coffee expert. Even though he cofounded the Barista Guild of America. Even though he won the North American Barista Championship. Even though Seattleites—the most discerning cup-of-joe consumers in the country—rhapsodize about the blends at Stickman, his Fremont java joint. Smith knows better; he knows how much there is to learn.
That same studenty spirit is alive in Big Coffee: Deep in the SoDo HQ of Starbucks, a team of exceptionally palated tasters sample every bean the company buys. This sipping squad develops new blends and ensures the quality of established roasts by testing over 1,000 cups a day in an exacting process called cupping. Made up of four steps—smelling, slurping, identifying tastes, and describing—cuppings have traditionally been the private domain of our planet’s beverage elites. Lately, however, they’ve spilled over into neighborhood coffee shops, where baristas and roasters like Smith entice customers to slurp and spit with abandon—all in the name of java appreciation.
One Friday morning at Stickman, Smith led me through a proper cupping, which began with sticking our noses into each of a set of glasses lined up on the counter, attempting to discern distinct aromas. I had just detected the nutty chocolate in the Brazilian when Smith poured near-boiling water into each glass. The coffees formed crusts that, two minutes later, released heavenly aromas when we broke them with our spoons. After another couple of minutes, Smith skimmed off the crusts and we were ready to taste—or, rather, slurp. Cuppers bring a spoonful of coffee to their mouths and suck it in. “Some people get these crazy slurps,” Smith said, demonstrating a doozy called the “Brazilian whistle.” The coffees are then spit out, to ensure purity of palate.
After we’d sampled, it was time to compare notes. In the tasting room at Starbucks, an established lexicon of terms is used, much of it borrowed from the worlds of wine and whiskey appreciation. For novices, however, the trick is to compare the coffees to one another—more fruity, less acidic—and to other foods and beverages, like fruits, cocoa, and tea.
Smith says he picks up on something new with each slurp, and that’s why he’d never call himself a connoisseur. “Once I say I’m an expert, I quit learning,” he says. He hopes to launch regular cuppings at Stickman later this fall, joining a host of local java joints that currently offer them: the staff at Capitol Hill’s Stumptown, for instance, cups every day at 3pm and invites customers to join them. They don’t charge for the sip and spits: these bean heads just love to see people perked up on their beloved beverage.
Stickman Coffee, 3516 Fremont Pl N, Fremont, stickmancoffee.blogspot.com