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Ace of Cups

Ah, the power of the almighty meme. When I told friends I was going to a cupping, they immediately thought I was going to let hot glass globes bruise my skin, a la Michael Phelps.

Um, no.

The cupping I am referring to is the manner in which coffee experts grade coffees. One Line Coffee in the Short North does a cupping and/or workshop every Sunday and it’s a fascinating window into the world of hyper-conscious coffee creation.

The cupping I attended focused on the impact of roasting on flavor. Myself and four other coffee day-trippers stepped into One Line’s backroom where a circular table was set up with five stations, each featuring a trio of shot glasses one-third full of grounds from a variety of regions.

“We all have our own story when it comes to coffee,” said Sean Hudley, One Line’s Director of Education. “Whether it’s what your grandparents taught you about coffee, or what you drank in college, we all have a history with coffee.” My mind immediately flips backwards to my grandmother’s rust-orange packs of Sanka that were always tucked away in her oxblood leather purse, and then to the free-refill world of hazelnut coffee I drank during deep college conversations and all-night study dates.

First we smell. Swirl the grounds around to introduce air, clamp our palms over the glass to force the air down and create a mild vacuum effect, bring it to the nose, lift our hands up slightly and inhale deeply. Hudley says to open our mouths a bit as olfaction is intrinsically tied to taste and memory. The room is full of deep breaths, gaping mouths, and furrowed brows.

Like wine, coffee is described as everything from notes of tobacco to whiffs of blackberry, even fudge. It’s hard to discern at first. “I don’t smell any fruit – I want to smell the fruit!” cried one participant. It’ a learning curve, said Hudley. “You start paying more attention to smells in lie and build on those ties … I have different spices in my kitchen and a smell them deeply; I know the smell of paprika, though I have yet to smell a paprika coffee,but bay leaves, yes.”

Hudley explained that the One Line cuppers will put 12 coffees at a time to the test. “We do it blindly, silently … it’s intense but fun and we’re making big decisions for the company. We get to try the best coffees in the world, even if we don’t end up buying them.”

Surprisingly, it’s the dark roasted coffee that has the least interesting aroma profile. “There’s the dark roast mythos,” Hudley

said. “People think that they look serious about coffee when they order it.” Our guide explained that the dark roast story is the result of one big error in judgment back in the 1940s. See, there are two main coffee families – Robusta is a heartier and more disease-resistant plant, but is rather bitter, while Arabica has to be grown at a higher altitude and makes cultivation more difficult, yet yields a milder bean.

Back in the day, growers thought they had alighted upon the holiest of coffee grails – a plant that showed the resistance of the Robusta and the flavor of the Arabica. Investors put all their eggs into that one plant’s basket and the beans ended up being awful, and only got worse every year. Dark roasting helped to cover up some of the bitterness – this is also when adding cream and sugar to coffee became commonplace. “Some of the companies also had stock in dairy and sugar,” said Hudley. “So they would advertise their coffee and then say, and it’s even better with cream and sugar.”

Next, it’s time to taste. Hot water is added to each glass and the coffee is left for four minutes. By then, a “crust” has formed on the top, a layer of the ground beans. Hudley explains to us how to take a spoon and crack the crust, by pushing the grounds away from us. “That’s called ‘the break’ and the whole story of that coffee is in that moment – be totally focused and listen to your thoughts … what is the trigger? Your grandma’s cookies – what kind? The dough? Browning in the oven?”

Hudley’s coffee memories became coffee aspirations while he was living in Athens and going to school. “I went into Donkey Coffee and ordered an espresso,” he recalled. “The barista took the time to explain it to me … it was busy and there was a line to the door but he took the care to talk to me about it. It was transformative. I ordered and espresso everyday and then they said I should just work there.”

“Now I know that everything he told me was completely wrong,” he grinned. “But it’s all because of that one guy.”

We then take a small bit of the coffee in our spoons and quickly draw it into our mouths – we are “aspirating” the coffee. “We are not drinking, we are slurping ferociously,” he laughed. “The louder you are, the cooler you are.” The coffee is hot, but not crazy hot as we are better at tasting things closer to our body temperature. “That’s why low quality beer is sold colder, because once it’s warm, it tastes like shit,” he said. Of course, I stick my nose to close to the glass as I perform “the break” and realize that body temperature is friggin’ h-o-t! While I’m squeal and am embarrassed, to Hudley it’s a mark of effort and he approves. If we slurp too quickly, we cough. Each cough gets a round of applause from our teacher.

As the cupping session draws to a close, my little quintet is humming with knowledge. It’s a pretty cool thing to know that something that we drink on the reg has such a deep process behind it. Seeing – and smelling and tasting – with new eyes gives us a new perspective on this part of our daily ritual. The routine has, in a sense, become sacred.

And while my cupping afternoon didn’t leave me with any telltale red rings on my back, I do have a smidge of a red nose. I consider it a badge of honor. 

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