Distributed blind cupping – The Glasgow Smackdown

Okay not a smackdown, just a distributed blind cupping of various Glasgow roasted coffees.

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The Backstory

I’ve been making coffee for a few months now, and I’ve noticed that there are a few roasters in the UK (and outside of it) which roast coffee that pretty much taste okay at a wide spread of extractions (although you still want to find a sweet spot to make it shine). By taste nice I mean I don’t get any weird flavours at brew ratios at or just over the 100% mark. (17g in, 38-45g out over 27-35 seconds depending on the coffee usually).

Quite a lot of the local stuff performs badly at these (now fairly popular) ratios and the EK43 doesn’t really allow you to do the more restrained (and in my mind “old skool”) recipes around the 18/30/30s mark. Cupping those coffees tends to yield (in my limited experience) undesirable “low note” flavours that I’ve always called “roastiness” but in retrospect it’s slightly more nuanced than this.

Some of the local stuff does perform at these levels, and I’ve noticed a correlation between my cupping notes and whether they do or not and this that has started making it easier for me to know whether I’m going to be able to do EKSpresso or not with a coffee.

It’s sometimes difficult to have a frank conversation directly with the producers about this, because they’ll either assume I’m “doing it wrong” (Always a valid suggestion), or take offence at the awkward language used as I’m stumbling around trying to describe the undesirable flavours I might be getting.

To calibrate my taste buds against what others also perceive I decided to send samples of various locally roasted coffees to a selection of coffee enthusiasts and professionals and collate the feedback to identify what we could agree on and what we could not agree on.

The experiment

I took five coffees from three local roasters, labelled them 1-5 in no particular order and sent them to six postal addresses (with some people sharing cupping duties to increase the number of people exposed). Nobody was told which roasters or beans were involved and I kept my own cupping notes back until I had received the feedback to avoid influencing anybody in their own perceptions.

The cupping notes I took were also done completely blind – although just from smelling the grinds before adding water I was able to identify which roaster had done which bean which probably influenced my own note slightly thanks to my preconceptions about past experiences. On tasting each coffee I was also then able to immediately narrow down on which bean it was within that roaster so my results are probably less meaningful than the blind tasters receiving coffee.

I’ve kept my notes therefore out of the tag clouds I’m generating for each coffee from the raw tasting notes of my distributed cuppers, as to not influence the results in this post towards my opinions.

The coffees

  • Papercup – Gelana Abaya (Ethiopian Natural)
  • Papercup – Githiga AB  (Washed Kenyan – SL28/34)
  • Avenue Coffee – Finca Santos (Natural Costa Rican – Caturra/Catuai)
  • Avenue Coffee – Skyscraper Espresso (Washed Colombian – Caturra)
  • Dear Green – Sumatra Wahana (Natural Sumatran (!!) – Rasuna/S795/Catimor/Typica)

Yes one of them is an espresso roast – more on that later.

It was fun watching the results come in as everybody completed the cupping.

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cuppingsmellnotes

What I’ve done is taken the raw cupping notes from each participant and thrown them into a tag cloud so the common words are more easily visible. Each participant (most of them anyway) rated the coffees out of 10 and I’ve averaged their rating and my own to get the final ranking. This isn’t objective and we aren’t trained coffee tasters so we’re not doing proper score sheets.

I’ve then written my own interpretation of what others have said against what I tasted initially to give an insight into where these results have come from.

The raw cupping notes took the form of “what it smelt like as a dry ground coffee, what it smelt like when water was added and all the tastes from hot to cold”, for brevity I’ve tried to aggregate the total experience rather than write an essay about how the coffee performed over time.

The results – ranked in order of preference (scored out of 10)

Papercup – Githiga AB – 8/10

Roaster’s notes:

Blackcurrants, Marmalade sweetness, bright acidity, crisp mouthfeel

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:20:51

Easily most people’s favourite (apart from one person who really didn’t like the savoury notes), only a couple of people decided to use the adjective “roasty” – which is something I initially ascribed to the coffee but after the fact decided I was probably mistaking it for something else.

The group was split between whether this tasted of blackcurrant or tomato (I was very firmly seated in the tomato camp), apparently these aromas are very similar so this is understandable. Whatever fruit we choose to use we could agree that this was by far the juiciest and easiest coffee to enjoy – plenty of cuppers went on to make this as a brew with the excess beans I sent them.

I’ve been told that savoury notes such as tomato in Kenyans can actually point to the coffee being under-developed which with Papercup I find hard to imagine, happy to take at face value that this is just an aspect of the weird acidity you get in some Kenyans and this is a “roast done right”. Oddly enough most of the Kenyans I’ve had this year with similar varietals have been sweeter and lacked this weirdness – I have no explanation for the difference – this Papercup coffee is closer to what I imagine a Kenyan to be.

Papercup – Gelana Abaya – 7/10

Roaster’s notes:

Blueberry tart and cocoa, jammy sweetness, bright acidity and good mouthfeel

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:18:13

I love this bean; from Square Mile it was one of my favourite espressos this year and I’m very excited to see it at a local roaster. The beans I sent out were from the very first roast Papercup did and this one definitely had a slight roasty element to it (It must be stressed that this was known by the roaster and I sent this out just to see whether it was something people would pick up on – the coffee available in store does not taste like this). This is a very good bean and it shows even through the very slight hint of toast.

The group immediately picked up on this being a natural Ethiopian, and expressed delight in the summer fruit flavours being exhibited. There was a fifty/fifty split once again over whether it was nutty or fruity – probably being thrown off by some of the deeper flavours in the coffee.

The roasty notes were picked out by most people in the form of either a slight dryness or the flavour itself, but all-in-all the reviews were still favourable – showing that a slight defect and strong greens can result in a positive experience.

Dear Green – Sumatra Wahana (6/10)

Roaster’s notes:

Lemon, Jasmine, Palma Violet

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:29:40

I laughed out loud at several people’s reaction to this coffee; nobody really knew what to make of it. It’s a natural and it’s from Sumatra – naturally some folk assumed it was an Ethiopian but I don’t think any of the other coffees came close to having such a varying opinion on what it tasted like or whether it was “good” or “bad”.

As a coffee to evaluate the Glasgow roasting scene it was probably a bad choice because it was so out there but it was worth it for the reactions so I have no regrets other than I should have thrown a sixth one in there and had two from Dear Green as well!

I personally found this coffee to be totally confusing – getting pine trees and green beans, there were some other people that mentioned a slight vegetable whiff from this but given the funk it’s hard to see the wood for the trees with this coffee.

Avenue Coffee – Costa Rica Finca Santos (4/10)

Roaster’s notes:

A medium bodied coffee with boozy notes of rum and chocolate. Raspberry sweetness with fruity fermented plum finish.

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:23:22

I’ve had this coffee in store and enjoyed it, although it was a bit “indistinct” I chalked this down to the gear, water and recipe and was excited to get it home and give it a go as a brew coffee at the very least and maybe as an EKspresso. Sadly it was underwhelming as an EKSpresso because some flavours crept in at any reasonable extraction that I couldn’t deal with once I’ve tasted that it was stuck with me even when I did it as a filter or through cupping.

I was very curious to see what folk thought of it – it’s a natural and it’s from Costa Rica – it should be absolutely up most people’s streets but in the cupping it didn’t really go down that way (quite a lot of similar but different notes of wood/ash/roast/smoke too). It may well just be the bean rather than the roast – there is no way of telling without finding the same bean in another roastery somewhere or whatever.

Anyway – most people agreed that it’s got potential but something is a bit iffy here. Interestingly enough, this is the first coffee where the tag cloud generated didn’t have that much in common with the roaster’s own notes.

Avenue Coffee – Skyscraper Espresso

Roaster’s notes

A balanced espresso with notes of peach, orange, spices and dark chocolate

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:26:29

It’s an espresso roast, which since I’ve started making coffee I’ve come to determine either means it’s a really great roaster making life easy for me by telling me a bean is going to be super great for espresso or just the roaster cooking a bean a bit more to kill the acidity and make it easier for the public to drink at standard shop extractions with traditional brew ratios. (Essentially: I don’t buy these any more – they’re a recipe for roasty toasty fun in the EK43).

I threw this in as a control rather than as something to actually evaluate – as a roast it does its job perfectly well on the shop floor and I’ve enjoyed many an espresso of it from the K30s in store (less so since cupping at home because once I taste something I don’t like in a coffee, it’s hard for me not to notice it from then on).

Understanding that the goal here is to provide a good base for milk drinks for customers who are perhaps new to the speciality coffee scene and perhaps don’t want the fruity modern stuff tells us immediately that this coffee’s goals aren’t aligned with our own.

So I’ve not left the rating on this, save to say that people picked out that it wasn’t something they enjoyed cupping – this tells us that we’re all on the same page and gives us a foundation for the other feedback on the other reviews.

What’s my take home from all of this?

I think it’s safe to say that Papercup is the people’s champion – which is funny because before I started making my own coffee and seeking out beans in Glasgow (after realising the Avenue stuff didn’t suit my needs) I hadn’t rated it highly because of a few visits I made when I first got to the city. This tells us something about the importance of re-evaluating based on new info (in this case a quick conversation with the roaster would have told me to pick different beans). I know that some Papercup beans will not work in my home set-up and I know some others will.

I wish I’d thrown in another Dear Green – my general experience with the Dear Green stuff is that it’s usually okay if a bit flat at times – but that’s my own experience and we don’t see that in this test at all with this choice of coffee! I don’t feel as though I really represented the roaster fairly in this pack by using the natural sumatran.

Avenue is at the bottom of the pile but given the competition this isn’t exactly harsh criticism; Dear Green and Papercup have both been doing their things a lot longer – Avenue only having been roasting for about a year. As I already discovered, it’s not really the kind of coffee where I can just stick it through the EK and make something as enjoyable as other similarly priced roasts that are available to me.

My major take home is that my taste buds are in line with most other’s (preferences aside) and I’m not tasting things too differently. The language I use when describing a coffee could definitely do with some work for both clarity and to avoid causing offence. Roasty is seen as a major offence, and there is a split between the professional in my cupping group saying a coffee “lacks character, is a bit thin, has some oddness” and the enthusiast just sticking that in the camp of “roasty” – it’s not a hold-all for “stuff I don’t like”.

Over the last few cuppings I’ve done I’ve been pleased with how these taste buds have performed – being able to pick the coffees out (and at other blind cuppings I’ve done this year pick out the defective roast, or spot the odd one out). The rest of it comes down the language and vocabulary which is something I need to carry on growing. For now, there is “coffee that works in my house” and “coffee that doesn’t work in my house”.

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