Coffee Chronicles: Coffee Cupping for the Lonely at Cafe Grumpy


[Photographs: Allison Hemler]

I'm going to single myself out from very many coffee heads‚ and some of my friends‚ when I say that I am not a fan of cupping. It's that session of sipping and slurping, pinpointing flavor identities and associations, like a stream-of-consciousness report on everything your taste buds can imagine.

I'm horrible at describing even my most sensual or passionate experiences. No written description of the "roasted hazelnuts" or "freshly picked berries" will sway me as the positive direction if I'm simply not feeling the way a coffee tastes. Having been involved in cuppings with various groups of people—friends, strangers, coffee professionals, the coffee-uneducated media—I've heard words never even associated with coffee: wood, banana bread, motor oil. And I feel inadequate when I hear a description I wish I'd thought of. Like "a piece of toasted zucchini bread." Who wouldn't want to think of that in their morning coffee?

So, I prefer the Solitaire version of cupping. Every morning, I like to extract my coffee in a variety of ways, to see how the flavors morph with grind size and infusion time. Every week a different set of beans. Coffee education is necessary, no matter how it's done—in groups, alone, or with your best friend. So even though I don't really enjoy sipping and slurping, I'll taste absolutely anything you want me to.


Cafe Grumpy's dainty plate of coffees.

In Chelsea (and Park Slope and Greenpoint), Cafe Grumpy has started concocting "coffee flights" for $6, three 4-ounce samples of what's on tap. Coffee cupping for the lonely souls. Six bucks may seem extreme for 12 ounces of coffee, but each one is Clover-crafted, and requires about five minutes of coffee dedication to prepare. This week, the offerings included a Guatemalan and El Salvador roasted by Cafe Grumpy, and a Panamanian roasted by Verve. One trademark of the Clover, if set to the right temperature, brew time, water, etc., is the absolute fidelity to the bean, all the unnecessary and unwanted chemicals wiped away, leaving a clean, perfectly-extracted brew—the machine-version of my favorite method, the Chemex. Each coffee had drastically different flavor profiles, made obvious in such close proximity.

My tasting notes soared above and beyond my usual flavor creativity. The Panamanian smelled like ripe tomatoes, and on first sip, reminded me of a bowl of Fruit Loops. The Guatemalan was full bodied and lingered in my mouth well after; it recalled biting into a chocolate-covered grape. The El Salvador mellowed out my overactive taste buds, providing a balanced cup of joe, which got more complex and brighter as it cooled.


A Clover as installed in a Starbucks location in Seattle.

But here's my critique: Since the barista was making the coffee on only one Clover, by the time the third coffee is prepared, the first two have cooled considerably. Once coffees dip way beyond boiling temperature, they begin to take on different—and sometimes not very pleasant—characteristics. The typed note included with the flight states to "sip while hot, and taste how the coffees change as they cool." If the Panamanian lingers near 170 degrees, while the El Salvador is served instantaneously at 200, how would you really get to taste the way they were all intended? You can't brew 3 coffees as a time on a single Clover, so there's no way around it. The Guatemalan lost some of its depth as it cooled, so I imagine it would've been a complex cup first thing in the morning. (Note: Those who don't want a replacement for their morning orange juice will want to choose the El Salvador as a small coffee option.)

Perhaps it's better to do a coffee tasting rather than a wine tasting alone. For one, people don't feel as bad for you, sitting alone and sipping, contemplating. It can be done any hour of the day, but preferably not at a busy time, since it takes the barista a few minutes to make. This is the only coffee shop that I know of that serves coffee like something to be studied and analyzed. They might make me rethink the way I feel about cupping, especially if their coffee options change often.

On a final note, I am open to any reader dates who are willing to convince me that social cupping is actually fun. You pick the time and place.