March 16-18, Olam Specialty Coffee will be hosting coffee cuppings at the pop-up “Olam Café” in Baltimore, on the Mezzanine in the historic Bromo Seltzer Tower on the corner of West Lombard and South Eutaw. This event coincides with Coffee Fest, just two blocks away. We hope you’ll come by and cup coffee with us. Send an email to customerservice-osc@olamnet.com more information.

Since we’re on the topic of hosting coffee cuppings, we thought we could share some thoughts on roasters hosting coffee cuppings for customers and potential customers. Note, when we say “customers” we mean wholesale customers, but the same ideas apply to consumers, only more so. Also note, this is not primarily an article about the “mechanics” of cupping. These you can find down to every little detail here.

For a long time, coffee cupping was a pass or fail test before it was anything else. In fact, before it was known as “cupping” it was known as “cup testing.” Coffee taste descriptors served as labels for the parts that contributed to a sum of a pass or a fail. Cupping is still a pass or fail exercise, more or less, for coffee that functions as the platform from which price discovery is launched. For vast amounts of coffee, the question is not, “What is good or great about this coffee?” Instead, cuppers ask “Is there anything wrong with this coffee?” If all coffee was specialty coffee, there wouldn’t be any such thing as specialty coffee. Coffee must find its home. It wants to go home, and we should be grateful to the cuppers who determine daily which coffees qualify as the beginning of the conversation about the price of coffee that day, that hour, that minute, and where it can call home. Complain as we might about specialty coffees being tied, however loosely, to the whims of a futures market model rather than the discovery inherent in a farmer’s market model, we all benefit from a wide range of quality levels being identified using standards with which we can all agree for the most part, regardless of the markets we serve.

Why speak of these things? Well, coffee exists on a quality continuum, and so does coffee cupping. This is all the long way around to saying that before we think about how to host a coffee cupping, and why, it is helpful to remember that before it is anything else, cupping coffee is a culling, making or not making the cut. In the same way that not all coffee is highly differentiated, not all coffee cuppers are highly differentiating. When cupping with customers or potential customers, the most important question to ask, maybe the only question that can be answered, and the only expectation to harbor in terms of answers is, “Do you like this coffee?” Before “What do you taste?” is “Do you like what you taste?”

Specialty coffee is understandably and rightfully proud of our palates and our posters. The specialty coffee segment has pushed, prodded, and pulled coffee forward into the realm of the culinary, where it belongs, alongside other delights both practical and indulgent. If you roast specialty coffee, even if it is not the only sort of coffee you roast, this is where coffee exists for you, in the realm of the culinary, and you’ve long ago moved past describing the flavors you find as simply rich or bold or “yes please.”

Remember these things because when you invite a customer or potential customer to cup coffee with you it is an invitation to meet them where they live in relation to coffee. This is what it means to host a coffee cupping. It might be your table but it’s not your experience. The experience belongs to your guest and customer and you are there to facilitate.

Yes, we are belaboring the point but only because it needs belaboring.  Production cupping, sample cupping, competition cupping, origin trip cupping, new arrival cupping, blend development, these are all different animals done for different reasons. When you host a cupping for customers, the emphasis is on the “hosting” not the cupping.

Listen and Teach. Don’t Demonstrate.

Cupping is a skill that takes time to learn. The actions involved, perceptions of tastes, and talking about what you taste are all things that are learned. There are native skills, to be sure, and the exercise will come faster to some than others, but when its new, it can be intimidating. As a roaster cupping with current or potential customers, it’s not the time to demonstrate how skilled you are. Look, the speed with which you can cup coffee and the eloquence with which you can describe what you taste might impress a potential customer, but you don’t want to impress them, you want to build a relationship. Plenty of roasters can slurp like a jet engine and then name specific fruits and nuts and types of chocolate they taste. Fewer can make customers feel comfortable at the cupping table no matter how experienced the customer.  Of course there are wholesale customers who are advanced cuppers and expect an advanced experience at the table, but most of the time the reason they’re there is the relationship and discovery. If you use the time to showcase your skill and knowledge you lose an opportunity. Listen. Ask questions. Then show to teach, not to demonstrate.

If you’re training a new employee at your roasting company (or a cupping with customers that is billed as a training), it makes sense to focus on the mechanics of cupping and accuracy around describing specific cup characteristics. When cupping with wholesale customers, if the coffee makes it into their mouth, that’s a win. From there, they can do no wrong. Encourage them to talk. Reflect what they say, making minor additions as you reflect their statements to introduce coffee language, or agreeing and then asking questions to nudge them toward specifics.

For example, if someone says a coffee is “rich,” you might say, “Yes, there’s a lot going on here. Do you associate richness with the heavy body or something else, like the chocolate?”

See what you did there?

If you say, “You know we don’t really use the word ‘rich’ at the cupping table because nobody knows what it means and it’s a marketing term associated with commercial grade coffees,” then you go directly to cupping host jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collected two hundred dollars.

There are good reasons to have customers cup coffee rather than simply taste coffee. The cupping process communicates clearly that specialty coffee is a culinary product.  Although new cuppers may not reap all the benefits of a solid slurp, cupping does provide an enhanced fragrance and aroma experience that a simple tasting cannot match.

If you are in Baltimore for Coffee Fest, or nearby for any reason March 16-18, come cup coffee with us. We promise, it will be a rich experience.