Coffee cupping is a big thing now, and it is not an activity reserved for baristas and professionals in the coffee industry. Regular folks that love coffee and would like to improve their knowledge about coffee and explore new tastes and brews, can do it now. There are many coffee roasters that love to educate the public and promote gourmet coffee. Chicago coffee roasters, including Metric Coffee in the West Loop, are leading the way in hosting cupping events to engage and educate patrons, and explain the broader coffee experience. Roasters in other cities are doing the same.
It’s five minutes before the weekly public cupping at Metric Coffee, and Harris Nash is a bundle of energy.
While it’s clear he’s had his morning coffee, that’s not the entire reason for his high energy level as visitors arrive at the West Fulton Street roastery. Nash is a live wire because he wants to showcase all the flavors and stories that coffee has to offer, from crop to cup.
It’s an excitement that is gaining momentum with Chicago coffee drinkers — from the casual to the enthusiast. Local roasters Metric, Metropolis, and Passion House and Durham, N.C.-based Counter Culture are leading the way in hosting free cupping events to engage and educate patrons, and to explain the broader coffee experience.
“We want to bring people into the whole process,” said Nash, sales manager and brand ambassador at Metric. “Cupping is so cool. It’s the universal language for coffee tasting.”
Jeff Batchelder, who runs the education program at Counter Culture and has performed dozens of tastings, easily recalls moments when people realized coffee’s full range of flavors — from floral and fruity to earthy to nutty. For some, it’s a moment of enlightenment.
“Once people get past the hurdle of tasting coffee out of a bowl, with a spoon, and slurping it into your mouth, there is usually some kind of empowerment,” he said. “People are blown away by how different coffee can taste.”
Cupping in the U.S. dates to the early 1900s, evolving from transactions among growers, exporters, importers and roasters. Hills Bros. traders, on the heels of innovations in vacuum-packaging and a pursuit of higher-quality coffee, pioneered cup tasting to base buying decisions on samples of freshly roasted coffee instead of relying on visual inspections of beans. A drawing of a coffee taster even served as an early company trademark on Hills Bros. canisters, the artist’s design inspired by the coffee’s Ethiopian origin.
Today, cuppings are performed daily at most roasters and considered a baseline quality control exercise to check if flavor profiles are on point and roasts are consistent. At Metropolis it happens at 7 a.m. every weekday just as production shifts into high gear. For the public, the roaster includes cuppings at the end of free public roastery tours it hosts twice a month.
“Cupping is a tool for evaluation. It’s a way of deliberately focusing on the different characteristics of a coffee and determining what each coffee has to offer,” said Amy Lawlor, green coffee buyer and quality control manager at Metropolis. “It doesn't need to be snooty thing. If we can bring people in here to taste for themselves, then they have their own experiential knowledge of how varied coffee can taste.”
Batchelder spent nine years at Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea as a barista and retail educator. Cuppings, he said, ensure consistency.
“If a coffee’s flavor changes or starts to be a little less vibrant, we want to know and respond,” Batchelder said.
Cuppings are also how coffee is graded competitively. Specialty Coffee Association judges score coffees on a range of criteria (fragrance/aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, uniformity, balance, cleanliness and sweetness). Accredited evaluators in the coffee world are called Q Graders.
Over the past two to three years, local roasters have begun to use cuppings to teach customers how to detect flavor notes — blunt and nuanced — that can be found in coffee.
“What becomes pretty apparent when you start cupping is that coffees can be wildly different from one another just based on where they come from, how they’re processed, how they’re roasted,” Lawlor said.
Metric keeps its cupping events simple, offering a small-scale experience without the scrutiny or pretense. At the Fulton Street roastery, it’s about learning to notice the details. Attendees are asked to jot down notes on fragrance (of dry, ground coffee), aroma (once grounds are infused with hot water), and sweetness, acidity, body and overall flavor of selected coffees.
“I don’t want people to become elitist or overeducated,” said Nash, a former director of wholesale coffee at Ipsento Coffee. “The goal is to bring people into the experience.”
While not a chemistry class, there is a bit of science that goes into reaching the potential of a roast. It’s no coincidence cuppings are held in a roaster’s “lab.”
As Nash points out, to catch each coffee at its best, precision is paramount. The water temperature (around 200 degrees) and amount of coffee grounds (10.5 grams) need to be uniform for consistency. Once the brewing begins, coffee goes through stages of development, from bloom (formation of foam from gases released 30 seconds into brewing) to a full extraction (about 4 minutes). Nash encourages cuppers to stop to smell and taste throughout the process to capture how smells and tastes change and mature.
Then there’s “the slurp,” the distinguishable sound anyone who has attended a cupping knows. In order for cuppers to properly aerate the coffee and spray it to the back of their palates, they’re urged to slurp, not sip, the coffee. Some say the louder, the better.
At Counter Culture, cuppings are part of a broader educational experience. The roaster, considered one of the pioneers in direct-trade and sustainable sourcing, has a regional training center on the Near West Side. It’s one of 13 across the country, and all of them host weekly “Tastings at Ten.”
“It’s all about creating feedback between what’s happening in your mouth and processing it in your brain,” Batchelder said. “Anything we eat or drink can be used for palate development, you just need to dedicate some mindfulness to it.”
Stop by any Friday morning, and the enthusiasm for coffee is palatable.
A visit to a March tasting had a lively mix of regulars, newcomers and entrepreneurs in attendance. And while 16 coffee buffs huddling around a single barista may sound crowded, Batchelder said the number has climbed into the 40s.
Cassandra Hall, of Pilsen, regularly attends and compares cuppings and tastings to auditing a college course.
“I’m pretty geeked up about coffee,” Hall said. “I appreciate the community here. I’ve made friends of the regulars. I think there is an attraction to the craft, learning where it comes from.”
Counter Culture, Intelligentsia and Ipsento host ticketed classes on brewing techniques, sourcing and barista training on a regular schedule.
While public coffee cuppings are not as popular as beer and wine tastings, Nash and Batchelder agree that their popularity is growing — just like interest in specialty coffees — especially with young consumers.
A 2018 study by the National Coffee Association found that 64 percent of U.S. adults drink coffee on a given day, the highest ratio in six years and up for a third consecutive year. Consumption of “gourmet” or specialty coffee stands at 37 percent of coffee drinkers ages 18-24 and 48 percent for those ages 25-39, according to the National Coffee Drinking Trends report.
Nash keeps a narrower scope.
“My hope is if you get anything from a cupping, it is that there are people and families and hard work behind the coffees,” Nash said. “The next tier is that coffee is complex. I would never tell someone they have to know and assess every cup they drink, because you can lose a lot of the beauty of what coffee is as a ritual and connector.
“The goal is that there is a deeper knowledge of where coffee comes from and a deeper appreciation of it.”
Backlot Coffee: First Monday of every month. Free. 3982 N. Avondale Ave., Chicago, 773-657-3797. First Thursday of every month. 2006 Central St., Evanston. [email protected].
Counter Culture Coffee: 10 a.m. Fridays. Free. Regional training center, 177 N. Ada St., Suite 106, 888-238-5282, [email protected].
Intelligentsia Coffee: First and third Thursdays of the month, part of a ticketed brew class. $40. 3123 N. Broadway; 773-348-8058.
Metric Coffee: 10:30 a.m. Fridays. Free. 2021 W. Fulton St., 312-982-2196; [email protected].
Metropolis Coffee: First and third Fridays of the month, following tour. Free. 3057 N. Rockwell St., 773-338-4904, [email protected].
Passion House Coffee: 3 p.m. Fridays. Free. 2631 N. Kedzie Ave., 312-733-3998, [email protected].
Ipsento Coffee: Monthly, dates and times vary. $10. 1813 N. Milwaukee Ave., 773-904-8177, [email protected].
Tala Coffee: Monthly, dates and times vary. Free. 428 Green Bay Road, Suite B, Highwood, 847-508-0517.