My husband and I just spent a week in Texas, and while the experience lived up to some of my expectations of the Lone Star state (delicious Tex-mex, awesome live music, and hordes of young professionals wearing cowboy boots under their suit pants), there just wasn’t as much dust as I imagined. Also ZERO cacti, and none of the heat to breed the aforementioned dust and cacti.
In short, we were freezing.
While warming up in an Austin coffeehouse, we spotted a sign for a “Public Cupping.” What sounded like a free medical screening for men (turn your head and cough-eehouse?), was actually just a pretentious way to say a coffee tasting. The cold weather discouraged wandering around, so we had nothing better to do.
Quick background: My parents call me a coffee snob because I won’t drink their stupid Folgers– it tastes like dirty river water. While I can taste the difference between Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks (one is sour, one is burnt), I think the only real preference I have for coffee is that I like it strong.
Could I decipher the differences between coffees served inside a single coffeehouse? (Who cares?) Continue to find out….
The barista, a bearded man who probably brews beer in his bathtub, set three cups of coffee grounds before me, my husband, and two strangers. “Has anyone ever attended a cupping before?” he asked. And when we shook our heads no, he seemed as startled as if he’d asked us if we’d showered that week. “No? All novice cuppers? Well, the first step is smelling. I’m going to ask you to each take a turn sniffing the grounds. And when you sniff at a cupping, you sniff aggressively. I want to hear you smell. Stick your nose deep in the glass,” he said, demonstrating, “and huff.” At that, his nostrils flared and he snuffed the grounds with the same tenacity Superstar Mary Gallagher snuffed fingertips still warm from her armpits. He accidentally inhaled loose grounds into his nose (not surprising, since he’d basically just snorted them). After a few seconds of coughing into his fist, he managed to say, “That might have been too aggressive.”
We approached the glasses a little more timidly, beginning with a few polite sniffs. But the strangers grew brave. They dipped their schnozes deep into the glasses. I heard their smell, and I wondered how hygienic this scent-sharing was. As we rotated around, I tried to ignore the fact that I was sticking my nose into somebody else’s business.
My husband, too, became brazen. On his deep inhale, he avoided the barista’s pitfall of sucking the stuff into his sinuses. But on the exhale, he disrupted the grounds like a snow blower on a wintry mess. They shot up into his eye. This cupping was treacherous.
“What did you smell?” the barista asked us. I resisted the obvious answer (um… coffee?), knowing it’d make me a bad student. When we stared at him blankly, he prompted us with some olfactory clues. “Was one reminiscent of berries? A fireplace? Was one earthy, like raw potatoes? What smell-memories were prompted?” Smell-memories? Like: Did that coffee smell like an autumn afternoon reading the newspaper on your grandfather’s lap? Did it smell like your creepy neighbor’s tobacco pipe? Did it smell like your first solo drive? Was it reminiscent of the day your mother pulled snickerdoodle cookies from the oven and asked your father for a divorce? Did it smell like those tough cookies??
“I think that one had notes of honeydew,” one of the strangers offered. Suck up.
The barista nodded. “I could definitely see that.” Liar.
“Was that one burnt? Or maybe not burnt?” the other stranger said. Doofus.
The barista poured boiled water into the cups, set his watch timer to a minute and a half, and handed each of us a spoon. “See those grounds floating to the surface? When the time comes, we’re going to bend over, break the crust with the tips of our spoons, and sniff. The aromas will be most intense when they are initially released. Whatever you do, don’t insert the spoons too deeply. We don’t want to agitate the bottom. That will ruin the cup.”
Ruin the cup? There was so much at stake.
I broke the crust. I sniffed the once-trapped now-released bouquet at its most intense. And…
It smelled like coffee.
The barista scooped the crust off each cup and directed us to sample the coffee. “I want you to sip like you sniffed. Really slurp it up to spray it evenly across the tongue. When you’re done, rinse the spoon in this water dish before dipping it into the next cup. We don’t want to be passing colds to each other.”
Thank god for the magical powers of the shared water dish.
We spooned and slurped, spooned and slurped. And I’ve never had less to say. They all tasted exactly like coffee.
“What flavors make these cups unique?” the barista prodded. “Do you detect chocolate or caramel? Is it sour? Salty? Nutty? Does it take like freshly baked bread? A hot tire? Do you sense citrus? Herbs? A grassy knoll?” Does it taste like a work boot, a poinsettia, or a library book? Does it taste like a playground after dark, a swing swaying eerily, like in the introduction to Are You Afraid of the Dark? Does it taste like Home Depot or Lowe’s? Is this cup of coffee the elusive “beyond” in Bed, Bath, and Beyond?
“Is one more acidic than the other? More bitter? Is there an alkaline aftertaste? Is this cup more like a pat on the back or a slap across your face?
“Think about the shape the coffee takes in your mouth. Is one round, reminiscent of a bouncing ball?” Is the coffee a straight line on your tongue? Or is it more like a decagon? Is it a rubix cube, rotated manically by a seven-year-old prodigy?
“Does the taste begin differently than it finishes?” Does it undergo metamorphosis, changing from an ugly caterpillar into a glorious butterfly? Or is it more like a pimply teenager who finally, after all her praying, develops breasts, enjoys her beauty for eight months, and then, after all that, gains 25 pounds in college?
“Would one cup taste better at a certain type of day? Is this one nice and complex, something to consider in the afternoon? Or is it a simpler flavor, something to enjoy in the morning, when you don’t feel like being challenged?” Would you like this cup in the rain? Would you drink this one on a train? Would you enjoy this java while a priest is ordained?
I stared at him. He stared back.
“This one tastes like honeydew,” a stranger said.
“I could definitely see that,” the barista said.
“Does this one taste burnt? Or maybe not burnt?” the doofus begged.
Coffee, folks. They all tasted like coffee.