The "coffee cupping" experience is an important piece of really getting to know coffee, and learning about origin flavor profiles. However, since a "coffee cupping" involves a lot of set up and specialized coffee cupping-ware, it is uncommon to stumble upon them inside a Starbucks. For a while, 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea (now re-branded as a Starbucks) regularly offered coffee cuppings, and I wrote about them in past articles: I think my oldest article about coffee cuppings goes back to December 2009. Roy Street Coffee and Tea (operated by Starbucks) has re-introduced regular cuppings into their weekly schedule. You can attend a free cupping every Monday morning at 11:00 a.m. The official Roy Street blog has a little more information on this. Just as a reminder, Roy Street is an isolated unique Starbucks experience. Starbucks considers it their "learning laboratory," and has stated that they have no plans to continue opening up additional non-branded, experimental stores. (I recently called up a contact person in the PR department, and again got a confirmation that there are no plans to produce any new unbranded, experimental stores.)
Here's the address for Roy Street:
Roy Street Coffee and Tea (operated by Starbucks) 700 Broadway Avenue East Seattle, WA 98102 206 325 2211
Roy Street first opened November 18, 2009, and I wrote about the store immediately in this first article about it here -note that I actually took those photos and wrote the article the night before the store's opening, as I had attended a "media preview" event.
When I was at the annual Starbucks meeting of shareholders this year, I ran into a partner named Michael who remembered me from encountering me in Starbucks stores. He told me that he is still a partner, and now at Roy Street, and also told me that Roy Street had just re-started a regular routine of coffee cuppings. He warmly extended an invitation to attend. I made a mental note that I wanted to do that, but because of work obligations, I didn't have a chance to do so until today, May 28, 2012, Memorial Day. Michael seemed so genuinely interested in wanting to share his passion for coffee.
I arrived just a few minutes before the cupping started. Shortly after I arrived, another customer arrived who also wanted to participate in the cupping. It was quite a surprise to see the other person walk in the door - I recognized him immediately from running into him at the Starbucks at 4th and Cherry, in downtown Seattle. I tell you, at times Seattle still feels like a small town to me. It's a fairly easy city to run into people you know. After a short conversation with him, I realized he is one coffee-passionate customer! He'd sought out this cupping experience, and also made plans to attend on Memorial Day because his weekly work schedule prevents him from otherwise attending. (Which is, of course, exactly what I was doing.)
The room at Roy Street where we attended the coffee tasting has been nicknamed "the Loveless" room by the partners at that store. The windows in the room look directly across the street at the Loveless Building, and so the name stuck. Here's that room:
I always describe this store as "experimental." Just one look at the offering of pastries near the registers, and it is clear that it does not resemble a Starbucks at all. I thought my readers might like seeing their pastry selection:
I mentioned that there are special cupping cups used for this kind of tasting. Here they are, stacked up ready to go (next photo). By the way, we "cupped" five coffees. Two of the coffees came from a smaller roaster in Portland called Coava. I have often said that to really learn about coffee, you have to experience and taste more than one roaster's coffee offerings. Once in a while (not often), I've seen 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea (back when it was an experimental store, before its re-branding as a Starbucks) and Roy Street Coffee and Tea both cup and taste other roasters' coffees. It was definitely through these coffee experiences that I learned of Velton Ross, who is a high quality very small Seattle-area coffee roaster.
- Starbucks Reserve Sidamo
- Starbucks Reserve Kona
- Starbucks Core Coffee Veranda
- Coava Rwanda
- Coava El Salvador
Again, I want to discuss how very unique this coffee house is. Yes, all the coffees are roasted by Starbucks, but it has got to be the only Starbucks-operated establishment with an Albus Dumbledore quote neatly presented on one of their chalkboards!
Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.
Michael walked us through the steps of a coffee cupping. He brewed the coffee for four minutes, stating that when he does cuppings, he follows the parameters established by the Specialty Coffee Association. I definitely felt like I learned a lot from this cupping. We waited for the coffee to cool down to a good "tasting temperature," and Michael explained that, "The further something is away from the temperature of your mouth, the less you can taste the flavor. Bad coffee is served as hot as possible, and likewise, bad beer is served as cold as possible." It turns out that around 160 degrees is the right temperature for a coffee tasting.
In a "cupping" the crust of the coffee (after the 4 minute brew-time ends) is thoroughly removed, because it is truly more of a "scum" than anything else, and provides no information about the flavor of the coffee. We smelled the coffees, and then went through and slurped each one, starting from the lighter coffees and working towards the darker ones.
Michael truly was incredibly knowledgeable. As we made small talk during the cupping, we chatted about "organic" certification and what that really means. Michael said that in Ethiopia, farmers sometimes refer to their very small plot of coffee trees as their "coffee gardens," as the coffee trees are grown and harvested side by side with food to feed their family. He said that many farmers having been using organic methods of farming, passed down from generation to generation. However the actual "organic" certification process is too unwieldy for most farmers, who see it as 'not worth it' for a small plot of perhaps 50 coffee trees or fewer.
Here's a couple of photos from the tasting in progress:
As every coffee master knows, brew method affects the flavor of a coffee. So it is absolutely true that when one cups coffee, he or she may discover different flavors in the coffee that weren't quite the same had the coffee been prepared with a French press or some other brew method, such as the "pour over."
During this coffee event, I suddenly tasted an apple flavor from the Kona. It struck me as a surprise, because I don't remember noticing that before. The Veranda had a very soft mouth feel, like the light brush of cotton against one's skin. The Coava Rwanda was the opposite extreme, and was extremely citrus-y and had a definite bite to it. It was like drinking lemon and orange peels. Interestingly, the Coava Rwanda was from the same cooperative where Starbucks bought their Reserve offering coffee that was offered about one year ago.
The Starbucks Sidamo was a definite favorite with everyone who tried it. One can't go wrong with a cup of Starbucks Sidamo. Remind me to have that tomorrow in my morning French press. ;)
This coffee cupping was actually designed as a "triangulation." I am not too familiar with this, but according to Michael, it's useful to do a cupping with 3 cups, but one is a "mistake." For example, one of the three cups has coffee ground at the wrong grind, or has too much coffee for the proportion of water, or some other "mistake." Then the participants are supposed to pick out which one of the three was the "mistake." Michael stated he has done this before where he has even used two cups with freshly-ground coffee, and one with very old coffee grounds.
As I worked through the tasting, often it was easy to spot one cup that tasted "off." Michael brewed the coffee using too much grounds for one of the three cups.
I thought this was a very valuable coffee cupping, and recommend that if you're visiting Seattle, schedule a time to do a coffee tasting at Roy Street.
If you like reading about coffee tastings, there are many more of them here.
Please feel free to weigh in what you thought of this kind of unusual Starbucks experience.