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Locked & Loaded: Cupping Local and Far-Flung Roasters

Kennedy, Jamison and Tacy at the cupping table

The only way to learn about coffee is to try it. A lot of it. But that's a hard thing to do, especially if you want to branch out beyond local Bay Area stuff. So it was a real thrill when Chris Tacy organized a cupping (basically a formal tasting) with some ridiclously good and diverse coffees from a wide variety of roasters. We cupped twelve in all, from Blue Bottle, Ecco, Four Barrel, Intelligentsia, Sightglass and Stumptown. It was a pretty sick table. But I was particularly interested to see how the locals would stack up against Stumptown and Intelli. How did they do?

While cuppings aren't exceptionally difficult to set up, they aren't exactly easy and do require lots of preparation--especially when you're tasting that many coffees. And given the price of specialty coffee they can get expensive quickly. Most people who do have a chance to cup coffees do so in a cafe setting, where typically everything is provided by a single roaster--you may have seen or been to one at Ritual or Four Barrel, for example. (As an aside, be sure to see Wendy MacNaughton's great illustration today of fashion at Four Barrel.) So it was a rare treat to taste so many coffees from so many different great roasters in one setting.

Jim Kennedy and Doug Jamison were also tasting--Kennedy is a wine consultant and Jamison is a home roaster. We ground each coffee and ferried the cups out to the dining room table, with two cups for each. This was all done blindly, each coffee was marked with a playing cards but no label. When it came time to taste, we did so repeatedly, tasting each at different temperatures.

(There was more to it than that. We sniffed and snorted and took turns breaking the crust. If you haven't been to one before, or for an in-depth instruction set of how a standard cupping typically works, see this great beginner's tutorial on CoffeeGeek.)

While we didn't score the coffees with a numerical ranking, some clear favorites did emerge. Chris called out four on his blog, but by my notes the two clear favorites were the Ecco Kenya Kangocho and Stumptown Kenya Ngunguru. But Ecco excepted, the bad news for Bay Area roasters is that generally we preferred the Stumptown and Intelli coffees over the stuff from our backyard. In fact, the one coffee that was universally disliked was from Blue Bottle.

I'll be honest, my local bias meant that beforehand I was hoping Four Barrel, Sightglass, Ecco and Blue Bottle would run the table. But that's not how it shook out. At least not this time. But coffee is complicated and ever-changing, and there's always next month. 

Interested in attending (or organizing) a cupping from several Bay Area roasters? Leave a message in the comments, or (better yet) shoot me an email at mhonan at gmail.