Agriculture / Coffee / Consumer Choices / Expert Perspectives / Rainforest Alliance

Slurping for Sustainability: An Exploration of the Specialty Coffee Tasting World

Maya Albanese, coordinator of sustainable value chains for the Rainforest Alliance’s agriculture team in North America, writes about her eye-opening experience hosting the Rainforest Alliance’s 2011 Cupping for Quality in Long Beach, California.

The louder the slurp, the better the cupper — and last week, I was graced with a symphony of impressive slurps. I learned this and many other facts about the intricacies of specialty coffee tasting as the hostess of the Rainforest Alliance Cupping for Quality in Long Beach, CA.

Maya taking part in the Long Beach cupping.

The main goal of this event was a mission I wholeheartedly support: to illustrate the link between environmental, social and economic sustainability and high quality production in the coffee industry. In various discussions with companies that source from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ farms, I have heard that their farmers are happier, outputs are larger and crops are of a higher quality.

I arrived at the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) Lab with scoring sheets, aprons bearing the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal and boxes of salt-less Saltines. Who beyond the coffee tasting community even knew that those oxymoronic crackers existed?

Previously, I had participated in a few smaller, informal tastings in New York, San Francisco and Seattle, but this event was the real deal Cupping for which I’d been waiting. A select group of top notch tasters, called “cuppers,” were invited to participate in this two-day sampling of coffees from certified producers in Indonesia, India, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Brazil, Kenya, Tanzania and Hawaii. We sampled from these specific origins because coffee harvest cycles vary across different regions of the world. In the spring, we’ll host a Cupping in New York City that aligns with the harvest season of coffees from other well-known origins such as Costa Rica and Colombia.

Two participating cuppers, Adam and Jeff.

The cupper group represented coffee importers, roasters and retailers large and small from across North America, including major Rainforest Alliance collaborators Allegro of Whole Foods, Second Cup and Java City, the supplier of all American Airlines flights.

Each cupper is armed with a special spoon, spittoon and apron, in order to sample about five different coffees at a time. After each round of intense slurping, sniffing and silent contemplation, they record scores for aspects such as acidity, uniformity, aroma and balance. Every session is followed by a roundtable discussion on scores and noshing on salt-less Saltines to cleanse the pallet before the next round of tasting. If you know a bit about wine tasting, some of this may sound familiar to you.

After the first few rounds, I was well on my way to becoming a full-blown coffee geek, thanks to Shawn Hamilton of Java City, who not only gracefully led the cupping but also patiently acted as my coffee professor du jour.

In the specialty coffee world, there are seemingly infinite tastes, patterns, origins and roasting techniques to learn, but dogma does not have a home. As Shawn explained to me, there will always be coffees that shatter your expectations, bringing an unforeseen aroma or flavor from an origin that you thought you knew well. And this is the part that excites cuppers the most: a table of varied tastes from a single origin proves that one can only count on expecting the unexpected when it comes to coffee.

One of the popular coffees.

Peru is one origin that continues to blaze new trails in the industry and amaze connoisseurs of specialty coffee across the globe. During the cupping, some of the best coffees by popular vote came from Peru. Official scores and the winners of the Cupping will be publicly announced in early January 2012.

The bottom line is that a sense of curiosity is absolutely essential to becoming an accomplished taster. So with an open mind, I venture into the specialty coffee tasting world, hoping to become a guru myself, and in the process, influence experienced tasters to embrace sustainability and certification as a means to achieving reliable quality and positive impacts at origin.

Learn more about coffee, conservation and quality on our sustainable coffee website, Seal Your Cup.

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