Quiet Cupping

I learned the rudiments of coffee cupping from Don Holly and Ted Lingle thirteen years ago. Along the way I have learned from some of the finest palates in the coffee industry. I have been fortunate, sitting at the cupping table with many of the most successful entrepreneurs and renowned cuppers and green buyers in specialty coffee, all of them showing great tolerance for the marketing and communications guy with the weak slurp.

One of the things I learned from Ted Lingle and Don Holly was the concept of “quiet cupping.” They were not referring the slurps, some of which can be startlingly loud, they were referring to talking, at least talking immediately.  Lingle, especially, believed everyone should have time to form their own impressions without influence from others at the table. And generally, I found this to be more or less the norm: smelling, cupping, considering, taking notes, listening to others and offering my own thoughts when the time came. I became so accustomed to this mode of cupping that I was a bit startled the first time I sat at a cupping table and someone began describing fragrance immediately upon smelling the grounds, and did the same with aroma for the wet grounds and then for tasting.

At the time, this was an exception, but I have noticed over the years that it has become the norm.

While I do believe quiet cuppings are better cuppings, I’m not getting on a cupping soapbox here. It is clear to me that people are influenced in what they might say, or not say, when a “big name” is at the table offering their opinions quickly and often. But ultimately everyone is responsible for their own impressions and sharing them regardless of what other might say. If you’re shy or uncertain, a “cupping bully” will cure you of this one way or another.

Although I am myself an introvert, I have learned to ignore comments about taste made during, or even before, a cupping or tasting and will form my own opinion, thank you very much.  Then I listen and try to understand how all the descriptions at the table come together or where the outliers are. 

My concern is how this practice of frontloading impressions carries over into coffee cupping and tasting with retail staff and customers. To me, the magic moment in tastings with retail customers is watching their face as they sip or slurp and then asking them what they taste. They are uncertain and lack confidence at first, but like the very best teachers, you don’t given them the answer, you begin to explore with them. As their nervousness fades and they begin to focus they begin to offer descriptions. You encourage and coax, perhaps refine a little, and eventually offer your own impressions, but not as corrections or in contrast to theirs, but as a fellow explorer. In this way customers come to appreciate the complexity of flavors found in coffee and become true participants rather than students in your lecture.

Anytime I see a coffee professional hand a customer or new barista a cup of coffee and tell them what they are about to taste I wince at a magic moment lost.

When I first came to work for Batdorf & Bronson I sat down to cup coffee with Bob Benck, our coffee buyer. I was pleased, but not surprised, that it was a quiet cupping. The first words Bob spoke were not his opinion but a question, asking me what I tasted. This reflects the great value we place on teaching, not only inside the company but among our wholesale customers, with our retail customers, and in our community.

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One Response to “Quiet Cupping”

  1. Dan says:

    Mike, thanks for the great article. The concept that noise and information will change the perception of taste is true in many areas of life. Sometimes, the best one can do is simply listen and wait, until the truth is revealed.

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