This is the second in a four-part series about how and why we cup coffee at Mill City. Click here for part one.
Fragrance and Aroma
The first pass you take around the table will allow you to smell the dry grounds (fragrance). Then, after pouring water, you’ll smell the wet grounds (aroma). In the past, I confused these two terms in my mind. Then a friend told me that he remembers that aroma is wet, “like body odor” he explained. This is an unfortunate comparison, but one I’ve never forgotten. Maybe it will help you as well.
To smell the dry fragrance, you can pick up each cup and bring it to your nose. Shaking it a little bit can make the fragrance stronger, but you don’t want to be overly aggressive. If you shake furiously and tap the cup down on the table repeatedly, the volatile compounds that create the smell of coffee will start to dissipate. This leaves your fellow cuppers behind you with less scent to take in. The dry fragrance is truly the first impression of the coffee, and it can often be strong, pungent, and perfumed. I will usually perceive some level of sweetness, florality, or earthiness in this pass. Unless the coffee is very distinct (like an assertive natural processed Ethiopia) I will not typically write down a very specific note here. Instead, I’ll opt for a general term like “woodsy”, “chocolate”, or “grassy”. To me, these are fairly generic words but are still important to note.
Time to Brew
When it’s time to pour the water, have a timer ready on the table. I like to use a digital timer that counts up, rather than setting the timer for 4 minutes and having it count down to zero. This allows us to track the total elapsed time of the cupping. Start the timer as soon as you begin pouring water on the first cup, then move quickly to fill all of the remaining cups. Pour quickly to break up any dry pockets of ground coffee. A gentle flow rate is not the goal, and try to pour all the way to the top of the cup. Try to reach the same fill level for every cup on the table. Once the coffee cups are filled, you can use the extra water in your carafe to fill your rinse water cups.
The next step is the wet aroma. Moving around the table again, bend over and smell the grounds as they’re brewing. Each cup should have a “raft” of coffee floating at the top of the cup. Don’t disturb this crust! Take care not to move the cups or bump the table, or you risk breaking the crust and disrupting the brewing process. The wet aroma will probably smell different than the dry fragrance. More aromatic compounds are released when water is in contact with the coffee. If you struggle to perceive specific notes, try smelling with your mouth slightly open. It feels strange at first, but some people think it allows more sensory information to reach your olfactory nerve, which is where you process your sense of smell.
Once the timer reaches the 4-minute mark, it’s time to stop the brewing process. Using a cupping spoon, break the crust of ground coffee by pushing it with the back of the spoon. You can lean over the cup and smell during the step. There is a burst of aroma that’s released when the grounds are pushed back. Some people take notes on this step, called “the break”. For others, it’s not a huge source of sensory information. Work quickly to break all the cups on the table, you don’t want any cups to brew for much longer than the cups at the start of the line. Remember to rinse your spoon in the clean water in between each cup.
Once all cups are broken, you have time to clean the cups. Skim the bubbles and floating grounds from the top of the cups so you can see clear coffee in each bowl. Next, you’ll wait a few minutes until the coffee is cool enough to begin tasting.
Click here to read Part Three, where we get into the first pass and begin make notes on flavor.