KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 28 -- It’s sort of like being initiated into a clandestine order of artisanal priests. The secret chamber is, in fact, hidden behind the bright and airy front of an innocent-looking café.
None of the customers, most of them from the Australian High Commission nearby, could have guessed what will soon be transpiring mere metres away from where they are blissfully sipping their flat whites.
I am not blindfolded, though I wouldn’t have minded. This is the sort of ceremony that calls for a thick piece of cloth wrapped around one’s eyes until one’s master is ready. Consider this the Fifty Shades of… Coffee.
We – a motley crew of baristas, coffee roasters, and one humble writer (yours truly) – are gathered here at RAWcoffee to participate in an essential process of bringing the best brews to the lips of coffee drinkers.
Led by beans maestro Michael Wilson (co-owner of RAWcoffee and the Artisan Roast cafés), we are here for the cupping.
What might sound like a medieval torture method is actually a repetitive process of testing coffee for quality and taste. On the table before us is an array of 10 different coffee beans. Each batch is either from a different farm, of a different varietal or roasted differently.
First, Wilson asks us to evaluate the whole coffee beans visually – whether the beans are uniform in shape or evenly roasted. Next he instructs us to take a deep whiff of freshly ground beans and to record what notes we detect. Is there a hint of blueberry or even chocolate?
Obediently, we jot down our findings on our clipboards. All I need is a white lab coat to feel like a researcher; as it is, the careful preparation by Wilson and his team allows us to take the cupping very seriously.
Boiling water is then added to the grounds which are then steeped for about four minutes. During this time, we are invited to “nose” the brew – basically more sniffing to fully experience its aroma. More jotting of notes ensues.
Chatting with my fellow “cuppers”, I pick up a few tricks. Before a cupping session, Jane Lee of Await Café advises,
“Don’t cup on an empty stomach, drink warm water, and avoid pungent foods.” Evon Tan of Top Brew Coffee Bar adds, “It’s also very important to clear your mind so that your brain can work well with your palate.”
After the four minutes are up, Wilson shows us how to “break the crust” by pushing aside the grounds floating at the top of the cup using a spoon. He shares, “Coffee characteristics are a combination of flavour, aroma, body, mouthfeel, acidity and aftertaste.” Again, we nose and we note.
Now comes the fun part: we get to actually taste the different brews. Once more, Wilson demonstrates how it’s done – taking one spoonful and slurping it quickly. The quick inhalation produces a sound that ramen-slurping Tokyoites would be envious of.
Apparently, this helps the coffee to spread evenly over our taste buds, so we can fully taste all the different flavour notes. Some then swallow while others spit the coffee out (as there are nine more brews to sample).
I don’t quite manage the dramatic slurping sound but JH Yee of Top Brew Coffee Bar tells me, “So long as you allow the coffee to circulate in your mouth, it’s fine.” Less show, more suck and swirl: got it.
At the end of the session, the cuppers share which coffees are their favourites and why. Wilson notes these preferences seriously as it will give him an idea of what beans to bring in and how best to roast them to bring out their finest flavours.
It’s amazing, when I think about it, that the next cup the customers outside drink may well be made from beans selected by our little crew’s combined palates. As they say, “With great cupping, comes great coffee!”
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on September 27, 2013.