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It’s a Numbers Game

We have a single coffee to taste this week—Number Forty-Six—and a single brewing style—cupping—but by manipulating variables of brew time, water temperature, and grind size we will take it from okay to very good (and we’ll explain why, too).

Style of Tasting

Cupping

Measure twenty (or twenty-four, or twenty-eight) cups of Number Forty-Six and divide them into four sets of five to seven cups each. We will treat each set differently, so I’ll write separate instructions for each of them.

Set #1: This set is the control for our semi-experiment, so I’ll ask you to use the coffee-to-water ratio, grind setting and pour technique you might usually use for Friday cuppings. I don’t know how many of you measure water temperature for cuppings (and if you do, great!), but we’re going for about 210F, or right off the boil, for this set. While this may be hotter than some of you are used to, I know that for our fifty-something-person cuppings here in Durham around the holidays, we tend to grab kettles off of induction burners and begin brewing immediately with water that is hot, hot, hot.

Set #2: Follow the same steps used for the first set, but bring the water temperature down to 200F.

Set #3: Follow the same steps as in the second set (low brewing temp) but grind on a coarser setting (say, old-school French press).

Set #4: Grind coffee on a fine setting (not as fine as the Dittig “espresso” setting, but significantly finer than your regular cupping setting) and use 192-195F water to brew. After making your initial pour and letting the coffee bloom, return to this set and add water to the cups, trying to keep the majority of each cup’s crust intact, until the crust is level with the top of the cup. Also, break this set at 2:30 minutes instead of 4 minutes.

Cupping leaders of the Type-A persuasion may be wondering how to juggle these different parameters and it will definitely be a good idea to have a few extra hands to help, but as long as you have kettles of water at different temperatures ready simultaneously, it should be pretty straightforward. Pour the last set at about the 1:30 mark for the other three sets so that all four are ready to break at once.

Notes on the Coffees

We are all familiar with Number Forty-Six, but I suspect that few of us brew and drink it regularly. Since the departure of La Forza and the various French roasts, this product has held the title of our darkest coffee, which may seem like a dubious honor to some of us but still probably attracts more coffee drinkers than it dissuades. I’m one of those people who rarely drinks Number Forty-Six, in part because I feel like I know it well after so many years and in part because I lean toward our lighter coffees (I admit it, I let my prejudice against darker-roasted coffees keep me from choosing this coffee for my morning brew even when it contains awesome ingredients). Anyway, when I DO taste Number Forty-Six, it tends to be on the cupping table and, sadly, the coffee usually tastes bitter and astringent.

Many in our peer group would immediately attribute negative qualities to dark roasting, but what if it’s not about flaws in the roast as flaws in our cupping protocol? Think about this: the Cupper’s Handbook lists appropriate brew temperature as between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit, but when was the last time you cupped with 195 degree water or considered changing the water temperature for different coffees? The handbook also suggests a roast level and when we cup on Fridays, or when we cup production roasts, we often venture outside of that range. We know from the Brewing Science series that changing one parameter of brewing triggers the need to change others and our hope is that today’s exercise serves as a reminder to examine cupping as a brewing method so that we don’t unwittingly give advantages to some coffees at the expense of others.

I think this is one of the most interesting tastings we’ve done in a while and I am REALLY curious about how you, and your audiences, react to the four samples. If you or your audience is generally pro-lighter-roast, do any of the changes we make to the brewing process serve to open minds? If your audience is pro-darker-roast, does the first coffee still taste good? 

Rollout Dates and Availability

Number Forty-Six may outlast us all.
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