Where coffee reigns supreme

Cupping helps clarify java preferences
By KATE MCCARTY  |  May 21, 2014

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DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH Coffee By Design's new spot on Diamond Street in East Bayside.

Portland makes it onto many lists for its food and drink scene; some of the accolades are noteworthy (like Bon Appétit’s “foodiest small town” in 2009), while others are forgettable (namely the ones comparing our Portland to the other Portland). But the results of a Men’s Health study recently made us take notice: Portland is the number one coffee-loving city in the United States. To create these rankings, the study surveyed households in 100 major metropolitan areas, considering the number that own coffeemakers and buy coffee; the amount spent on coffee; the number of coffee shops per capita; and the number of individuals that drink five or more cups a day. Though that last number may be less important than you’d think — according to Maine author Murray Carpenter in his recent book Caffeinated, as a country, we’re drinking less coffee today than our grandparents were.

Rather, the recent proliferation of coffee houses and roasters in Portland points to a growing appreciation for a quality cup of coffee rather than a high quantity of it. Recently, the coffee industry has entered what is described as its “third wave;” the first wave being the introduction of widespread consumption of coffee in our country in the 1950s and ’60s. First wave coffee companies sought to maximize profits, in part by creating demand for their product as part of a daily ritual. Second wave coffee is the movement most of us are familiar with and saw the rise of differing roast levels, publicized countries of origin, and espresso drinks.

Coffee houses embracing a third wave philosophy now pay close attention to every step of coffee production, from growing to harvesting to roasting to brewing. Vien Dobui, Tandem Coffee’s wholesale accounts manager, explains that producers have only started growing coffee with an eye towards quality in the last 10 years. Much like wine, coffee grown in different parts of the world expresses different characteristics based on the climate and soil. Coffee roasters are now paying more attention to these flavor subtleties and roasting beans accordingly.

The way coffee professionals evaluate the quality of coffee beans is a standardized smelling and tasting ritual called ‘cupping.’ Cuppings help coffee wholesalers determine if beans are worth buying and coffee roasters determine to what degree to roast coffee beans, among other things. The cupping process aims to control as many variables as possible, so one tastes only the flavors inherent in the coffee beans, rather than those imparted by the roasting process. Tandem Coffee offers cuppings to the public to help coffee aficionados (or wannabes) learn more about coffee flavors.

I attended a cupping at Tandem Coffee in an attempt to expand my limited knowledge of my own coffee preferences. While I always brew coffee at home and enjoy several cups throughout the morning, I don’t pay much attention to the pedigree. Beyond rejecting a very dark roast, I had no inkling whether I’d prefer a Kenyan coffee to a Columbian. The day I attended Tandem’s cupping, Vien Dobui prepared four samples for us to try. Two were roasted by Tandem’s owner Will Pratt: a Costa Rican and an Ethiopian coffee. Another Ethiopian varietal was sent to Tandem as a sample, and the fourth was a natural Ethiopian coffee from Seattle-based Slate Coffee Roasters.

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