Over the course of the nine years I’ve lived in Portland, I’ve become a self-admitted coffee snob. Almost a decade ago I didn’t drink the stuff. Now, I’ll sacrifice my daily caffeine fix if the coffee is crap. And despite my love for a quality cup o’ joe, I’d never been to a cupping at Stumptown. Until now.
On this rainy Sunday afternoon, my father-in-law and I joined about a dozen people at the Stumptown Annex to participate in an ancient coffee ritual known as “cupping.” It was started as a low-tech method for coffee buyers to sample coffee beans in rural locations in order to judge quality and determine price. It’s still used for that reason, but Stumptown brings this practice to the Annex in order to educate customers on the different beans, the regions where they’re grown, and sample some of the amazing coffees Stumptown produces.
above: My father-in-law, smelling the initial bloom of the coffee.
The guys at Stumptown walked us through what we would be doing and why we’re doing it. They’re extremely passionate about what they do and the products they sell, and it shows in their eagerness to explain it. They lined up seven different coffees, some from Africa, some from South America, and described the regions they’re grown, some of the history Stumptown has with the farms and farmers, and a bit on how they came to have these beans in Portland.
Through grinding the beans, saturating them with hot water, and “breaking the crust” on the top of each cup, we were invited to participate with our noses. The olfactory aspects are a huge factor in enjoying coffee, and getting a sniff of each coffee gives you a preview of how it will taste.
above: The cupping in process.
About 30 minutes into the process, we were ready to taste the coffees. Using a spoon, we walked down the line, taking a spoonful, slurping it, then doing an optional spit into a cup. The slurp is done to help spray the coffee across the palate, spreading the flavor all around the mouth. Apparently it’s rude to not slurp it off the spoon, and professional coffee buyers have been known to have “slurp offs” during cuppings, trying to have the loudest and most unique slurp.
above: Me, working on my slurp.
Overall, it was a great experience. I learned so much about coffee during that hour (much to my wife’s chagrin of having to hear all about it): temperature masks flavor, so a good coffee tastes good even at room temperature; there are different varietals with diverse flavors within the same region; and I can’t afford the coffees I really liked (the Columbia Finca Buenos Aires and Columbia Finca el Patico).
As someone involved in branding and experiences, the cupping process made a big impression on me. Stumptown doesn’t charge to participate in a cupping. They do it as a public service to educate about the farmers and the coffees. But watching the other participants, 90% of them ended up buying beans, at an average of $20 – $25 a pound. So by sharing a bit of knowledge for free, they’re able to educate people on why coffee is worth $25/pound.
Also, it shows the involvement a company in Portland, Oregon has in the lives of coffee farmers around the world. The farmers in places like South America used to be able to make more money growing things like cocaine than growing coffee. But companies like Stumptown have put a premium on the quality of coffee, and are willing to pay fair market values. This in turn allows the farmers to support themselves by growing coffee, and continue to work with the people of Stumptown on how they can improve their beans, therefore upping the quality and price.
Finally, it demonstrates how a company that is passionate about what they do can influence the lives of not only the employees who work there, but the lives of the people they work with in the fields and farms around the world. So, three lessons from a one hour cupping that can be applied to any business…
1. Share knowledge and educate people. It can only benefit you.
2. Help others, and you help yourself. Doing well by doing good.
3. Passion and beliefs can change the world.
Hopefully we’ll see you at a cupping in the future. We’re definitely up for a return visit.