Views: Cupping

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“Today I want to share a secret with you” I announced to the farmers gathered. We were seated on wooden benches in the cooperative’s small office, around the desk which had been placed in the center of the room to serve as a table. “For generations you have grown coffee, but have you ever tasted it? Do you know the quality of your own product?”

As JJ Keki translated from English to Luganda, I thought of the farmers I’ve worked with in the Dominican Republic, in Mexico, in Nicaragua, and Rwanda. I thought of the pride they take in their beautiful farms, and the lessons that they continue to teach me.

“You see, the market has always been controlled by buyers, who don’t know anything about producing great coffee, but they’ve kept the secret of tasting it to themselves. Today I want to share that secret with you. Because I want you to know how good your coffee is, so that you know what it’s worth, so that you never have to accept an unfair price from a buyer again.” When JJ finished translating, the room was filled with the energy only a teacher knows—the wonderful sense of closeness to learning and knowledge. A sense of discovering a piece of the future.

Mr. Sam, the Coop’s Secretary brought in a half-dozen coffee mugs in different shapes and sizes, 20 soupspoons, and a teakettle of hot water. Out of my bag I pulled 6 sealed plastic bags that our Head Roaster, Steve Angley, had prepared for me three weeks earlier in California. Inside each bag were ground samples of some of the world’s best coffees: Nicaraguan, Sumatran, Ethiopian, Guatemalan, Rwandan, and yes, Ugandan. I labeled each mug with a slip of paper, leaving a blank slip of paper in front of the Ugandan mug.

It was a bit like calling a contra dance from then on: I measured coffee into each mug, and then choreographed group sniffing, sipping, and evaluation. After each of us had slurped at least 20 spoonfuls, I led our discussion of quality. I talked about acidity, and pointed out the sensation of acidity on the palette, especially with the lively Nicaraguan coffee. I talked about character, and origin-specific flavor, pointing out the uniqueness of the Ethiopian and Sumatran coffees. I talked about processing and the importance of careful picking, best exemplified by the roundness of the Rwandan coffee’s flavor. Then, overtaken by the drama of the moment, I declared that there was one coffee that had yet to be defined, “Did anyone know which it was?” Mr. Dan, dressed dapper as always in a grey suit jacket, answered my question with a wry smile “Yes, of course, it’s ours, and it’s the best.”

I smiled as I thought of the communion he was making in that moment with every coffee farmer I’ve ever worked with, people all over the world, who are connected by their strength and pride. “Mr. Dan, I said, you are a coffeeman. You’ve just proven it: you know deep in your heart that your coffee carries the sweetness of the energy you put into it, the depth of its flavor reflecting your work and life. And you can taste it.” The others applauded Mr. Dan, and he took a small bow before returning to his seat.

“The flavor of your coffee,” I continued on “is noticeably sweet. It stands out here on the table among the other coffees of the world. But why is this so? How do you feed your coffee trees, how do you pick their cherries? How do you deplulp and wash the beans, and how do you dry them? The way you do each of those will impact the flavor, and your goal must be to learn to taste this impact, to find the best way, the way that will produce even more sweetness, and even more character.”

Tasting is the link that puts the tools of the specialty coffee trade in the farmer’s hands. The ability to experiment and evaluate, and experiment again, while defining the process and improving quality, is what makes our coffee development methodology at Thanksgiving Coffee Company so powerful. It is a model that’s human-centered, and recognizes the universal human desire for excellence. It is farmers with the power in their own hands, and cooperatives building that power for their members.

Our meeting came to a close with a presentation by JJ on the co-ops plans for a cupping (tasting) laboratory to be built at their new headquarters. “There, each of you will be able to come and taste your coffee with our technical staff, and they will help you evaluate the quality that you produce, identify any problems, and ensure that our consumers are getting the best delicious peace coffee in the world.”

These are the moments when I see incredible potential in our work, where we take a few steps closer towards a world where coffee buyer, roaster, and grower relate to each other with deep respect, appreciation, and gratitude. May you savor the sweetness of each cup of Mirembe Kawomera “Delicious Peace” Coffee for many years to come!

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