By October 21, 2009 Read Article

Cuppers versus Baristas

This year’s World Barista Championship and Specialty Coffee (SCAA) conference in Atlanta America was outstanding. I have attended most SCAA conferences since New Orleans in the mid 1990’s.  I have attended all WBC finals with the sole exception of Japan and the combination of the SCAA and WBC is always an invigorating alignment of the planets.

I really enjoyed the new Symposium which was introduced this year.  It was very stimulating, particularly the talk by Tony Marsh on Sumatra, wet hulling and how there is so much more research that needs to be done in regard to the influences defining coffee taste.  An irony here is that even though I had heard about Tony Marsh a fellow Australian, I had to travel to Atlanta Georgia to meet him for the first time.

I think 2009 was probably a record for the number of Australians attending the SCAA conference.   This was partly because, of course the WBC always attracts contingents of supporters from each country represented. But there wasalso an unprecedented  crowd of newly aspiring, up and coming baristas, roasters and green importers  who wanted to learn more about coffee and cupping.

I remember for years when attending SCAA conferences I felt like Burke without Wills in the outback. For non-Australians you’ll have to ask your Aussie mates about Burke and Wills, but the reality was I was often on my own!There was the occasional compatriot who attended, and then increasingly more, every time the WBC co-incided with the SCAA conference.

As I said, there are a lots of Australians who now want to learn more about  cupping. There is a real irony in this.  When I first attended the 2002 Guatemala Cup of Excellence, I found instinctively that I cupped completely the opposite to some very good cuppers who were there like George Howell, Mane Alves, Steve Hurst and Danny ONeill to name but a few.

Because I was so programmed to search for espresso coffees with big body, lots of sweetness and low acidity I would rate the coffees completely opposite to all the other cuppers.    Acidity in coffee is accentuated by espresso extraction so you don’t need too much to start with.   With drip coffee you can really have as much acidity as you like, and for manycuppers, the more acidity the better.

After I had been doing this a for while, someone said I was evaluating the coffees exactly like the Lavazza cupper fromItaly who had been there the year before. He too was evaluating the coffees as if for espresso. He never came back, but I did.  There were too many great coffees being unearthed through the Cup of Excellence program for me to stop paying attention.

I subsequently bought the winning Cup of Excellence Guatemala coffee from that year because it was so outstanding.  It was so powerful that I ended up using it discreetly in Paul Bassett’s World Championship winning blend.  I think this may have been the first time a  Cup of Excellence coffee was used in a WBC competition, whereas now it is pretty common place.

One of the great new initiatives the WBC introduced this year was the bank of Nuova Simonelli espresso machines to serve coffee continuously throughout the competition.  This line of machines however exposed a great divide in the coffee world.  The same divide I experienced in Guatemala. The divide between cuppers and baristas.  It is a clash of cultures.  It can be a healthy clash but it can also be painful and full of conflict and it is definitely real.

I witnessed a little barista from Australia, Anya who is extremely passionate about coffee and the WBC and who was really looking forward to the experience of getting behind these machines and using all her barista skills to showcase some great coffees.  And she is a really good barista.  She is in fact a really good barista trainer.  She knows her stuff because she tastes espresso all the time.

Behind her, hovering over her were a couple of demi-gods from the coffee world who we shall call Priam and Hecuba, from ancient Greek mythology, the Illiad. One is a legendary cupper and another is a seriously successful coffee business owner. And I have enormous respect for both of them as coffee professionals and as cuppers.

But they interfered with the way Anya was setting up her grind and dictated to her how she should extract the coffee.First of all she wasn’t allowed to set the grinder and then she was ordered to use 7 grams per cup and a certain volume for the shot. Anya was dismayed as she knew the coffee could taste so much better if she was just left to tweak the grinder and the dose herself.

The barista moderator became involved as one after another the demi-god cuppers became increasingly strident and belligerent insisting that their way was the only way to extract the coffee.  The moderator, brave mortal barista that he was, dared to disagree with the demi-god cuppers who then became even more outraged that a young barista would dare to question their authority and coffee credibility.  This in fact wasn’t the case. The barista moderator just happened to agree with cute barista Anya about the best way to showcase this espresso coffee.

This conflict became quite heated to the point that the baristas became very upset and the demi-god cuppers became very upset.  This was a real conflict.  It is a clash of cultures within the specialty coffee world.  After all what is specialtycoffee? In the past it has been defined by drip coffee. That is where specialty coffee began.  But it is changing and fast.   Espresso-based coffee is taking over America as it is the rest of the world and increasingly the old school specialty cuppers are having to come to grips with espresso.

I remember some time ago there was a light hearted thread about this perceived clash of cultures on but I have seen it growing in America for some time.  In Australia ironically this conflict has largely been avoided because we never had the same strong cupping culture that America has developed.  This is largely because espresso based coffee completely replaced drip coffee so long ago, (when I was a boy)!

Someone asked me at the conference how I tasted my espresso blends, whether I cupped them initially and then tasted them as espresso.   I replied, unless I go to a farm and have to do a lot of pre-screening, I only ever develop and evaluate espresso coffees as espresso in my factory.  It is harder to do because it takes so much more effort to pull a good shot for every coffee.  But it doesn’t make sense to evaluate all the components of an espresso blend by cupping and thenonly taste it as espresso once you have put the final blend together. If the final blend doesn’t work you have to work backwards and taste each component individually anyway, to sort out the best coffees to go into it.  So why not cut to the chase and taste every coffee as espresso in the first place.  There is no real point in cupping in my factory for production blends when I do 100% espresso coffee every day. So we taste as espresso for production and cup for fun.

Good baristas taste their espresso coffee every day as they dial in their blend. As a result they end up tasting more espresso coffees than most cuppers.  Herein lies the problem.   Many young and seemingly ignorant ‘freshman’ baristas actually have a lot more experience tasting espresso coffees than many cuppers do. This is apart from the fact that experienced baristas probably pull a better shot than most cuppers as well. But many professional cuppers often don’treally have time to taste all the coffees they must evaluate as espresso anyway.

As Specialty coffee increasingly becomes defined by espresso this clash may evolve into a happy mix.  Lots of baristas who want to become coffee professionals are diving into cupping and will develop into true professionals as long as they stay open to the different place required for cupping.

I heard the ludicrous comment recently from a barista that Australia doesn’t have good coffees like other leading cupping nations do. As a result international demi-god cuppers were shipped in to make their pronouncements from on high about what coffees should be used.  Funnily enough one of the coffees they offered was already on offer at about half the price from a local green broker, HA Bennett (who incidentally have an espresso machine in their cupping room which they use regularly)!

By the same token when I set up 49th Parallel coffee factory a few years ago in Vancouver, we ended up shipping in a whole lot of green coffees that traditional cuppers weren’t offering in North America at that time and that I could only get by usng HA Bennetts. I had to do a similar thing for Paul Bassett in Japan.

This is a classic example of baristas falling prey to the cupping propaganda: “as baristas you don’t cup as much as I dotherefore I as a cupper must know more about espresso than you!  I don’t think this is necessarily the case at all.

The ultimate irony for the demi-god cupper Priam in Atlanta, was when he went to a booth where a barista he had worked with previously, (a former US champion) proceeded to make the espresso almost exactly how Anya wanted to: i.e. with a higher dose and different grind and tamp, only he wasn’t aware that she made it this way.  Priam pronounced from on high that his barista had got it exactly right without even realizing he himself had got it way wrong.

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1 Comment on "Cuppers versus Baristas"

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  1. mike says:

    I could not agree more about cupping espresso as espresso shots and using baristi to help with this. As an espresso lover myself, I spend much time developing and experimenting with different varietals, but most of my time, because of my job as a green buyer, is spent cupping. I therefore rely on my baristi and also customers, who experiment daily and provide outstanding feedback on different Single Origins and extraction parameters that are great for espresso…..mike