Michael Sweeney is a savvy businessman as well as a longtime friend of mine. He has expert knowledge of his product, customers and employees at Michael Thomas Coffee (MTC), which he opened in 2004. He’s been roasting coffee for 14 years, and several mornings a week he’s in his shop roasting beans before the rooster crows. He strikes up easy conversation with his customers, many of whom he’s on a first name basis with. He also has a laid back demeanor with his employees, three of whom are his adult children. I’ve been buying my coffee beans from MTC for many years, but was naïve about how roasting and origin influence so many of the qualities of each particular coffee. I recently sat in with Sweeney, his daughters Alyson and Kate (also roasters) and his shift supervisor, Katina, for a cupping, which opened my senses to the complexities of coffee.
It feels like a clandestine encounter when I entered the building across from MTC on Carlisle that serves as their storage space. I immediately encounter stacks of giant burlap sacks full of raw coffee beans, and from the darkness inside emerge a couple of voices telling me to come to the back of the room. The paraphernalia for a mystifying coffee ritual greet me—three sets of five glasses are neatly organized around a table. Each glass contains a small amount of ground coffee of a different color. The color variation is due to the temperature and duration of the roast—the longer the beans are exposed to heat, the darker they get. Next to each set of glasses are large spoons, and in the middle of the table are two small glasses of water.
“Cupping” is a standard evaluation tool roasters use to determine the quality of their beans and create a flavor profile for each coffee. Sweeney takes the process seriously, and he shares the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) Cupping Protocol handout with me. There is no talking during cupping so that tasters don’t influence anyone else’s opinion.
First, we quickly pick up each cup to smell the dry coffee grounds. Next, Alyson adds 200 degree water, and after steeping for a few minutes we “break” the skin of grounds with the back of a spoon and deeply sniff the coffee to get a better read on the aroma. I was thankful for the level of comfort I felt in the room, given that loudly slurping the coffee from a spoon is the next step. The slurping enables the coffee to spread to the back of the tongue, allowing all the taste buds to get involved, and it increases aeration to properly allow flavors to pop.
On this particular day the team is trying out coffee from three different Columbian farms (I only sample two) to choose which one they would sell at the shop. The beans are micro-lot, which means they are grown on a small lot of land typically yielding only about 40 bags a year. The beans can also be traced to the very farmer that grew them.
The first coffee we sample is from the Cauca-Supremo region. After tasting the coffee from each glass we dip our spoons in the glasses of water, so there is no cross-contamination of flavors. The goal is to quickly taste all the roasts and then choose one or two as favorites. Then the silence is broken and the team shares their opinions, working to describe qualities of the coffee’s taste such as flavor, body (mouthfeel or texture) and aftertaste. I’m still at a loss to find words to describe what I taste, but others use “salty,” “buttery,” “no aftertaste,” and “not balanced” as some of their descriptions. All in all this coffee didn’t knock anyone’s socks off.
The next cupping was for Inza-Excelso. Our favorite roast is selected and the descriptions roll out—there are many more for this coffee. They describe the aroma as fruity, nutty and sweet. Flavors are light mango, grape, stone fruit, tart cherry, milk chocolate and walnut. The body is buttery, and the aftertaste is cranberry orange. Sweeney tells me, “the coffee as it cools should get better, still be pleasing and not sour.” This coffee rises to the occasion.
Cupping is a daily experience at MTC, which is one way Sweeney ensures quality of product at his shops. Excellent customer service is also a hallmark of MTC, as is coffee expertise and professionalism. Sweeney hopes that his daughters can develop their palates and learn from each of these cuppings, to increase their confidence in their coffee know-how. After all, they’re as much a representation of MTC as he is now.